January 2011

Pauls Toutonghi


The Nobel Reprise, Letter 7: Thomas Mann

Dear Ben,

The babies have eaten my last two drafts of this letter. Do you believe me? That’s why it’s late. I know: I shouldn’t have flavored the paper with creamed spinach, or used delicious, foot-flavored ink -- but yes, I did, I admit it. That’s exactly what I did. I have nothing but regret.

As for The Magic Mountain, this month’s book: The babies did not eat it. It weighs as much as they do. And yes, yes, it’s raining men -- again. But next month I’m reading Herta Müller. I’m excited to read her work -- especially after The Magic Mountain, which was a deeply-masculine text, a text that somehow cannot be separated from its gender, its hypnotic, masculine gender, somehow. (My agent says you don’t hyphenate adverbial phrases, like “deeply-masculine,” anymore, but I disagree. What do you think?)

At any rate, I read much of The Magic Mountain in minimal light, propped on one elbow, my wife sleeping beside me, wearing a sleep mask to block out the single practical result, in her life, of our Nobel Reprise: Sleep disruption.

I often read thirty or forty pages and then drifted into dreams. This meant that I had some really strange and luminous nightmares and, occasionally, I’d have to correct my impressions of the novel. No, Hans Castorp’s was not taking a job as my sadistic yoga instructor. No, he didn’t offer advice on whether the 500-dollar stroller I’d just purchased was a morally bankrupt expenditure of cash. (It was.)

This morning I went to Crema, my local coffee shop, to write this letter. And I’d been working for about twenty minutes when a friend with whom I play pickup basketball walked through the door. I don’t know if you play informal, adult-league, pickup basketball, but perhaps the truest thing I could say about my time “on the court” is: We do not discuss Thomas Mann.

So, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when he came over to my table and said: “Magic Mountain! That’s my favorite novel!” We had a short conversation, and when I sat down I glanced to my right. The man at the next table was reading two books: 1) Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and, 2) The poems, in German, of Georg Trakl. Admittedly, this is Portland and not, say, Oklahoma City (sorry, Oklahoma City), but it heartened me, somehow, this little cluster of Americans, reading -- and loving -- difficult, beautiful works of early twentieth century German-language literature.

My Swedish friends, Ben, insist that Nils is huge in Sweden, bigger even than Paul Oakenfold, if you can imagine. This makes sense. Latvian children have, for many years, been entertained by the adventures of Bebrs Pēteris (Peter the Beaver) un vinu parsteigumu gramata (and his book of surprises). Yet not many of my American countrymen have heard of poor Bebrs Pēteris. Such is the life of the small Nordic nation. Your literature tends to not leave your borders (unless it has, apparently, a Nordic Noir theme, or vampires). The Latvian novel I’m reading right now, Dveseļu regi Zvaigžņu kalna (The Soul’s Apparition in the Starry Hill) by Karlis Ievins, is amazing -- but also entirely unknown outside of Latvia. It might, come to think of it, be mostly unknown inside of Latvia, too.

You raised some great questions in your Lagerlöf letter. I’ll say, right off, that I think that children’s literature is just as valuable as any other form -- if not more valuable, to writers, since their encounters with books, at a young age, tend to shape and form their desire to be writers, themselves. I remember, clearly, how reading Watership Down made me feel when I was ten -- and that feeling is one I’ve been trying to replicate for the rest of my life. It’s a big part of why I write, myself. If I can make some thirteen-year-old kid feel less lonely, less isolated, because of the world he or she accesses in my books -- then I’ve accomplished something worthwhile, I guess.

Of course, that posits the fickle thirteen year old as the chief reader of my work and that does make me a bit nervous.

You asked: “Why can’t the books we come across at thirty, or forty, or fifty, affect us in quite the same way as the book about the children who were turned into flying mice that we read when we were eight?” And that’s a question I’ve asked myself. And, before I suggest a ridiculous answer, I will say that this speaks exactly to how I felt about The Magic Mountain, at certain times, while I was reading it. At certain times, I felt that joy, that sheer exuberance of reading. These tended to be either the incredibly beautiful moments (the x-ray scene with Director Behrens in the basement of the sanatorium), or the moments when the characters finally interacted, with something at stake (the incredible scenes with Mynheer Peeperkorn and Frau Chauchat).

So, the ridiculous answer is this: The presence of death? Because, as kids, we don’t understand the world, and the way it works, the way it devours our individualism, our very self, annihilates it. As kids, everything is possibility and infinity. As we age, that changes. And so maybe our relationship with books changes, as a function of that?

* * *

The Magic Mountain. It would be funny to take it to Disneyland, and read it in line for the ride -- Magic Mountain. Or maybe that would be funny just to me.

