Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thomas Mann, Nancy Mitford

June, 2010: I read Death In Venice and Other Tales (other tales including Little Herr Friedemann, Tonio Kröger and Harsh Hour) by Thomas Mann. He’s a favourite of mine, and after these short stories, he became even favouriter: he is a very serious novelist, and in his short stories, he dealt with material that he might not have deemed ‘serious’ enough to be part of his opus. Not that the short stories were trivial; rather, they were very personal, and about the trivial emotions and incidents that loom very large in our trivial lives. Thomas has, perhaps, two themes, explored from all angles in each piece of work; the first (the ‘serious’ theme) is the sacrifice, the self-denial and the isolation involved in being an artist; the second theme is infatuation - secret, impossible, unrequited, explosive (or implosive). Thomas’s obsession with these themes eventually twist together to paint a picture of the author himself, as someone who has decided that he couldn’t endure the life he would find himself leading if his desires were unleashed, so has cut a deal to stay on the sideline, safe in chair at desk, experiencing life only through the barrier (barrier in this case having positive connotations, such as ‘zinc and castor oil barrier cream’ or perhaps, a spermicide) of art. “He worked in silent and invisible seclusion, disdainful of those small-minded people for whom talent was a social asset, who, whether rich or poor, went about wild and dilapidated or lived high on the hog with very individualistic neckties, who were devoted to their charming and artistic lives and unaware that good works can emerge only under the pressure of a bad life, that the person who lives does not work, and that an artist must virtually die in order to be fully creative.” (from Tonio Kröger).

There’s Little Herr Friedemann, whose physical deformities make him unfit for love, and on the sidelines of life he manages to find his versions of happiness and fulfillment:

He learned to understand that everything was enjoyable in its way and that it is almost foolish to distinguish between happy and unhappy experiences. He most readily took in each mood and sensation and cultivated them, the sad as well as the cheerful ones - and also the unfulfilled wishes, the yearnings. He loved them for their own sake and told himself that with fulfillment the best would be past. Aren’t the sweet, vague, painful yearning and hoping of quiet spring evenings a richer joy than any fulfillment that the summer might bring? Yes, indeed, he was an epicurean, that little Herr Friedemann.

Here’s a nice description of the effect that nature can have on a troubled human:

All his tender love of life trembled through him at that moment, all the profound yearning for his lost happiness. But then he looked around at the silent, endlessly indifferent peace of nature, saw the river flowing along in the sunshine, saw the grass quivering and moving and the flowers standing where they had blossomed in order to wither then waft away, saw everything, everything yielding to existence with that mute devotion - and he was suddenly overwhelmed with the sensation of friendship and rapport with the inevitable, which can make us superior to all destiny.

But poor, brave little Herr Friedemann is destined (and in just a few more pages) for a very undignified end. His infatuation with a real, live woman reveals to him the hollowness of impossible yearnings, and the fact that without some kind of consummation, life is not worth living.

The main character of each story is, I believe, a Thomas proxy. They share similarities: male, not handsome (to the point of being deformed or obese), often dark in colouring, dreamy rather than robust and active. They suffer terrible public humiliations, often brought upon them by themselves, e.g. (in Little Lizzy) the attorney whose legs, “in their column-like shapelessness...always inserted into ash-grey trousers, recalled the legs of an elephant”, whose slavery to his beautiful younger wife culminates in him performing at a party, wearing a blonde wig and a blood-red silk dress, singing a song composed by her lover, and dropping dead of a heart attack. Often his main character is even a writer, such as Herr Spinell (inTristan, which seems to be a preparatory sketch for Magic Mountain; I’ve read it somewhere before...but where?):

...Herr Spinell announced that he wanted to work this afternoon - he liked using the term “work” for his dubious activity.

A few pages later, he is writing a letter:

“Dear sir...the words come flooding toward me so vehemently that I would choke on them if I could not unburden myself of them in this letter...”

To give truth its due, “flooding” was not quite the case, and God only knew the vain reasons Herr Spinell asserted it. In no wise did the words seem to be flooding toward him; for someone whose stated profession was writing, he was woefully sluggish about getting started, and anybody watching him would have had to conclude that a writer is a man who has more a more difficult time writing than anyone else.

With two fingertips, he clutched one of the strange bits of fuzz on his cheek, twirling it for whole quarters of an hour as he stared into space without advancing by a single line; then he wrote a few dainty words and stagnated again.

All writers must recognise themselves in this description, and perhaps excommunicate Mann for revealing secrets of our hallowed trade.

I could write for hours about these stories; this daunting prospect goads me along to the passage in Tonio Kröger that I loved: Tonio, a writer, is having a crisis of disgust about art and being an artist, “I tell you, I’m often utterly exhausted from depicting what’s human without participating in it. Is the artist even a man? Ask a woman!” His disgust goes on for pages. “No one suspects that this [artistic talent] maybe be an extremely bad, extremely dubious ‘gift’...deep, deep down, I nurture a suspicionof the artist as a type - the extreme suspicion that each of my honorable and respectable ancestors up north [like Thomas, whose family were bourgeois merchants from the northern city of Lübeck], in that cramped town, felt toward any mountebank or adventurous peformer who entered their town.” It’s a very sweet diatribe, and his friend Lisaveta provides this observation:

“I’ve listened to you carefully, Tonio, from start to finish, and I will give you the answer that fits everything you’ve said this afternoon, and it will solve the problem that has unsettled you so deeply. Here it is: The solution is that as you sit here you are quite simply a burgher.”

