Vintage International's Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
The creative mind is an alienating and lonely place in the short stories of German Nobelist Thomas Mann, a shadowy, self-sufficient cell in which the creative person hides and stews, occasionally peeking out at the simpler world beyond.
Art is effervescent, a resident of the mental aether, fueled only by other mental sustenance--its own creative momentum, the growing breadth of knowledge and understanding, other creations and works of art. The artistic mind needs artistic fodder, and no external incentive can truly satiate it, if the urge to create can ever truly said to be satiated. Fame and money, honor and sexual favors, privilege and notoriety, all can benefit the person encasing the artistic mind, but the mind itself becomes encumbered. In the work of Mann is a fatal dichotomy between the internal and the external: the outside man with his belongings, his social relationships, his loves, his physical appearance and surroundings, and the inside man with his private thoughts, his emotions, his intelligence, and his need to procreate his knowledge. Rarely do the two coexist happily and fully empowered; the benefit of one tends to destroy the other.
In "Death in Venice," published in 1912, the acclaimed author Gustav Aschenbach has steadily and quietly acquired the trappings of literary fame, culminating in the addition of the surname prefix "von," a preposition denoting nobility. Aschenbach has grown tired and lonely, distracted from his art by the clutches of aristocracy. He undergoes a standard upper class treatment to deal with his writer's block, an exotic vacation on the sunny shores of foreign Venice, itself now an old and tired resort, humid, filthy, and gray. The vacation will presumably calm and enrich his mind, but of course the more realistic outcome is one of softening distraction, a thoughtless immersion in sunshine, rich food, and other sensual pleasantries.
On the boat ride, Aschenbach experiences a revulsion at the sight of a superficial old man, a disgusting, flamboyant clown in adolescent attire, with a youthful but clearly artificial wig, a thick smearing of rosy makeup, false teeth, and a nauseating exuberant attitude, eagerly pursuing young sailors as though they are fooled by his costume. The old man is a fake, obsessed with an external, physical youth he can never again possess, living backward, unable to accept his own reality. With age comes maturity, wisdom, a strengthening of the artistic abilities, but the old man shuns these hard-fought skills, instead chasing after the easy gifts of youthful vigor and beauty.
Filled with contempt, Aschenbach arrives at Venice committed to his ideals, eager to embrace the mind he has spent decades shaping and honing, willing to shed his long-gone youth. His sojourn soon weakens his commitment, however, as a full belly and mindless trips to the sandy shore allow his thoughts to prattle and his eyes to fall on a blonde, Polish adolescent, a pubescent Adonis with flawless features, traveling with his wealthy Eastern European family. Despite being a widowed father, a surprise sexual obsession creeps in, at first explained away with pederastic allusions to Roman and Greek mythology but eventually acknowledged as outright infatuation. The unblemished youth, the overwhelming self-confidence, the full future ahead--Aschenbach becomes enamored of all these features of his young Tadzio, a boy he fearfully and lustfully pursues without ever speaking to or interacting with, beyond an unheard, whispered "I love you."
Lust, regret, and unjustified optimism flood into the recesses of his mind, preoccupying his thoughts and commanding his actions. Artistic creation, intellectual stimulation, moral ideals, and even concern for physical well-being slip away as Aschenbach pursues his unconquerable tease. With obvious threats of an intense cholera epidemic sweeping Venice and with his health beginning to falter, Aschenbach forgets his original salubrious intentions, seeking every opportunity to prolong his stay in this false paradise. In the end, he becomes the elderly clown he once scorned: dying his hair, rouging his cheeks, and expending much money on foppish attire. As he dies in his beach chair, completely hypnotized by the illusion of paradisaical youth that surrounds him, he witnesses a boyish opponent trample his perfect boy hero into the sand, revealing a crying, weak, and selfish boy beneath the godlike physical perfection. Nostalgia and regret may make childhood seem perfect, but childhood is a time of powerlessness, egocentrism, and emotional volatility.
