Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Mann’

A somewhat rambling post, on failed metaphors, the woodcuts of Dürer, and the Mann-James spectrum

It all started over at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Its estimable writer, Tom, found himself somewhat unimpressed by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and, as I had rather liked the novel when I had read it some fifteen or so years ago, I felt I had to say a few words in its defence. But it is not easy to engage in discussion fn a novel one had last read so many years previously with someone who has read it only recently; and so, instead of engaging on specific points, I decided to make a broad-brush argument.

Oh dear, there I go again, introducing unwarranted imagery drawn from the world of visual arts: it should be a primary rule of writing that one should never draw a metaphor or a simile from an area one knows little about. And, not being by any stretch of the imagination an expert on the visual arts, I should never have claimed, as I did on Tom’s blog, that Buddenbrooks was drawn in firm, clear lines; and neither should I have drawn a parallel with the woodcuts of Dürer.

You may see for yourself how the conversation went. I ended up claiming after a while that woodcuts did not allow for shading, and that its effect had to come from the correctness of line. But Dürer’s woodcuts do have shading, Tom responded, citing as evidence the famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht  Dürer

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer

This was hard to argue against: there certainly was tonal variation in there. And yet, surely a woodcut is restricted only to black and to white, and to no shade in between. I brought down from my shelves a book containing reproductions of Dürer’s woodcuts, and yes, there was an extraordinary variety of tone throughout: while each of the lines was placed to absolute perfection, the effect did not depend on these lines alone. So I found myself looking closely at these areas that appeared to be shaded. The shading was not a consequence of applying shades of grey: black and white were indeed the only tones available. The apparent shades are achieved by the closeness of the lines, and by various types of cross-hatching.

Is this what I had meant when I had brought Dürer into the discussion? It’s hard to say. The human mind is adept at justifying itself in retrospect, and convincing itself that it had intended what, at the time, it hadn’t.

And I did what I should have done earlier – contacted a good friend of mine who just happened, rather conveniently, to be an art historian specialising in the Northern Renaissance. She confirmed to me that the woodcut is restricted to black and white only, but, when apprised of the background to my question, felt that there was indeed shading in Dürer’s woodcuts. Not through different shades that may be obtained through varying the pressure on the brush or on the pencil, but through varying the closeness of the lines, and their thickness. And so on: there were virtually an infinite number of tricks up the old boy’s sleeve. It depends on how one defines “shading”.

Well – that’s an easy get-out clause for me, isn’t it? “It’s a question of how you define it.” No – I decided not to go for that one. I’d stick to my guns: the tonal variation only looks like shading, I insisted, but it can’t really be called shading since there is no shade other than black and white; what tonal variation we see comes from an immensely skillful manipulation of the black and the white, rather than from any actual shading as such.

And that’s what I had meant in the first place. No, really. That’s what I had meant, and no mistake.

And I was hoping Tom wouldn’t ask “If that’s what you’d meant, then why didn’t you say so?”

Fortunately for me, he preferred to talk about literature rather than about art. The depiction with firm clear lines was something he attributed to Flaubert rather than to Mann, although he did agree with me that the smudging together of tones and doing away with anything resembling outlines are best exemplified by Henry James, especially in his later works. Nothing in these works is clear. The vague, ambiguous states of our mind shade with the finest subtlety from one tone into another, barely aware of the passage, and refusing resolutely ever to be pinned down or defined. It can be maddening for the reader, and yet no other author has captured with such painstaking delicacy the infinite fluidity of human consciousness.

So, although my comments on Dürer may have been ill conceived, I wondered if I could be on to something here: could it be reasonable to speak of a Mann-James spectrum? Of clarity and precision at one end of the scale, and of endless smudging and obfuscation on the other?

Sadly, as soon as one starts to consider where on this spectrum various other writers may stand – Austen, say, or Hardy, or Joyce – the metaphor breaks down rather quickly. I suppose it is in the very nature of similes and of metaphors to break down beyond a point, since if X were to be precisely like Y in all respects, then X would equal Y, and not be a mere representation of it. But this metaphor breaks down a bit too quickly to be of much critical use. But while the spectrum between the poles remains unclear, I don’t know that I’d wish to jettison my initial conceit (in all senses, perhaps, of that word): for there is a firmness and clarity of line in Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, rightly or wrongly, recalls to my mind Dürer, who in a single precisely drawn line could express more than most artists could in an entire canvas painted with oils; and there is in James’ The Golden Bowl the subtlest and most delicate of shading from one microtone to another, with never a hint of a containing outline. I find myself unable to go much further beyond this, but at least the whole exercise has made me return to the woodcuts of Dürer with a renewed wonder and awe. And that can’t be a bad thing.

