Mann: Stories and Novellas
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Death in Venice and Other Tales by Thomas Mann
In this collection of stories, and two novellas, by Mann, the mood is almost uniformly grim, sometimes even horrifying, and often claustrophobic. Most of the stories deal with people who are in some way misfits, at time physically stunted, at times psychologically stunted, and of course at times both, and the ways they are tormented by others and by their own minds. For example, in the stunningly depressing "Little Herr Friedemann" (a story that led me to buy this book because it was recommended by a friend), the protagonist winds up deformed after he is dropped on his head as an infant. As the story progresses, he falls in love with a beautiful woman who toys with him by encouraging him to play the violin for her, leading to a shocking, but foreshadowed, conclusion. In "Little Lizzy," a woman and her lover torment her fat and hated husband by making him sing wearing women's clothes at a community party they are sponsoring. The unpleasantness just doesn't stop in these stories.
Like these two stories, many of the tales in this collection involve music. In "Tristan," which takes place at a sanatorium (giving some idea of where Mann might got with The Magic Mountain), a patient falls in love with a new patient, schemes to be able to be with her, and convinces her to play the piano (something the doctors have forbidden her to do). As she plays music stacked on the piano, she comes upon the music for Wagner's Tristan, specifically a piece called the Liebstod (as a non-opera lover, I had to resort to Google) -- their emotions build to a climax, and tragedy results. In "The Blood of the Walsungs," a thoroughly creepy and borderline anti-Semitic story, a twin brother and sister, named after the twins in Die Walküre (another trip to Google), and who treat each other very inappropriately for a brother and sister, go to a performance of that opera just before she is to get married. And more.
Other tales, including the two novellas, "Tonio Kröger" and "Death in Venice," focus on writers, and the distance they feel from ordinary people. In both of these novellas, the protagonists feel compelled to take journeys away from the places they live and work, seeking some comfort they are unable to find at home. In "Death in Venice," the writer, who has always prided himself on his austerity and self-control, finds himself enraptured by a young boy and tormented by complex and unbidden feelings he has never experienced before, or has always repressed. He is both confused and entranced. There is a lot of philosophy in this novella, and I don't think I understood it all.
I found it interesting that Mann transformed some of his personal history in some of these stories; in "Tonio Kröger," Tonio's mother came from Italy, and much is made of this mixture in his parentage, while Mann's mother was half Brazilian. The contrast between the north and the south, in atmosphere and personality, is another theme of some of these stories.
I had never read any of Mann's shorter works before I picked up this book, and I have to say I much prefer his longer works. Although these tales were intense, they didn't engage me as much as Buddenbrooks, Joseph and His Brothers, and The Magic Mountain did. They seemed claustrophobic and, even in the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Magic Mountain, Mann has more room for expansiveness and complexity. I'm glad I read his novels first, because reading this collection would not have inspired me to read more Mann.
These are quite interesting observations. I've read only the shorter works, in the original German, and primarily for class-work decades ago, though recently I picked up "Tonio Kroeger" again as something to read. I'll probably stick with the shorter works: they are more congenial to my command of German. But now I know the longer works will probably be more gratifying: if read in translation.
The contrast between northern and southern is combined (or perhaps a restatement of?) that between the rational and aesthetic outlooks, at least as far as I read it in "Tonio Kroeger". It would be mere stereotyping if considered as nothing more than character description, but I agree that Mann seems as much interested in philosophizing as in telling a story, and so the contrast works as a motif.
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