Thomas Mann: New and Selected Stories
By Thomas Mann. Translated by Damion Searls.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $40.00.
Reviewed by Joshua Hren.
Thomas Mann towers intimidatingly over the twentieth century’s literary landscape, not least because “the icy marble of his reputation” was a project he pursued “more doggedly” than even the page per day he turned out with all the stereotypical orderliness of a German. Whatever the metaphysical weight of Doctor Faustus may be, “his stock declines, along with that of European high culture in general.” So says Damion Searls in his translator’s introduction to New Selected Stories by Thomas Mann.
One “tactic” by which the great writer’s work might be excavated from the tomb of “a Dead White Man describing in Deadly, Whitely, Manly fashion the Dead White Man Experience” would be to accentuate his Blackness. Before Mann fled the Führer and expatriated to the United States, the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff punished him for just this: “We must demand, terms as strong as possible, that this scribbling mix of Indian, Negro, Moor, and the devil knows what else no longer be allowed to call himself a ‘German’ writer.” Although Mann’s exile is typically attributed to his “Jewishness” (his wife Katia is Jewish), as Searls shows, the author’s mother, Júlia da Silva Bruhns, came from an ethnic admixture of “Portuguese, Indigenous, and Black.” She was raised by an enslaved Mozambican named Anna. And for the Nazis this “impure” heritage equaled anathema.
In our time, the same ancestry and identity that condemned the writer under Nazi racism might be used to celebrate his Blackness. If “in our time” this fetish is all the rage, Russell Kirk already registered it decades ago. In Enemies of the Permanent Things he mourned the fact that “[t]o the disintegrated . . . critic, pigmentation of the skin has become in itself evidence of a moral nobility.” (Kirk cites Ralph Ellison as a rare exception who “fought free of ideology.”) Such a genealogical treatment would not entirely miss the mark, for Mann himself cited his mother’s origins as “more central to understanding his own work than all his European literary influences.” If Searls grants that this backstory of authorial identity needs to be “taken seriously,” he fears the fallout that would come from such a turn, citing the American writer Brandon Taylor’s contention that tags of “minority” or “Black” shrinks the scope of what literature can be and do, for “you are no longer writing about what it means to contend with the imponderables and unruly quandaries of life. You are writing about what it means to contend blackly with the black imponderables and the unruly black quandaries of black life.”
Not long ago, when Mann’s private diaries were made public and the world witnessed “how deeply his emotional life was homosexual,” critics recast Death in Venice as a relatable portrait of an aging gay man. Those “Big Questions”—of Spirit and Body, Mind and Feeling—that readers had extracted from that masterpiece for generations “faded from view.”
Were we to subject Mann’s stories to a racialized rubric, we would fixate on the admission by the eponymous protagonist of “Confessions of a Con Artist by Felix Krull” that “in a certain sense it was impossible to say whether I was dark or fair.” Such a clue would assume a gargantuan importance, even though it is a passing remark that pales beside the other causes of the anti-hero’s penchant for deception. Reading “Louisey,” we would make much ado about the description of Amra’s “skin [which] was a perfectly southern matte dark yellow, sheathing shapes that likewise seemed ripened by a southern sun, shapes whose vegetal, indolent voluptuousness recalled a sultaness.”
But Mann reached for more catholic (literally, in this case, universal) themes. To take just two preoccupations that permeate his corpus: the unnerving proximity of beauty and death, a problem that often plays out dramatically in the ties and tensions between youth and old age.
The desperate desire to extract the last drop of sweetness from the beautiful broods across these selected stories. At times Mann seems to merely echo the modernist sentiment that mature art, being anti-bourgeois, must also be anti-beauty: it should seek to destabilize moral foundations, soliciting and stimulating the reader’s longing for communion, only to slice the decorated cake at the crucial moment, revealing a rotten core no veneer of decorative frosting can conceal.
Consider “A Day in the Life of Hanno Buddenbrook,” a standalone excerpt from Mann’s first novel Buddenbrooks, the book for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1929—a book he finished at age twenty five. After Hanno rings “solution, resolution, fulfillment, complete satiation” in a euphonic eruption from the family harmonium, he finds that “something brutal and vacuous . . . something vicious and corrupt lay in the extravagance and insatiability with which it was savored and exploited.” Having chased an exhilarating crescendo to its peak and found under the keys a creaking corruption, Hanno immediately faces “the garb in which Death has cloaked himself this time”—typhoid. He hovers between the ecstatic beauty of the harmonium and the unresponsive stupor of the fever-diminished perished.
En route to Venice, Aschenbach sees a youthful troupe lost in raucous fun, only to find, on closer inspection, that one “young man was a fake. He was old, no question about it.” Disturbed, he finds it “revolting to see the condition the dolled-up man had been brought to by his false friendship with the youth.” Crucially, Aschenbach will come to occupy just this revolting role when, smitten with the fourteen year old Tadzio and feeling keenly his impending mortality, he visits a cosmetician who forges for him the same façade that disgusted him in the pretending stranger.
When the beached old man first succumbs to the fourteen year old’s beauty, he claims it “recalled Greek sculpture from its noblest period,” a marble “masterpiece” he’d never before encountered “whether in nature or in art.” Closer, of course, Tadzio’s teeth turn out to be “not exactly pleasing; a bit jagged, pale, without a healthy glow”—symptoms of anemia that disappear behind Aschenbach’s grand projection. But their sustained significance is not lost, for, as the translator tells us, rotten teeth are a sign of decline throughout Mann’s whole body of work.