About 250 pages in, I thought that Mann was evading the subject a little. He was writing about death, but death was playing only a peripheral role. And then came the incredible x-ray scene, where Hans Castorp sees his skeleton, and anticipates, clearly, what lies in store for him. And so he plunges into this horrific, bumbling plan: He will visit the most extreme cases of tubercular rot, the folks who are about to die, and bring them flowers. He will keep them company at the end of their days. In the chapter titled “Danse Macabre,” the storyline offers up grisly scene after grisly scene, as bad as you can imagine.  

Mann is ruthless. There is no holiness in death, for him, no sanctity. His narrative voice mocks everyone: Hans Castorp, who is engaging in this quixotic, solipsistic errand. Joachim, his cousin, who is silent and accepting of it all. And the dying men and women (and children), themselves, who are often ridiculous, or stupid, or both.

This book was astonishing, one of the best I’ve read -- one of the most complete. There were two things in it I could have done without: 1) Mann’s characters’ persistent and very creepy preoccupation with the sexuality of young boys, with their physical bodies and their “pristine” essences, and 2) Many of the numerous, twenty-page philosophical debates between Herr Settembrini and Herr Naphta.

These philosophical debates are part of why this book is labeled “serious literature,” but they are also hard to follow. That’s a dumb complaint, I know.

“Dang it. This here book’s hard to read.”

But -- still -- Mann can be such an incredible writer, such an incredible dramatist, and so it’s frustrating to see his failures.

Settembrini is a “humanist.” At times, he argues for the triumphalism of the human spirit, the victory of “human” emotion and essence over death, violence, and many other terrible circumstances (torture, disease, war). His enemy, Naphta, is -- to borrow a phrase from Joyce -- a “fearful Jesuit.” He is the embodiment of violent, narrow-minded religiosity, and he has a complex and dirty personality -- one which is preoccupied with some of the questions that were tearing Europe apart in the years before the First World War: Anarchism, total revolution, the victory of the mob, group think. And Naphta’s death is unquestionably the dramatic pinnacle of the book.

But the debates. Jesus, you just want these two guys to shut up.

And even the narrator admits that they sometimes lost track of what they were arguing about.

I get it -- Mann was trying to make a point. “Argument is, at a certain level, useless.” But, really, think of a better way to demonstrate this to me. It reminded me of the student who, in my fiction writing class, wrote a purposefully boring story, just to demonstrate what a truly boring character was like.

The writer Jay Parini once asked his friend Gore Vidal if he should write a scene where two characters discuss philosophical questions for thirty minutes. And Gore Vidal said, sure -- as long as they’re on a train and the reader knows that there’s a bomb under the seat.      

* * *

This book is so long that it’s tough to talk (write?) about it in any condensed, practical way. Mann, himself, seems to have sensed this, and so he has his narrator repeatedly comment on how long the book is, throughout the last two hundred pages.

The narrator, himself, is actually an interesting question in The Magic Mountain. The identity of the narrator is never exactly disclosed. There’s a real sense of play to this question of “who is the narrator?” (Okay, kids, let’s play your favorite game: Who… Is… the… Narrator?) Settembrini is as close to the narrative voice as we get. He’s a tragic and doomed gentleman -- impoverished but elegant, wearing threadbare clothes – and he’s working on a strange project, a compendium of all the ways that literature has assessed, over the years, human suffering. At the very end of the book, the narrator follows Hans Castorp onto the bloody battlefields of the First World War, and a certain small gesture he makes -- he salutes Hans Castorp, sort of ironically -- mimics a similar gesture made earlier by Settembrini.

From page 706: “Farewell, Hans Castorp… we have taken a certain pedagogic liking to you, might be tempted gently to dab the corner of an eye with one fingertip at the thought that we shall neither see you nor hear from you in the future…”

And from page 703: “And Herr Settembrini waved with his right hand, too, while with the tip of the ringer finger of his left hand he gently brushed the corner of one eye.”

Does that make sense? It’s late at night, and I’m tired -- but I think that Settembrini is probably, at least, the narrator’s secret sharer. And what does it mean that Settembrini is working on a compendium of human suffering? Well, this is what Mann has written, after all. This is the novel -- a compendium of the varieties of human suffering. Anyhow, Ben. I’m not getting any more awake. I just wrote “a compendium of human surfing,” instead of “suffering.”

So much of the book, to me, comes down to a casual comment, a throwaway line, really, near the end of the book. The narrative voice says: “(It was) an orgiastic sort of freedom, we may add, while asking ourselves whether there can be freedom of any other sort.”

This unlocked the book, for me. Because everyone, everything, in this book is so constrained, repressed, tied up -- that, yes, the only kind of freedom is the freedom of release, the destructive freedom of something (or someone) who has been dealing with formal manners for a long time, and then suddenly frees themselves.

I think I don’t necessarily have to be thinking of Jonathan Franzen when I ask: Isn’t American literature a chronicle of the different kinds of freedom that we, as human beings living beneath a social contract, can have?

But that’s a stodgy question.

How about this one: Do you have a favorite bar in Brooklyn? If so, which one? Mine was Clem’s, when I lived there, in a different, distant life.