Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Lee Klein. Lee has two books out this year, The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel (Atticus Books, 2014) and Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejections Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox (Barrelhouse Books, 2014).
Asked to contribute something about an under-read novel or writer I love, I thought about Ken Dahl’s Monsters, or Charles Wright’s The Messenger, or Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist, or Torsten Krol’s The Dolphin People, or Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, but when I sat down to write this I realized I preferred to write about how Thomas Mann loves to endanger his young male protagonists. Mann is among the better known dead white male German writers, of course. He has a reputation for novels stuffed with heady logorrhea, for a novella about an older man who dyes his hair and lusts after a young boy, for entries in a journal I’ve never read charting the consistency and quality of his bowel movements. New translations by John E. Woods have appeared that, compared to the apparently oft-archaic original translations, have been deemed masterpieces in terms of faithfully, smoothly, and accessibly conveying the geist of Mann’s German language masterpieces to readers of English. In the past three years, I’ve read three of these newly translated Mann novels: The Magic Mountain, Joseph and His Brothers, and Doctor Faustus. Next year, I’ll read Buddenbrooks, his first major novel, but for now, the approximate three-thousand pages of dense, insightful, descriptive, and often gently ironic prose in these three novels will suffice for a short post.
It’s not so much that Mann seems to get off on endangering his young male protagonists; more so, his writing takes off, unmistakably, when young Hans is lost in the snow while skiing in The Magic Mountain or when young Joseph is trapped in the bottom of a well in Joseph and His Brothers. For the entirety of Doctor Faustus but especially when young Adrian is trapped inside his obsession and ambition, just as the narrator declares that Germany—the land, its people, its culture, and its language—will forever be trapped inside the atrocities of the Second World War. But for Adrian, there’s beauty to it, expressed for example in descriptions relayed to the narrator about an experience in a diving bell. Adrian has only read about such submergence but pretends he’s lived it when he tells it. He describes the gorgeous monstrosities of the depths and then extrapolates to the infinite complexities of the cosmos. Quotations are called for but no sentence offers itself as an adequate representative of a sense while reading that Mann flicked a switch and his prose turned Technicolor. Out of context (in this case 284 pages into a 534-page novel with very small print, centimeter margins at most, and not much dialogue), a single sentence pulled from the four-page diving bell section excerpted for analysis won’t mean much. In general, as in so many classic foreign films, a certain amount of slogging is required to achieve sublimity. Lush descriptions of “ogres of the deep” with their phosphorescent snouts, emitting light as warning and lure, the luminosity and liquidy warmth of the prose Mann deploys for these pages, and the silent solitude of the experience in the diving bell corresponds to the reader’s immersion in the depths of a novel densely packed with squirming ideas and images, some monstrous, some not.
The same is true in the scenes of solitary endangerment in The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers. Both novels, weighing in at 706 and 1492 pages, respectively, have their share of slog. The first 330 pages of The Magic Mountain weren’t so magical for me, but now I most remember the chapter beginning on page 460 (“Snow”) in which Hans encounters a blizzard while skiing—a physical, literal dramatization of his confusion as a constant blizzard of intellectualizing storms around him thanks to the proto-fascist Naphta and the liberal humanist Settembrini.
Joseph and His Brothers may be my all-time favorite mega-novel. I can’t think of another indisputably major 20th century masterpiece so obscenely and yet understandably under-read. Published in German in five volumes between 1933 and 1943, it’s ambitious on every level, humanizing a few lines of Genesis, filling them out, describing the complexities of the lives of founding Jews long ago at a time when Mann’s countrymen were eradicating the most recent manifestation of the lineage. I can’t think of another novel that suggests such a monumental middle finger raised in the direction of an author’s homeland. But even if the historical, political, and cultural criticism failed to register with readers, as well as the audacity and heft of Mann’s aesthetic resistance, the story and its execution retain more than enough artistry and oomph to propel a reader through 1492 pages—a coincidentally significant number of pages since at its end many readers may feel, like Columbus, that they’ve discovered a new continent.
Early on in the mega-novel (essentially five novels published now in one “Everyman’s Library” hardcover, with bible-like rice-paper pages and one of those snazzy built-in cloth bookmarks) his brothers throw Joseph into a well. Again, what’s most remarkable about this section is how the prose takes off in a sprint of insightful, descriptive exposition. Maybe Mann realizes that when one’s main character is alone in the snow or in a hole there won’t be much dialogue or drama or conflict (other than between life and death) and so he must ramp the language all the way up. The same applies in Proust: stupefying scenes in salons involving Dreyfus Affair discussions give way to ecstatic moments when Marcel finds himself alone and the author pulls out the proverbial stops.
It’s possible that I’m associating and celebrating these solitary ecstatic moments because I’m so rarely alone these days, ecstatic or otherwise. At most on a run through the city in the morning before it wakes there’s some solitude. Or when writing in pre-dawn bursts. Or when reading while walking down empty streets during my commute. There’s therefore maybe something alluring about my memory of these scenes, the lure and the warning of the deep when experienced solo, without spouse, offspring, pets, family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors, “followers,” “friends,” even one’s plants that require intermittent attention, the vital presences surrounding you synonymous with life. But these scenes wouldn’t jump off their pages if not for more populous ones that preceded and followed. As Mann teaches throughout Joseph and His Brothers, things are spherical, not oppositional. Solitude and society are one.
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