Although Plato’s Phaedrus figures prominently in Death in Venice, in Mann’s hand the madness of eros brings not a Platonic anamnesis of the innate insights the soul acquired prior to birth, but a damnable forgetfulness fostered by denial and self-deception. Deceit and desire turn up again in “Confessions of a Con Artist.” If “Lieutenant Sick” wins second place for most comically absurd name, the winner is the narrator’s godfather Schimmelpreester: “‘Nature,’ he would say, ‘is nothing but rot and mold—Schimmel—and I am its priest.” This diabolic godfather corrupts Felix whose damaged state is born at least in part from Schimmelpreester’s perverse session of painting his godson nude (the echo with Aschenbach’s aesthetic obsession with Tadzio is obvious).
The young man is propelled into a career of defensively-rationalized deceptions which have left him feeling old at forty. What brings him to this pass more than anything else is a chance encounter with the actor Müller‑Rosé, a man who “spread love of life to all and sundry, as long as this phrase also denotes the deliciously painful feeling of envy, longing, hope, and amorous urges that the sight of anything beautiful and perfectly happy ignites in the human soul.”
Felix loses his illusions when his father bids him backstage to meet the magician. What they walk in on is not chameleonic wonder but an undressed mortal “busy rubbing his face and neck, covered in thick shining ointment, with another cloth that was already stiff with rouge and greasepaint.” That half of his face which had earlier appeared “so ideal, waxen, and perfect” now looks “ridiculously orange in contrast to the cheese-like sallowness of the other side.”
It is as if Virginia Woolf is appealing to just this passage when she notes, in “The Narrow Bridge of Art,” that “there trips along by the side of our modern beauty some mocking spirit which sneers at beauty for being beautiful; which turns the looking-glass and shows us that the other side of her cheek is pitted and deformed.”
As the pimply flesh of his idol sinks into his soul, Felix muses that “our ability to feel disgust [is] proportionate to our appetite and eagerness, that is to say, to how ardently we are attached to the world and what it has to offer.” While many of his remarks are comically untrustworthy (“I was refused a diploma, being offered the choice either to continue to endure the rigors of a subordination no longer appropriate to my age, or to leave school …”), this diagnosis is a sort of skeleton key for these stories, insofar as it cracks open and clarifies the conundrum of so many recoils in the face of the beautiful. It is the libidinal lust to possess the full form of what must forever elude our mortal grasp that invites these regular visits from Death. Beauty itself isn’t to blame.
One of the only exceptions to this erotic erosion comes in “Chaotic World and Early Sorrow,” which Searls sees as Mann’s greatest story. I can only agree. The portrait of Professor Cornelius inhabits the posture of a middle-class father perched at the midway point of this life. If this dialectic between youth and old age bears a family resemblance to the other selected stories, the ironic touches are lighter, the treatment is subtler, and the beauties not damned by grotesque hypocrisy or hideous underbelly. Here the goods and evils are more humane but not, for all that, less consequential.
As the first line suggests (“There were only vegetables for the main course”), the story is set in Germany amidst the hyperinflation of 1921-23, a destabilization whose disastrous effects are now well known. But the party must go on, and the Cornelius family open their home to an array of young people to celebrate their children Bert and Ingrid. The gramophone’s revolutionary tones and the teenagers’ strange new steps keep the professor slinking into the safe cocoon of his study . . . until his fear of missing out makes for a polite but perpetually awkward host who keeps disappearing as soon as he reappears. When only a few of the guests acknowledge his presence, even after he makes a ceremonious offering of cigars to all, Cornelius retreats into his work, only to find that “the smiling expression from out there sticks mechanically to his face for several minutes.”
History is having its way with this Professor of History, whose young son Biter, “born and raised in these chaotic, distressing times . . . suffers terribly under life’s discords and disharmonies” and is prone to tantrums only his mother can tame. The father’s heart belongs to little Lorrie, whom he fell in love with from her first day on earth. Such a feeling, he knows, is not inexplicable. Lovers of history “hate the present radical change”—the new music and mores and unmannered advances that are even now crowding closer to his office—because it comes off as “lawless, incoherent,” whereas “the past has been made eternal, that is, dead” in a way that draws piety. It is this instinct for the eternal that drive him to “take refuge from the effronteries of the day love for his little girl”—a love crystalized in his memorized image of Lorrie’s birth and arrival in the hospital—a day that “has happened” and thus has already “died.”
But the “present radical change” appears in an unexpected guise—not riots or momentous political upheaval, but rather his little girl developing a crush on one of the houseguests who treats her to a dance. When the young man excuses himself to dance with a peer in her place, Lorrie “looks like she’s nodding incessantly at her own heart’s great suffering up there.” With understated but powerful pathos, Mann lets the man who dismissed his children’s disruptions as “Nonsense” hasten to his daughter’s aid. He calls this innocent passion “forbidden,” an exaggeration especially evident when we remember the way this motif manifests in Death in Venice or “Confessions of a Con Artist.” This harmless foreshadowing of his daughter’s future love life leaves him half-paralyzed. It’s left to the servant he’d mistaken for his son to solicit a remedy for Lorrie’s sorrows, and in a sudden reversal at the end of the novella, Mann serves us a movingly melancholic irony: the professor of history grateful for nothing so much as Lorrie’s childish capacity for forgetfulness.
Outside the Cornelius’ home Walter Benjamin’s angel of history keeps watch: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” As we slip with Lorrie into the small death of sleep, Mann blends those aforementioned Big Questions with little daily ones of eternal significance, and milks from the Lethe a night cap of innocence and experience that leaves you revisiting what nothings you’ve made much of, what world-historical happenings you’ve blinked away.
Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Joshua has published numerous essays and poems in such journals as First Things, America, and LOGOS. His books include This Our Exile: Short Stories, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy, In the Wine Press: Short Stories, and How to Read and Write Like a Catholic, and the novel Infinite Regress.
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