So here, to finish with, is Dürer’s woodcut Melancolia. And yes, however he achieved it, however one defines it, there is shading in here. It’s a miracle booth of technique, and of artistic vision.

[Ps Please note, Melancolia is an engraving, and not a woodcut, as I was careless enough to have stated above. Please see comments below.]

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

“Joseph and his Brothers” by Thomas Mann

When I first came across the novels of Thomas Mann, the only translations available were those by Helen Lowe-Porter, Mann’s first translator. I read The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and a few short novels (including Death in Venice) in Lowe-Porter’s translations, and, although I liked what I read, I was surprised to hear a friend who knew Mann’s works in the original German praise the suppleness, wit and expressive range of Mann’s prose. For, truth to tell, the impression I had of Mann’s prose was that of humourless Teutonic turgidity. Now, I do of course realise that associating the Teutonic with humourless turgidity is but an Anglophone prejudice, but that prejudice was reinforced rather than otherwise by what I had read of Mann. In particular, Joseph and his Brothers had defeated me: Helen Lowe-Porter had rendered in a particularly heavy-handed pseudo-Biblical prose, and I had found it frankly unreadable.

I do not mean to have a go at the Lowe-Porter translations: we do owe her a debt of gratitude for having introduced Mann to the Anglophone world in the first place, and her translations both of The Magic Mountain and of Doctor Faustus, whatever their shortcomings, had made on me a huge impact. But it was only when I read John E. Woods’ translation of Buddenbrooks did I realise what my German-speaking friend had meant: far from being turgid, here was prose that was elegant, witty, and, indeed, light on its feet. It was a far cry from the Mann I had previously known. It was then I felt I had to tackle the work that had previously eluded me – Joseph and his Brothers, but this time, in Woods’ translation. After all, when a novelist of Mann’s stature spends some ten years of his creative life on a work that he later declares to be his best, that work surely demands to be read.

I dived into this massive tetralogy of novels not entirely without trepidation. After all, I had failed to make much headway with it the first time round (admittedly in a different translation). And then, there was the length: going by the number of pages, the whole thing was somewhat longer even than War and Peace. And it goes without saying that this book is intellectually challenging. Sure, I’m all for books that stimulate the intellect, but did I really want some 1500 pages of it, re-telling an old story that takes up only a handful of pages in the Book of Genesis? And then, there was another German-speaking Mann-admiring friend of mine who opined that, because so much of the effect of Joseph and his Brothers depends on the quality of the prose, and because the prose in this book was so very individual and idiosyncratic, the work was “possibly untranslatable”.

What made me eventually go for it was finding, some four or so years ago, a handsome hardback copy of Woods’ translation in a lovely little second-hand bookshop in Clitheroe during one of my bookshop-browsing sessions. Although second-hand, the book was in mint condition, and was offered at a very attractive price. Never one to resist a bargain such as that, I had my wallet out almost immediately. And so, there it sat on my shelves, waiting to be read. It was, at the very least, a “challenge”. Since the only way to rise to such a challenge was to dive in, that is what I did: I took a deep breath and dived in. And what I found was extraordinary.

The prose is, indeed, very elegant, and with some startling use of words in contexts where one doesn’t expect them. The friend who had thought this book to be “possibly untranslatable” had told me that Mann often uses words in ways that force us to re-appraise what those words actually mean, and consider what they might be made to mean: that such an observation can apply also to Woods’ translation also is an indication of its quality. Throughout, the prose is startling, the sentences sometimes reading like miniature prose poems. For instance, here is Joseph in the pit in which his brothers have placed him:

For natural hope needs some reasonable justification for clinging to life to the very end, and Joseph found it in these confusions. To be sure, it went beyond life, this hope that he would not perish for good and all, but somehow be rescued from the pit – for on a practical level he regarded himself as dead. He found the proof he was dead in the confidence his brothers shared, in the blood-soaked garment that Jacob would receive. The pit was deep, and there could be no thought of rescue and return to the life before his plunge into the depths – a thought as absurd as for the evening star to return from the abyss into which it has sunk or the shadow to be drawn away from the black moon, making it full again.

