Wednesday, 20 August 2008

I've read all the stories except the title story in Death In Venice And Other Stories by Thomas Mann, one of several similarly titled collections issued by various publishers - a Bantam classics edition, featuring translations by David Luke in this case.

Most of these are earlier works, written before or not long after his first novelistic success gave his career as a writer some stability. It seems to have been an uncertain time for Mann, and this is reflected in the stories. Each one of them seems to contain an alter-ego who reflects some aspect of Mann's immense self-doubt - a pathetic cripple, a naive puritanical idealist, a drunkard who is disgusted with the blind, unthinking vitality of those around him, a dilettante who realises that, having turned his back on society, he can lay claim to no place of his own as long as he fritters his talents away and shies from fulfilling any potential he may have, a writer who claims that writers can never share in the feelings and experiences they write about, and who longs to do so nevertheless.

Mann falls into whining self-pity at times, especially in 'Tonio Kroger', but there's a touch of irony to balance it out ('don't you think...that my eloquence today is worthy of Hamlet?'), or a surprisingly even-handed look at the opposite side of the conflict, as in 'Tristan', although these could be elaborate signs of self-loathing too. Mann, one senses, was not the sort of man to be content unless certain of his own importance.

It's all thought-provoking stuff, and psychologically admirably accurate and honest. Mann is best at describing music or states of mind, tormented or harmonious. He's not bad at visual description, but I think the former areas were his real forte. He's even aphoristic at times. Check out these lines from 'The joker:

There is only one real misfortune: to forfeit one's own good opinion of
oneself...The fact is that everyone is too busily preoccupied with himself to be
able to form a serious opinion about another person...lose your complacency,
once betray your self-contempt and the world will unhesistatingly endorse it.

All that's left is to read 'Death In Venice' itself. More on that later.