“Am I?” he asked, drooping.

“That really hurts, doesn’t it? As well it should. And that’s why I’d like to soften my verdict a little, which I can do. You are a burgher who’s gone astray. Tonio Kröger - a lost burgher.”

I read that and laughed, having been with Tonio through much of his argument. I thought, “And I’m a lost housewife! A housewife that’s gone astray.”

And so I skip over a whole lot of other dog-eared pages, over Harsh Hour, an hour in Schiller’s (I believe) life, when he is having (yes) a crisis about being an artist, “One thing was crucial: a good heart for giving his life grand and beautiful names! For not blaming his sufferings on indoor air and constipation!”

Death In Venice is really, truly wonderful. It was a brave act for Thomas Mann to have written this story: it features another Thomas Mann character, a well-respected, ‘serious’, national-treasure-type author in his sixties who takes himself, uncharacteristically, on a holiday to Venice. Oh, just read it! There’s another impossible infatuation (with an adolescent boy), and more grotesque humiliations (Thomas Mann starts dyeing his hair and wearing make-up!), and the obscure happiness and fulfillment that we sometimes find, and rarely admit to, in odd, dark corners.

June, 2010: While reading Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, I was reminded of Nancy Mitford and Love In A Cold Climate, which I bought secondhand for $6.50, only $3.50 cheaper than its ‘rrp’ - I really do love those Penguin classic reprints, not the concept of them (on first seeing an orange-and-cream stand of them, I thought, “How twee!”) so much as the reality, which means that I can cheaply buy books I actually want to read at airports and railways stations. Yesterday at Spencer Street station, I baulked at spending $25 on a Tim Winton novel; if it had been just $10 cheaper, I would have done it!

Love In A Cold Climate has that atmosphere of despair and hilarity that I associate with writers, such as Evelyn Waugh, who have lived through the two World Wars. I looked forward to picking up Love every night, yet when I put it down, it would leave me feeling melancholy. These novels are underpinned by a kind of absurdism, or an almost complete lack of belief, at least in the things in which they’re supposed to believe.

Belief in love, and its redeeming qualities, does not underpin Love In A Cold Climate. The main plot thread deals with Polly, the beautiful, young, rich daughter of Lord and Lady Montdore, who, season after season, refuses proposals from eligible bachelors. Eventually we find out why...I’m reluctant to give away in a cheap sentence what Nancy develops so beautifully and outrageously over a hundred pages. Love, in this novel, is grotesque. Our narrator, Fanny (who I couldn’t help thinking of as the grown-up Maisie - her oft-married mother is known as The Bolter) undramatically marries a fellow called Alfred of whom we hear very little, except for things like:

A more difficult and exacting relationship was the one which now developed between me and Lady Montdore...nobody has ever sapped my will-power as she did, and like Lord Montdore, but unlike Polly, I was quite completely under her thumb. Even Alfred lifted his eyes for a moment from pastoral theology and saw what was going on. He said he could not understand my attitude, and that it made him impatient.

Fanny’s marriage occurs and stays in the background, without a trace of the grotesque, which, in this context, makes it seem a bit loveless. The real love story occurs towards the end of the novel, when Cedric, the new heir to the Montdore estate (with Polly being disinherited), turns up at Hampton Park from Nova Scotia to acquaint himself with his distant relatives:

A glitter of blue and gold crossed the parquet, and a human dragon-fly was kneeling on the fur rug in front of the Montdores, one long white hand extended to each. he was a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl, dressed in a rather bright blue suit; his hair was the gold of a brass bed-knob, and his insect appearance came from the fact that the upper part of his face was concealed by blue goggles set in gold rims quite an inch thick.

He was flashing a smile of unearthly perfection; relaxed and happy he knelt there bestowing this smile upon each Montdore in turn.

“Don’t speak,” he said, “just for a moment. Just let me go on looking at you - wonderful, wonderful people!”

Lady Montdore falls happily in love with Cedric, who picks up a handsome young lorry driver and gives him a live-in job at Hampton. Cedric and Lady Montdore spend their days working on their beauty, taking in “Facial operations, slimming cures, exercises, massage, diet, make-up, new clothes, jewels reset, a blue rinse for her grey hair, pink bows and diamond daisies in the blue curls.” Cedric “lived in a perfect welter of parties, dragging Lady Montdore along in his wake.”

“Isn’t she wonderful? You know, she’s seventy - eighty - ninety - “ her age went up by leaps and bounds. “She’s a darling, so young, so delicious, I do hope I shall be just like her when I’m a hundred.”

So Cedric had transformed her from a terrifying old idol of about sixty into a delicious young darling of about a hundred.

On the last page of the novel, the love story, in all its grotesque beauty, finally falls into place.

Here’s one passage (out of many) that made me laugh:

A motorcar was now heard approaching, the scrunch of tyres, and a low, rich hoot...not at all the Chubb Fuddler’s little Standard, but the huge black Daimler from Hampton Park containing both Lord and Lady Montdore. This was indeed a sensation! Callers were unknown at Alconleigh, anybody rash enough to try that experiment would see no sign of Aunt Sadie or the children, who would all be flat on the floor out of sight, though Uncle Matthew, glaring most embarrassingly, would stand at a window in full view, while they were being told ‘not at home’.