In "Tonio Kröger," published in 1902, the inverse occurs with equally regretful though not quite as tragic results. Tonio, an introspective, wealthy schoolboy ostracized for his foreign name, exotic Italian mother, and effeminate disposition but tolerated due to his family's social standing, admires his equally upstanding buddy Hans Hansen, an Aryan ideal with blonde hair, blue eyes, an outgoing personality, and boyish attributes. Tonio admires Hans, who--in appearance, at least--remains unsullied by self-doubt, emotional conflict, and troubling thoughts. Hans is friendly and blameless, thoughtlessly acting according to societal standards, and the only books he reads are about horse racing. Tonio respects Hans's bourgeois simplicity while belittling his own commitment to literary novels and poetic thoughts, and when he realizes that the only way they could ever closely connect would be for Hans to muddy his charm or for Hans to turn off his brain, Hans decides to preserve Hans's mindless posterboy ideal by retreating from their tenuous friendship. Similarly at the age of sixteen he departs from Ingeborg Holm, his beautiful, spoiled dancing partner who detects Tonio's complicated differentness.
By adulthood, his family prestige having vanished, Tonio becomes a famous writer in exchange for abandoning interaction with the real world. In Tonio's mind, a person on the verge of artistry must choose between being vibrant and devoting oneself to art. To pursue art is to kill the external self, to destroy any enjoyment of physical reality or personal relationships. The artistic temperament makes pleasantries too complex to be truly enjoyed, and hedonistic pleasures distract too much from mental fulfillment. Tonio consciously chooses death, in his mind sacrificing himself so that other, more simple, more beautiful people can more easily enjoy the outside world.
Tonio Kröger is a socially awkward, sexually confused pariah, demeaning the people he admires most to protect his fragile ego from rejection. His dichotomy of dead artist versus living simpleton is unfounded and fatalistic, and his painter friend Lisabeta seems to realize this as she quietly dismisses his diatribe on the subject. In the end, he journey north to Denmark, home of the loner intellectual Hamlet, passing through his hometown--all the more transformed due to his own transformation--on a quest to gain some refuge from his alienation. He confesses his love for humanity but remains too trapped in his fears and preconceptions to become a part of it.
Detlev Spinell, the unsuccessful, pretentious, and cowardly novelist from "Tristan," published in 1902, also suffers from his own feelings of martyrdom and condescension toward the easy-living, non-artistic simpleton. His one claim to fame is a short, substanceless novel bogged down with florid descriptions of furniture and scenery. All the same, he parades this novel around the sanatorium in which he resides, frequently rereading it and pushing it off on any interested potential admirer. He acknowledges that his profound intelligence has made him physically weak, but his praise toward normal, hardworking humans with their flabby ideas, coarse tastes, and strong wills is backhanded and insulting. His love for his alien distinction blinds him from how others more realistically perceive him and prevent him from having valuable interactions. His writing his hyperbolic, absurd, and clumsy, and his perceptions of his fellow men and women are offensive. Rather than loving the totality of a woman--her unique shortcomings, her attractive qualities, her human flaws--Spinell prefers to see women only briefly from the corner of his eye, never tarnishing his perfect first impression with unsightly realities.
When a philandering, foreign merchant's wife, the sensitive, piano-playing daughter of a dying German dynasty, enters the sanatorium with respiration problems following the birth of her healthy baby boy, Spinell chooses to fall in love with his illusion of the heroine--a fragile piano prodigy possessing the greatest thoughts and talents. Flaws such as a garish, bulging vein on her forehead irk him, but he loves his image of her all the same, criminalizing her pragmatic, normal husband while urging the woman to exert herself through music, an exhausting activity that, as warned by her doctors, kills her. According to Spinell, artists have a duty to succumb to their art, to sacrifice themselves to their ideals, that each minute spent living in the real world is one step farther from true divinity. Spinell is, of course, sociopathic, and his confrontation with the husband, who reveals to Spinell a more mundane portrait of his wife, is tense and charged.