Or, as Joseph and the slave traders journey towards Egypt:

They crossed dunes, down whose backs the wind had evidently left repulsively dainty waves and folds, while above the plain below them the hot air played and flickered as if about to burst into dancing flames and the sand was lifted in whirling vortices so that the men covered their heads in order to pass through such ghastly terrors, preferring to ride blind rather than gaze upon so vicious a delight in death.

Time after time I was startled by an unexpected use of words, or by an unexpected piece of syntax.  Indeed, if Woods’ translation had been a novel written originally in English, then I too would have opined that prose of such brilliance was untranslatable.

Moving away from the quality of the prose, it’s difficult to know how to describe either the content or the form of this book, since it is so unlike anything else I have read. The only other novel I have read that attempts to recreate a remote ancient world is Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert, but where Flaubert revels in the exoticism, Mann presents this very strange world in a matter of fact manner, emphasising the everyday nature of even the most bizarre of events. And yet, at the same time, these everyday events are also mythical archetypes: throughout, Mann relates the events both to existing pagan mythologies, and also to the myths and images of Christianity (which, of course, emerged after the events narrated here).

The most complex of ideas are communicated with a marvellous lucidity. The opening section is effectively an essay in which Mann reflects on the nature of historic time, on the nature of beginnings, on the point where historic records run out and we have to interpret myths. Then he embarks upon the story. The heart of this narrative beats slowly, but one soon becomes accustomed to the slow pace. What impresses is Mann’s control of pace: although the underlying pulse is slow, he can speed it up or screw up the tension virtually at will. The details are piled on as Mann re-interprets and gives his own spin on these familiar stories, and a very convincing picture merges of mythic times, of people with very different sets of values and beliefs from our own, but who are, nonetheless, very recognisably human. There is also far more humour than the Anglophone reader, used to the Lowe-Porter translations, usually expects from Mann. And there is also, quite frequently, a sense of awe: one of its major themes is, after all, the human conception of the divine.

It’s not easy, to begin with, to discern Mann’s artistic purpose, but it’s very easy to become caught up in the narrative. The story is, of course, well known, but where the Book of Genesis merely gives us the sequence of events, Mann expands upon the psychology of the characters, and examines their motivations in great detail. His acute psychological analyses give the story a tremendous dramatic immediacy; and yet, at the same time, Mann emphasises the ritualistic aspect of this tale. The quotidian and mythical, the immediately dramatic and the archetypal, the ritualistic and the everyday – all these apparently contradictory elements are held together in a masterly balance.

The first volume, Tales of Jacob, tells of Joseph’s father, Jacob, and acts as a sort of prelude. It presents a very strange world  – a world in which people can bury their own son alive as a sacrifice to the gods. And yet, somehow, the characters are not remote: the mythical and the human are held in balance. Joseph himself emerges in the second volume, Young Joseph, and while he first volume provided ample evidence of Mann’s mastery of pacing (despite the generally slow pulse), it doesn’t perhaps prepare us for what we get in the closing chapters of the second: when Joseph’s brothers imprison him in a pit and then sell him into slavery, the narrative acquires a tremendous forward momentum and leaves one breathless with excitement.

If the second novel of the series can be seen as a sort of symphonic scherzo, the third novel, Joseph in Egypt, is a majestic and serene adagio. Joseph is brought into Egypt by the traders, and he is sold to Potiphar, and in this new environment, he establishes himself as a trusted, and, later, a high-ranking member of Potiphar’s extensive household. The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is too well-known to be retold here, but Mann fills his account with the most precise and intricate psychological details: the tension comes not from “what happens next?” – since we all know what happens next – but in the painstaking of depiction of the development of various characters’ psychologies. Rarely, if ever, has sexual desire been presented in more convincing detail than in the depiction of the wife of Potiphar, proud and aloof, lusting after the mere slave Joseph. And in this volume, another theme begins, I think, to develop: it is that word that Potiphar’s wife could barely bring herself to say, even after hundreds of pages of agonising over it – “love”. Not necessarily love in a sexual sense, of course – although that’s part of it – but the love that humanity, despite everything, persists in feeling for one another. The chapter depicting the death of the overseer, Mont-kaw, who had become as another father to Joseph, is among the most moving things I have read in any novel. For all the various complexities and layers of irony, Mann could at times be almost disconcertingly direct.

