Thursday, July 1, 2010

Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf

July, 2010: I didn’t realise that Thomas Mann had written “that supposedly impossible thing, a good German comic novel” (Listener, quoted on the blurb), namely, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.

It was enjoyable to read, partly because our guide through the novel is the ridiculously handsome, intelligent, ambitious Felix, AKA Armand, AKA the Marquis de Venosta, whose pride never comes to a fall - quite the opposite! Most novels are about a character’s struggle through hardship or crisis; so novels that depict a character’s sure-footed passage through life (Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is another) are a pleasant change.

The structure is odd: it feels as though Mann started this novel at his usual pace - heavy with detail, accounting for every significant moment of Felix’s life. Felix’s perverse dreams are realised when a marquis wants him to impersonate him and embark on a year-long tour of the world. We start the journey with Felix, go to Spain, and then, about two months into his year-as-a-marquis, the book ends. I can’t help but feel that Mann got tired of his premise, and was called away to work on more dignified, Nobel-Prize-worthy novels. There is one typically obscure thesis through Felix Krull - Felix’s obsession with matched pairs. He is struck by, and refers to regularly, a beautiful, upper-class brother and sister, possibly twins, whom he spots on a balcony one day. The novel ends (abruptly) with another matched pair - Felix smooching a beautiful daughter, then her magnificent mother, to boot. I just don’t get the matched-pair idea. And as Felix Krull is a figment from Mann’s sexual-fantasy life, I suspect the matched-pair theme is, too; somehow I relate it to those men on who say, “Bi-man looking for other bi-men”, because they’ve rationalised this (after much internal argument) as a way of still being straight even while having sex with men. But, the strange thing is, that I have a matched-pair theme in my own life, when it comes to men. This is an enigma I haven’t quite figured out. In my case, it’s almost as though my heart can find what it needs in two men at once (and I’m not talking about threesomes). Maybe it’s the safe way for a ‘commitment-phobe’ to fall in love.

Beauty often comes up in Mann’s novels (did he always find himself very ugly in comparison to the people he admired?). Felix sees a performer, Müller-Rosé, and, like the rest of the audience, is transfixed:

Müller-Rosé dispensed the joy of life - if that phrase can be used to describe the precious and painful feeling, compounded of envy, yearning, hope, and love, that the sight of beauty and lighthearted perfection kindles in the souls of men.

I’m sorry to say that I left this ‘Book of the Moment’ entry unfinished, and now I hardly have the spirit to finish it. I might just transcribe a few of the passages I dog-eared. Here’s one that addresses the theme of together/separate (a preoccupation of mine and D.H. Lawrence’s), as spoken by Felix to a rather cynical young girl:

“Recently you said that Nature had carefully separated and divided one human being from another. Very apposite and only too true. That’s how it is and that’s the rule. But in love Nature has made an exception - a very marvellous one if you look at it with new eyes. [...] It is true: a man lives separated and divided from others inside his own skin, not only because he does not wish it otherwise. He wants to be as separate as he is because essentially he wants to be alone and cares nothing at all about others. Anyone else, everyone else with a skin of his own, is actually repulsive. His own person is the only thing that is not repulsive. [...]

“For now something in through which Nature deviates amazingly from her basic design, something through which man’s whole fastidious insistence upon separateness and being alone inside his own skin is annulled. [...] Well, then! What is the digression on Nature’s part that, to the astonishment of the universe, wipes out the division between one person and another, between the me and the you. It is love. An everyday affair, but eternally new, and, carefully considered, nothing short of miraculous.”

Sometimes Mann can be so damn sweet! There’s another soft-hearted scene, where a Scottish lord, who has developed a deep crush on the beautiful Felix, offers him a job as his personal attendant. Felix, no homophobe, rejects him gently:

“This require careful consideration, milord,” I replied finally. “I need not say that I am greatly honoured by your offer. But it comes so unexpectedly...I must take time for consideration.”

“There is very little time for consideration,” he replied. “Today is Friday, I leave on Monday. Come with me! It is my wish.”

He took one of the cigars I had recommended, regarded it thoughtfully from all sides, and passed it under his nose. No observer could have guessed what he was saying as he did so. What he said softly was: “It is the wish of a lonely heart.”

Who is so inhuman as to reproach me for feeling moved? Yet I knew at once I would not choose this by-path.

“I promise your lordship,” I murmured, “that I will make good use of this period of reflection.” And I withdrew.

He has, I thought, a good cigar to go with his coffee. That combination is highly enjoyable, and enjoyment is, after all, a minor form of happiness. There are circumstances in which one must content oneself with it.

