Impossible Wishes - Thomas Mann

‘He has enormously increased the difficulties of being a novelist.’ Perhaps only a writer of very High Modernist tendencies would take this remark as a compliment, but Thomas Mann certainly did, and it wasn’t even addressed to him. He found it in Harry Levin’s little book on Joyce, which he read in 1944. He was also much drawn to another sentence in the same work: ‘The best writing of our contemporaries is not an act of creation, but an act of evocation, peculiarly saturated with reminiscences.’ Mann had assumed, he said, that, compared with Joyce’s experiments, his own writing could only look like loose dedication to tradition, but he was now encouraged to see resemblances rather than differences. If Joyce’s experimentalism necessarily engaged tradition, and Mann’s traditionalism was never untouched by parody, the writers’ projects could well meet. Around this time Mann attended a public reading given by his friend Bruno Frank. He liked the writing and the performance but was struck by the fact that Frank used seriously the ‘humanistic’ narrative style that he himself could use only ironically. ‘Stylistically,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘I now really know only parody. In this close to Joyce.’
Not that anyone much apart from Mann himself saw this at the time, or even later. He said in a letter that ‘someone here recently wrote’ of him that ‘under the cover of a conventional use of language, he has been perhaps as adventurous an innovator as Joyce,’ but chances are that the someone was Mann himself, adapting his own reading of Levin. ‘Here’ was America, and the time was a little later: 1948. Mann had been working, from 1943 to 1947, on his great novel Dr Faustus, a retelling of the familiar myth through Germany and music and disease, its narrative time synchronised with the developments of the European War. In 1949 Levin reviewed the American translation of the novel rather harshly and, in an even unkinder historical cut, changed the title and contents of the famous course he had been teaching at Harvard from ‘Proust, Joyce and Mann’ to ‘Proust, Joyce and Kafka’, probably one of the first signs of the fading of Mann’s reputation in relation to that of those other giants. Obviously he just hadn’t increased the difficulties enough.
It’s worth pausing over the thought of Mann as a Joyce in disguise, a Joyce masquerading as a Galsworthy, say. What would happen to a literary form like the novel if it was invisibly hollowed out rather than brilliantly exploded? Could there be a Modernism that looked like its opposite? There is a remarkable piece of dialogue on just this subject in Dr Faustus, although the ostensible topic is music.
Adrian Leverkühn, the German composer-hero of the novel, receives a visit from the Devil – whether he is an independent agent or a manifestation of Adrian’s illness would alter many things, but not the Devil’s energies or the force of his arguments – who tells him what he already knows: that the old conventions are done for. Adrian says: ‘One could know all that and still acknowledge freedom again beyond any criticism of them. One could raise the game to a yet higher power by playing with forms from which, as one knows, life has vanished.’ The Devil says: ‘I know, I know. Parody.’ And asks Adrian if he expects such cheap tricks to work for him. Adrian says no, angrily.
Adrian has answered too quickly, as if parody was always and only a trick, and the Devil has trapped him. If there are no other, more human and capacious modes of parody, then the alternatives are sterility or the endless repetition of old forms. Or – and this is the Devil’s offer to Adrian – a radical breakthrough, a new form of artificial, diabolical life, an art beyond parody and beyond humanity, gained in exchange for the composer’s soul. Adrian is lost because he is an extremist in a way that even Joyce wasn’t, and because he thinks irony is just another mode of despair. In an earlier conversation – not with the Devil – he has said that the artistic work as a ‘self-sufficient, objective and harmonious formation’ is an illusion, ‘something the bourgeoisie wishes still existed’. It would take ages to unpack this thought in detail, but it’s clear that Adrian is caught up in an artist’s version of Nietzsche’s death of God. The work of art was in one sense always an illusion, but it was one of culture’s great achievements, a grand illusion. Now – this is the familiar, problematic ‘now’ of modern anxiety – the same harmonious work has become a lie, a flat denial of a troubled social world rather than an enhancement or a transfiguration of it. Quite unwittingly Adrian is offering a sophisticated analogue of what T.S. Eliot had to say about Ulysses: that the novel as a form could no longer model its order on a world which had lost all sense of order. No wonder Mann was so taken by the connection.
But where Joyce, according to Eliot, answered the disorder of modernity with his ‘mythical method’, and where Adrian Leverkühn broke through into new musical territory, Mann had, all along, even in his early writing, both given the bourgeoisie the work it wanted, and discreetly travestied that very work. And if we follow Mann’s argument rather than Eliot’s (or Adrian’s or the Devil’s) we might think that Joyce was engaged in a parallel enterprise: attacking the notion of the work through the work’s own virtues, and taking from the bourgeoisie the art it thought it still had. In this perspective many ambitious modern ventures – those of Proust, Woolf and Musil as well as Mann and Joyce – can be seen as inhabiting the ruins of a genre, reinventing life for a form ‘from which, as one knows, life has vanished’. Kafka is another story. The last great novel in the ruins is probably Perec’s aptly titled Life: A User’s Manual; and the elegant obituary for the genre is probably Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, where not even ruins remain, only the remembered pleasures of an artistic form. In this book an elderly editor who scarcely sees any readers any more is described as ‘a little man, shrunken and bent’, and the words themselves provoke a virtuoso performance of literary nostalgia. He is described in this way
not because he is more of a little man, more shrunken and bent than so many others, or because the words ‘little man, shrunken and bent’ are part of his way of expressing himself, but because he seems to have come from a world where they still – no: he seems to have emerged from a book where you still encounter – you’ve got it: he seems to have come from a world in which they still read books where you encounter ‘little men, shrunken and bent’.
This is ‘an act of evocation, peculiarly saturated with reminiscences’, to borrow Mann’s borrowing of Levin’s phrase, or perhaps even a parody of such an act.
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