Thursday, June 23, 2011

Death in Venice, Tristan, and Tonio Kröger

I got hold of a nice old (you know one of those books that smell like your great grandparents house and seem to crumble as you turn the pages) collection of Thomas Mann’s three novellas; Death in Venice, Tristan, and Tonio Kröger (191 pages).

I didn’t go into this with any particular expectation (my only knowledge of Mann was a few small references in a number of essays) but I was very pleasantly surprised. This is a translation (by H. T. Lowe-Porter) of originally German works released in the very early 1900s. However, this cannot be seen at all, the work flows off the tongue (figuratively anyway, seeing as I don’t ready out loud) and the beautiful prose appears to have been written for an English speaking audience.

I won’t say that the three stories are amazingly interesting or that anything exciting happens but they are worth the read. All three seem to have a few things in common;
  1. Each involves a loving connection between two individuals which is very much one-sided (Gustav and Tadzio, Herr Spinell and Gabriele, and Tonio Kröger and Hans Hansen/ Ingeborg Holm).
  2. Each involves a forbidden love (a young boy, a married woman, or another man).
  3. Each involves a writer (Gustav, Herr Spinell, and Tonio Kröger).

It seems as though Thoman Mann uses these familiar stories, and tweaks them just enough, not to make interesting narratives but to make a commentary on art, artists, and the difficulties in creating and classifying art.

I have read a number of essays over the years around the creation of art, and the criticism of art, yet I found these novellas hit the point more successfully than some of the better essays I have read (e.g. Walter Pater’s The Renaissance).

For example (from Tonio Kröger);

But what is it to be an artist? Nothing shows up the general human dislike of thinking, and a man’s innate craving to be comfortable, better than his attitude to this question. When these worthy people are affected by a work of art, they say humbly that that sort of thing is a ‘gift’ […] they never dream that the ‘gift’ in question is a very dubious affair and rests upon sinister foundations. Everybody knows that artists are ‘sensitive’ and easily wounded. (Mann 154)

These novellas are filled with insights like the above giving us a much better insight into the mind of Mann and his theories of art than the minds of his characters.

Remember the description I gave of the young girl back when I wrote of Lolita? Well a very similar description appears in Death in Venice. The main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, is obsessed throughout the story with a young boy, Tadzio, and gives descriptions similar in style that those in Lolita; “he was barefoot, ready for wading, the slender legs uncovered above the knee […] a masterpiece from nature’s own hand” (Mann 36-7). It is very interesting that, from what I can find, this novella didn’t provoke the same kind of uproar as Lolita. Is it okay to be obsessed with a child if they are either a) a boy, not a girl, or, b) you don’t act on it?

I really did enjoy this book but mostly, as you’ve probably guessed, for the insight into Mann’s view of art. If you can’t read John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (not that he holds the same views as Ruskin) without falling asleep then I don’t believe these are the novellas for you because the actual plot really isn’t all that interesting.

There was a very interesting bookmark in the secondhand copy I picked up. Whoever had it before me used an old Canadian National Railway ticket holder to keep their place (I also use anything in sight as bookmarks sometimes). The appealing thing about this place holder isn’t what it is but perhaps how old it is. The Canadian National Railway runs for far distances (not short commutes like the GO train) yet the ticket price was only $3.70! I wonder where and when they traveled and how long this ticket has sat hidden in the book. Wow I’m quite a boring person to wonder such things!

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice, Tristan, Tonio Kröger. London: Penguin, 1962. Print.

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