I’ve dog-eared another passage, a very long passage, and I believe it is a dog-ear of protest, of “Why do you, Thomas Mann, think I want to read pages and pages of conversation - theme: human evolution - between Felix and a paleontologist he meets on a train?” I won’t transcribe any of it.

July, 2010: In Love In A Cold Climate, Fanny lends Lady Montdore a copy of Mrs Dalloway, and Fanny’s husband asserts that Virginia Woolf might be one of the few women capable of intellectual enterprises (I’m paraphrasing, too lazy to get Love and find the passages). So I read Mrs Dalloway, too. It is an unusual book, with the narrative a thread that floats from one character’s mind to another’s, against a common background of the sky overhead, the sound of bells tolling, the familiar landmarks of twixt-War London through which the characters meander, and against the background of one warm, summer day that ends with Clarissa Dalloway’s party. It’s a neat, ingenious way of structuring the life-stories of numerous characters, some of whom have almost no connection with each other, except that they’re in London on that day. I’m not a big fan of “neat and ingenious” - I prefer “rambling, groping and vainly trying to reach”. There were times when Mrs Dalloway seemed contrived, and Virginia Woolf seemed too in control of all her characters, with the method of telling the story, and the narrative voice, overpowering the voices of her characters. But there were enough passages groping towards something indescribable to keep me reading.

Here’s a short passage that describes the World War grief that must have been a constant undercurrent in that quarter of the twentieth century (it certainly is in literature from that period):

But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchard’s shop window? What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country, as she read in the book spread open:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages.

This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance, a perfectly upright and stoical bearing. Think, for example, of the woman she admired most, Lady Bexborough, opening the bazaar.

Lady Bexborough had opened a bazaar, as planned, and only later had Clarissa found out that the piece of paper she had been holding while giving her polite and proper speech, had been a telegram informing her of her son’s death in the War.

Here’s a description of the wife of the domineering Sir William Bradshaw:

But Conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will. For example, Lady Bradshaw. Fifteen years ago she had gone under. It was nothing you could put your finger on; there had been no scene, no snap; only the slow sinking, water-logged, of her will into his. Sweet was her smile, swift her submission; dinner in Harley Street, numbering eight or nine courses, feeding ten or fifteen guests of the professional classes, was smooth and urbane. Only as the evening wore on, a very slight dulness, or uneasiness perhaps, a nervous twitch, fumble, stumble and confusion indicated, what it was really painful to believe - that the poor lady lied. Once, long ago, she had caught salmon freely: now, quick to minister to the craving which lit her husband’s eye so oilily for dominion, for power, she cramped, squeezed, pared, pruned, drew back, peeped through; so that without precisely knowing what made the evening disagreeable, and caused this pressure on the top of the head (which might well be imputed to the professional conversation, or the fatigue of a great doctor whose life, Lady Bradshaw said, ‘is not his own but his patients’’), disagreeable it was; so that the guests, when the clock struck ten, breathed in the air of Harley Street even with rapture; which relief, however, was denied to his patients.

One thing that’s really enjoyable and admirable about this book, is that although it follows some tortured and miserable characters, including a man who hears voices and finally throws himself out a window, the main character, Clarissa, is happy and conventional - an atypical heroine; but Woolf certainly makes her heroic, and not by burdening her with unexpected depths, talents or dark sides, but by celebrating her mysterious ability to be happy. I liked this defence of frivolous party-throwing:

Why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy? As a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass and parts the tall blades very carefully, this way and that, and searches here and there vainly, and at last spies it there at the roots, so she went through one thing and another [...chopping out a bit...] Her parties! That was it! Her parties! Both of them criticised her very unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties. That was it! That was it!

Well, how was she going to defend herself? Now that she knew what it was, she felt perfectly happy. They thought, or Peter at any rate thought, that she enjoyed imposing herself; liked to have famous people about her; great names; was simply a snob in short. Well, Peter might think so. Richard merely thought it foolish of her to like excitement when she knew it was bad for her heart. It was childish, he thought. And both were quite wrong. What she liked was simply life.

“That’s what I do it for,” she said, speaking aloud, to life.

Since she was lying on the sofa, cloistered, exempt, the presence of this thing which she felt to be so obvious became physically existent; with robes of sound from the street, sunny, with hot breath, whispering, blowing out the blinds. But suppose Peter said to her, “Yes, yes, but your parties - what’s the sense of your parties?” all she could say was (and nobody could be expected to understand): They’re an offering; which sounded horribly vague. [...I cut out another little bit...] She could not imagine Peter or Richard taking the trouble to give a party for no reason whatever.