Aristocratic pretension and the tension between nobility/wealth and art emerge again in "The Blood of the Walsungs," a disturbing tale from 1905 in which two incredibly privileged twins, their thoughts bogged down with their own superiority, fashion, wealth, and societal conventions, look down upon inferior outsiders so hatefully that their quest for companionship leads to incest. Siegmund longs to be an artist and to have interesting, imaginative thoughts, but his preoccupations with customs, fashions, and money oppress his ideas.
A depressive longing for youth and nostalgia emerges again in "Disorder and Early Sorrow," from 1925, wherein a history professor with a one-track mind dedicated to the fully explainable events of several centuries ago (and how they sometimes relate to the modern topics at hand) stresses over the atraditional behaviors of his rebellious children and their new styles of culture, dress, dance, and politics. Like "Death in Venice," the story's obsession with resisting progress borders on the pedophiliac, as the professor bestows all of his faith and love (approaching sexually deviant expectations) on his youngest daughter, a girl as yet untarnished by the revolutions and odd styles of the times.
And in "Mario and the Magician," from 1929 on the eve of European fascism, the artist becomes a complete dictator, a fully committed mastermind who expends all his energy, health, thoughts, and life on exerting power over and for the benefit of the common man. The magician Cipolla, whose advertising sways an entire Italian town to attend his performance, is a hunched, chain-smoking, alcohol-swilling hypnotist who bends both the willing and unwilling to do what he desires. The people dance frantic jigs and become erect as boards so that the sneering, condescending man can use them as chairs. The audience delights at the mystery yet allows a smidgen of concern for the hypnotized, to which Cipolla responds that it is he who should be pitied, it is he who does all the work, who must supervise the slaves, who must constantly exude totalitarian control.
"Mario and the Magician" is fascism in a microcosm. It details a people's ability to be persuaded by the smooth talking and originality of a dictator. It showcases the slow succumbing to undesirable events; the first-person-plural narrator ("we," this is all of Italy and Germany, all of humanity perhaps, not just the stereotypical family in the narrative) at one point longs to leave the performance with his kids, but allows himself to remain locked in with everyone else, choosing to further examine the spectacles rather than raise the energy to break out. The somewhat admirable fascist seeks pity while degrading his subjects, going so far as to expose the deepest, most cherished secrets in the mind of Mario, a docile, easygoing, reticent, handsome waiter (already a servant, already subjected to daily degradation). Mario is an everyman--a quiet, unheroic working man who embraces his hope of marrying his dream girl. When the magician dashes that dream, fooling Mario into kissing Cipolla's elderly, distorted, leering face.
"Mario and the Magician" ends on a hopeful, though violent, note. With Mario's deepest, holiest thoughts having been trampled upon, he incites revolution, producing a revolver and murdering Cipolla. The spell breaks and the people resume their normal lives, free of the autocrat's chains.
Art, intelligence, and thinking are powerful forces that can take on almost viral qualities, infecting the brain and destroying chances at happiness, love, social interaction, and physical fitness. On the other hand, too much happiness, too much social interaction, and too much wealth can also be toxins, poisoning one's ability to think originally and creatively, to pursue ideals. There are not many examples of people who are both intelligent and happy, artistic and popular in the works of Thomas Mann, though clearly Mann places higher emphasis on loving others, on working hard, and on not becoming self-indulgent, self-centered, and condescending.
Mann paints fascinating portrayals of artistry, of sexual abnormality, and of alienation, and I gladly look forward to reading more from him (The Magic Mountain, Budenbrooks).
There's one other story in the collection I read: "A Man and His Dog" from 1918. This is a beautifully written, novella-length snapshot of a perfect love affair between a quiet man and his energetic dog. It's probably autobiographical, it doesn't explore any profound themes, it has nothing to do with martyred artists, and it is entirely straightforward with no allegorical symbolism. It's also the happiest story in the book, with perfect, precise details about the dog Bashan's behaviors, appearance, etc. Any dog lover and any admirer of beautiful prose just for beauty's sake would certainly enjoy this story, even if I couldn't work it in to the rest of this analysis.