Joseph starts the fourth novel, Joseph the Provider, as a prisoner: in the final chapter of the previous novel, Potiphar, apparently not believing his wife’s accusation and yet at the same time not in a position to ignore it or to challenge its veracity, had sentenced Joseph merely to imprisonment rather than to any of the hideous deaths Joseph had been threatened with. Once again, the rest of the story is too well-known to require re-telling here, but Mann looks at this tale afresh, and presents each apparently familiar scene in a new light. The novel ends in a hard-won reconciliation, as Joseph, unrecognised by his brothers, is moved by their sight, but has to delay revealing himself to them until they acknowledge their guilt. The reconciliation, the forgiveness, the blessings, when they do finally come, are tremendously affecting. The journey has been long and sometimes even arduous, but the sense of rightness at the end, the sense of a journey completed, of joy, of a consummation of all that has gone before, is something that, once experienced, stays firmly lodged in the mind.

Throughout these four novels, Mann’s themes, as I understand them, are the emergence of human civilisation, and of moral values; the emergence of religious thought and sentiment, which seem innate in the human mind; human concepts of the divine, and humanity’s aspirations towards it; the persistence through all this of our primal urges, which often find expression in forms of mythology and of ritual; the cyclical and archetypal nature of the myths themselves; and, most importantly, human love that can overleap mere accidental barriers that separate humans one from another. And I’m sure there are many other themes that I haven’t even begun to identify yet, and will only become apparent to me through re-reading. But, unless one thinks of literature as some means to an end rather than an end in itself, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much what these books are about: what matters is what they are, the experience they have to offer. I am not sure I understand fully what this extraordinary series of novels is about; but I do know that, as I was reading them I was taken through virtually every emotion I could think of, and that, since reading them, they have not stopped resonating in my mind.

One doesn’t merely read works of this quality, and then put them aside: they are to be lived with. While I have been pondering these works for a good few years now, and have re-read individual passages, I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to re-read the whole thing. But I know I’ll do it some day. I suppose I’ll just have to dive into it again.

A Karamazov Diary: 10 – Ivan

The Brothers Karamazov is, on one level, a thriller with many unexpected twists and turns in the plot. But it is not possible to discuss the character of Ivan without giving away some of these twists and turns. So if you haven’t yet read the book, but plan to, and don’t want the twists of the plot revealed, it might be best to give this post a miss.

Ivan famously says that if God didn’t exist, then everything would be permitted. This has been seen as an attempt on Dostoyevsky’s part to justify religious belief. Probably it is: it seems to me quite likely that Dostoyevsky himself did not think it possible to have any reasonable grounds for a moral code without belief in God. This is not to say that atheists are necessarily immoral people, nor, conversely, that believers are necessarily moral people – but merely that without belief in a divinity of some sort, there can be no moral code that is binding.

Not surprisingly, this has proved controversial, and I don’t know that I want to enter into this controversy: ethics is a difficult area, and I would prefer not to rush in foolishly where even experts fear to tread. But whatever Dostoyevsky’s own thoughts and convictions on the matter, in the context of Ivan and of the role he plays in the novel, his statement is perfectly coherent. Having rejected God – having rejected God even if God were to exist – Ivan feels he has to formulate his own moral code; and that, in the process of doing so, any moral imperative that comes from God, or claims to come from God, is, and must be, irrelevant: he has to start from scratch – nothing is given to begin with. In this sense, everything is, indeed, permitted.

Ivan is aware that his statement may be interpreted in different ways, but that doesn’t seem to bother him: quite the contrary – it seems to amuse him. He knows that Dmitri has been much struck by this thought, and he knows also that Dmitri has interpreted it in his own manner: but when he repeats to Alyosha that everything is, indeed, permitted, he adds that “Dmitri’s version of it isn’t bad either”. Even as he says this, Ivan is hoping that Dmitri would kill their father. As he puts it, what does it matter if one reptile were to kill another? Indeed, if one were to formulate one’s moral code on strictly rational grounds, then the killing of so depraved and so wicked a man as old Fyodor Karamazov need not be seen as a crime at all.

