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Mockingbird and Watchman

52 Authors: Week 32 - Thomas Mann

I have met few people who have read Thomas Mann extensively, and, among those few, fewer still who hold him in as high regard as I do. The problem, therefore, seems to be one mostly of neglect, and only secondarily of poor judgement. My own view is that he ranks with the finest novelists of the twentieth century. 

Mann was born in 1875, in Lübeck, and died in 1955, in Zürich. He lived most of his life in Germany, though for a little over a decade, during and after the Second World War, he resided in the United States. (A few years ago, when at Princeton University, I had the joy of visiting his former home and standing in his library, which was quite a thrill. Presumably anyone could do the same: the house is now the home of the university's Catholic chaplaincy.) He had been forced to flee Germany when the Nazis, of whom he had been a forceful critic, came to power. He continued his critique of Hitler's regime from the safety of America, and, in the post-war years, one of his greatest works resulted from a long meditation on the intersection of Nazism with German history and culture. But more on that below.


Mann with Einstein at Princeton, 1938

Mann was something of a prodigy. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, the work principally cited by the committee was Buddenbrooks, which had been published when he was just 26 years old. This book is in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, and traces the slow decline of a family over the course of several generations. It was an assured and impressive debut, but, if memory serves (for I have read it only once), it only hinted at those qualities which were to distinguish Mann's writing as he matured: his long, delicate sentences, with their networks of balanced and counter-balanced clauses (a reasonable English-language comparison would be with Henry James); the poise and precision of his language, which always gives the reader the sense of being in the company of a man who is thinking, and thinking carefully; his talent for adopting a distinctive narrative voice that lingers in the imagination long after the details of the plot have drifted away; an interest in matters of culture, history, religion, and philosophy; and, perhaps most distinctively, an ability to write stories which, while not exactly allegorical, resonate with multiple levels of meaning, and are therefore richer and more rewarding than a bald description would suggest.

In my opinion Mann's two masterpieces are The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. The former is a sprawling tale about a young man, Hans Castorp, who, suffering from some ill-defined disorder, "takes the cure" in a mountaintop sanitorium for an extended period — so extended, in fact, that the reader begins to suspect not only that he is not recovering, but that the doctors who treat him do not intend his recovery. Castorp is naive, and during his stay he falls under the influence of a number of older intellectuals who introduce him to the contested battlefield of ideas raging over European culture, morality, and history. If that makes it sound didactic, I have failed; it is, I suppose, one of those dreaded "novels of ideas" — a meditation on fin-de-siècle European society, for which the sanitorium itself becomes a proxy — but so beautifully written that it dazzles rather than discourages the reader. And persevere to the end: the last chapter is staggeringly great.

Even better (for I would count it among my favourite novels) is Doctor Faustus, a modernized and novelized telling of the famous legend. In Mann's version, the Faust character is a composer named Adrian Leverkühn (modelled rather obviously on Arnold Schoenberg) who makes a diabolical wager in exchange for a lifetime of artistic brilliance and acclaim. Sticking to the conventions of the realistic novel, Mann's tale can be read as confined safely within an immanent frame — there is no Devil in the waiting room such as visited Ivan Karamazov — but the realm of portent and mystery hovers over Adrian all the same. And, by ingenious use of a framing device, the story of Adrian's life becomes a mirror in which to examine Germany's ill-fated encounter with National Socialism, a deal with the Devil if ever there was one. It's a wonderfully rich book, especially recommended to music lovers, for it contains some of the finest writing about music that you're likely to find.

For the readers of this blog, I would also recommend two other books. Joseph and his Brothers is Mann's longest book — a tetralogy, really — which runs to about 1200 pages in my edition. The story is that of the Biblical Joseph, and I know of no greater novelistic realization of a Biblical story than this one. It is told rather straightforwardly, with evident respect for the subject matter — though, as is often the case with Mann, the reader cannot perhaps entirely shake the worry that there is an understated irony sunk several fathoms deep. The narrative immerses the reader in the historical period, teasing out the religious mindset of the time in an effort to better understand and appreciate the origins of monotheism. Mann himself apparently considered it his greatest work, and the judgement is a defensible one. I am due for a re-read. And the other book is The Holy Sinner. Though it is generally thought to a fairly minor work — certainly it is much shorter than any of the books I have mentioned thus far! — it has an appeal all its own. The story is a re-working of a medieval legend about the early life of Pope Gregory (which one, I am not sure). It is a tale of magic, with elements familiar from medieval romances, and makes no effort, so far as I recall, to transpose the legend into realist terms. The tale is one that had fascinated Mann for years. (In Doctor Faustus Adrian Leverkühn had actually composed an oratorio telling the same story.) I remember that I greatly enjoyed it when I first read it; again, I am due for a re-read.

Mann is also admired for his short stories, especially "Death in Venice". His collected short stories fill a hefty single volume, and there are some jewels in it. I would particularly recommend two of them: "Tonio Kröger" is, in my opinion, his best short story, exploring some of the same themes as "Death in Venice" (especially the contest of Apollo and Dionysius in life and art), but doing it more winsomely and without the unsavoury elements. And I am also very fond of "A Man and his Dog", which is about ... a man and his dog. Dog-lovers will, I predict, get a kick out of Mann's unnervingly precise descriptions of dog antics; cat-lovers will probably hate it.

I should say that I have read Mann only in translation. He has had two principal translators into English. H.T. Lowe-Porter translated the books as they were being published and came to be closely identified with Mann in the English-speaking world; her versions were known to him and I believe he thought them satisfactory. In the last few decades John E. Woods has been producing fresh translations; he has completed most of the books I have recommended here (the exceptions being The Holy Sinner and the short stories). For purposes of comparison, here is Lowe-Porter's version of the first paragraph of The Magic Mountain:

The story of Hans Castorp, which we would here set forth, not on his own account, for in him the reader will make acquaintance with a simple-minded though pleasing young man, but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us highly worth telling — though it must needs be borne in mind, in Hans Castorp's behalf, that it is his story, and not every story happens to everybody — this story, we say, belongs to the long ago; is already, so to speak, covered with historic mould.

Catch that? (One wit credited Lowe-Porter with having translated Mann into German.) Here is Woods with the same passage:

The story of Hans Castorp that we intend to tell here not for his own sake (for the reader will come to know him as a perfectly ordinary, if engaging young man), but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us to be very much worth the telling (although in Hans Castorp's favor it should be noted that it is his story, and that not every story happens to everybody) is a story that took place long ago and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history.

My own preference, not just in this case but in general, is for Woods' translations.


I wish that I knew more about Thomas Mann, the person, but I don't. I believe that he was a rather sad man — if I remember rightly, at least a few members of his family committed suicide — and his intellectual influences, which would include Nietzsche, Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Freud, are not exactly a band of merry men, but from his books I have learned that he was a man committed to serious moral reflection who used the resources of modernist literature to probe the spiritual and intellectual malaise of our times. In that sense, he can be appreciated as something like a secular counterpart to T.S. Eliot. There was nothing of the ideologue in him, and he was a great artist.

In conclusion, Thomas Mann was a wonderful novelist.

—Craig Burrell is not a wonderful novelist, nor any sort of novelist, but if he were he would try to be like Thomas Mann. He blogs (in a manner of speaking) at All Manner of Thing, and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives in Canada.


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I'm so excited to see this!! Don't have time to read and comment intelligently right now other than to say that I read The Magic Mountain a few years back and LOVED it. Thomas Mann is da bomb! More later...

I was pretty sure I remembered you praising Mann to me. I bought a used copy of Dr. Faustus not too long ago and it's going to be the next fiction I read.

This is really great, Craig, as usual, and extremely tempting.

I know this is going to sound really stupid but at some point I either tried to read Buddenbrooks or watch the BBC version. Try as I might, I can't remember which. Whichever it is, I couldn't get into it, but maybe I'll try again.



I meant to ask if you had ever watched the BBC version and if it followed the book closely.


No, I haven't seen any screen adaptations of Mann's novels. I think I once got an adaptation of The Magic Mountain from the library, but I never did watch it. For me, the pleasures of reading Mann are in large measure literary pleasures: his prose enchants me. The novels have interesting stories, and interesting characters, and I'm sure they could be adapted decently to the screen, but for me something would be missing.

Benjamin Britten wrote an opera on "Death in Venice", and it is quite good, though challenging. I've written a bit about it here.

Mac, I hope you enjoy Doctor Faustus. I expect you will.

I am going to look for a book by Mann in waterstones at heathrow

The only novel on kindle is buddenbooks

Now that I have had a few moments to read this post - very enjoyable - and I do really want to read more of Mann. As seems to happen so much with me and literature, even though it was just a few years back I can't say I remember that much of The Magic Mountain except how much I enjoyed Hans Castorp and his friends up in the sanitorium and all of the discussions they had about everything. So for a few weeks I walked around with the book like a silly kid in college telling anyone I knew (like Mac) that they should give it a try. Then shortly after I finished it I was kind of at a loss as to what it was all about, and have thought ever since, "I need to re-read The Magic Mountain". It is of course large and somewhat daunting, and I wonder how I read it so quickly. I found Mann's prose to be simply sublime; and for as little as happens, the story was quite engaging. It looks like Dr Faustus is the other "must read" in his canon. But then there is the great line in Annie Hall that Woody, and Alvy, and some actors say - "You've read 'Death in Venice', haven't you?"

Then shortly after I finished it I was kind of at a loss as to what it was all about,

I have been having that problem so often lately. I read 5 or 6 books to write a post about them and I'm loving them all the way, but when I sit down to write, I say, "Now what was it?"


No luck!

Internet-related hyper-distraction is causing me problems in writing about books, and for that matter reading them. I have a backlog (in my mind) of three or four books I've read in recent months that I want to post something about here, but I really resist the commitment of gathering my thoughts enough to write 1000 words or so about them.