In the event, of course, it is not Dmitri who kills the the father, but Smerdyakov. This is what Ivan had been dreading. If Dmitri is the murderer, then the guilt is his; but should Smerdyakov turn out to be the killer, then it is he, Ivan, who is guilty, for Smerdyakov would have done it for Ivan’s sake. And what is more, Ivan had given him the go-ahead to do it. Not directly, of course: nothing is said directly. But in a sort of coded message, Ivan had effectively told Smerdyakov that he could go ahead with the killing. So terrible is this, that Ivan had, to a great extent, hidden his true motives even from himself; but Smerdyakov had understood it, and when he confronts Ivan with it afterwards, Ivan cannot deny it: being intellectually honest, he cannot deny it to his own self what he had desired, and, more, what he had actually done.

This idea of a “transferred guilt”, as it were, possibly derives from Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov (it is present also in Mussorgsky’s opera based on the play, composed some ten or so years before The Brother Karamazov was written). Boris had been tortured with guilt for the killing of the young Tsarevich Dmitri. He had not killed the boy himself, and nor had he given direct orders: but he had wanted it; he had made his desire known; and it had been done on his behalf. He could deny his guilt to the world, but not to himself. In both the play and in the opera, we see, in some of the most intense and terrifying of scenes, Boris being driven mad with guilt: eventually, it kills him. In Dostoyevsky’s novel, we see Ivan suffering tortures equally terrible. On the very last page of the novel, Alyosha describes him as being “on the point of death”.

Of the three brothers – at least, of the three legitimate brothers: Smerdyakov may well be a fourth Brother Karamazov – Ivan is the only one who is denied a moment of revelation, of epiphany. Not for him the glorious spiritual experience Alyosha has as he hears the reading of Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast in Cana; nor for him the transforming dream Dmitri has after his torments through Hell. Ivan goes through his own Hell, of course: mirroring Dmitri’s passage through Hell in those three chapters of the preliminary investigation entitled “The Passage of a Soul Through the Torments”, Ivan is given three chapters in which he meets with Smerdyakov, in a room unnaturally hot; and in the course of these meetings, his most unthinkable nightmare proves to be true: it is indeed he, Ivan, who is the murderer. But where Dmitri after journeying through Hell is granted a transforming vision, Ivan, after his journey through Hell, has to face the most horrendous nightmare of all: he has to meet with the Devil.

The novel at this stage has reached so febrile a pitch of intensity, that even the physical appearence of the Devil himself does not seem out of place. Ivan knows that this figure is a hallucination – is, indeed, an aspect of his own self-accusing soul. And yet, by this stage, Ivan cannot be sure even of his own knowledge. As he raves and babbles to Alyosha afterwards, he seems to believe that the figure he had encountered really was the Devil in person.

The scene with the Devil is perhaps the climactic point of the entire novel, and is the most dramatic and powerful scene in a novel full to bursting with dramatic and powerful scenes. (Thomas Mann later paid tribute to this scene by writing his own version of it in Doctor Faustus in which the protagonist, Adrian Leverkühn, meets the Devil is a hallucination brought on by syphillis.) The Devil comes not in a sulphurous flames or with thunder and lightning, but unassumingly, in the form of a rather shabbily dressed middle-aged gentleman. And his conversation – throughout the scene, it is the Devil who does virtually all the talking, while Ivan is driven further and further towads the edge of insanity – is not in grand, sonorous, Miltonic tones: it is everyday, peppered with jokes and anecdotes, almost convivial and friendly. But the Devil knows exactly how to drive Ivan mad: he knows exactly where to insert the needles to cause the maximum of pain. The scene builds over some twenty or so pages with insidious intent. This figure is, of course, most likely to be an aspect of Ivan’s own psyche; or, conceivably, it could actually be the Devil. Most frighteningly, it could be both.

Ivan’s mental collapse could, I suppose, be seen as a sort of moral judgement – as if Dostoyevsky were saying “This is what happens when you reject God”. But to see it in such terms is to reduce an extremely complex work into something very simple-minded. Even if we were to believe that rejection of God inevitably leads to this (and I don’t for a minute think that Dostoyevsky would believe something quite so simplistic), it is worth remembering that Ivan’s argument against God has not been answered. One must not look for easy solutions in a work such as this.