Sometime in the past year or two I read a substantial essay on The Magic Mountain (in The New Criterion). I thought it sounded awfully boring and if not for the praise of Craig and EG I might not have bothered with Mann for many years, which at my age could mean never.

I read some of The Magic Mountain around 30 years ago, but gave up after about a hundred pages. I think I found it very heavy-going, and the prospect of the remaining 600 pages was just too much for me. It must also have been the Lowe-Porter translation, since the Woods translation was published in 1995. I got that date in this review of his translation, which also says this about Lowe-Porter's translation:

Lowe-Porter is no longer with us to defend herself, but it is well known that she and Mann worked hand in hand as far as her translations of his works went--and Mann, after all, did speak English.

But how well, one wonders? I have to say the examples that reviewer gives do make Woods sound superior. At any rate it's the Lowe-Porter Faustus that I'll be reading, just because it's what I have. Besides, it's a 1948 Knopf edition, and books of that time are a physical pleasure to me.

That tendency of current translators and critics to scorn the efforts of the past is not admirable. Constance Garnett definitely has her flaws, but her translations are not garbage, either.

This brings up a kind of interesting point. Even if Mann spoke English very well, he would still have thought with a German brain, and not necessarily understood how native English speakers would perceive a particular turn of phrase. This is a problem that underlies all translation I would imagine. Paul probably knows more about that.


According to her Wikipedia page, Mann said that he approved of Lowe-Porter's translations "insofar as my linguistic knowledge suffices". He was competent in English, I believe, but his writing calls for more than just competency to judge well.

Grumpy, I'd have been surprised if you found Mann at an airport bookshop!

I'm reading Garnett's translation of Anna Karenina right now, and loving it.

There's actually a whole book on this translation business: Thomas Mann in English by David Horton. This review by a translator includes this observation:

Horton is surprisingly kind to the much-maligned Helen Lowe-Porter, who has become, along with Constance Garnett and, to a lesser degree, Scott Moncrieff, a favorite punching bag of advocates of retranslation. There is no question as to the astonishing quantity of errors these translators made; but it is also rank hubris to act as if the difficulty of the present-day translator's task can be compared to its counterpart a century ago. There is hardly a regionalism too rare or a slang term too new to be elucidated by a half-hour of industrious googling; today's translator can keep numerous dictionaries, the original text, and alternative translations open on the computer while working. Further, for the old guard of translators, the workload stretched the limits of human capacity: in addition to Proust, Moncrieff translated the major works of Stendhal, much of Pirandello, Abelard and Heloise, and a dozen other books before dying at forty years of age. Constance Garnett's translations run north of 20,000 pages. The history of twentieth century letters in English would be inconceivable without their work, or that of the Muirs or the Winstons, or countless others whose work is now being superseded.

I think if I had got to the Heathrow waterstones I might have been in luck. But it was nowhere near my terminal and gate

Death in Venice is online here. It's a pretty readable format.


You're a big literary deal when you have critics and translators. You're a *really* big deal when your critics and translators have critics.

The Constance Garnett version of Anna Karenina is superior to the Pevear/ Volokhonsky one, IMHO. They are better with Dostoevsky.

I guess it was probably CG whose AK translation I read 40 years ago. I don't know whether there were others. I doubt it ever crossed my mind to wonder about the quality of the translation, but I certainly enjoyed the book.

I never thought much about the quality of a translation (except for English translations of Japanese technical manuals) until I read the Inferno with some friends several years ago. We looked at several and they all had their strengths and weaknesses. Recently, we read Augustine's Confessions and I had a lot of trouble with the first translation I picked up. The Sheed translation was much better.


I tried the new translation of Magic Mountain but, after two reads, I'm content to remain with Lowe-Porter's.

Have a vague recollection-- it has been at least a few years since I read the Woods translation and comments on it-- that many of the 'errors' identified by Mr Woods and others are in reality questions of style rather than grammatical or lexical exactitude. When LP writes 'history's mould' and JW 'history's patina', which of those more accurately represents what TM's German says? I don't know but is history an organic compound that, well, decays and moulds, or is history a scientifically analysable manufacture that we can figuratively say acquires a patina? I'd guess that the former more accords with Mann's purposes.

I personally don't care to have Hans Castorp or Ludovico Settembrini talking like George Babbitt or Mme Chauchat like one of the Karshashians-- what is that sort of translation called that is so deplorable when it's a question of putting the Sacred Liturgy into the vernaculars? Dynamic equivalency or some such term.

I had the same question about "mould" vs. "patina." They're not synonyms, and the difference is significant. But we have no way of knowing which was closer to Mann's intent.

We can look to the German, of course, but I don't have a German edition, alas, but will look the next time I'm at the university library.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Thomas Mann

I found this quote somewhere the other day. I hope it's really Mann.


I agree that a true writer hates to write

"I agree that a true writer hates to write"

Is that my problem? :)

I remember a funny bit, I think by Dorothy Parker, where she talked about writing one sentence and then having to go lie down with a washcloth on her head.


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