Thursday, July 15, 2010

paste up #010 - thomas mann (again)

(Antiques shop, High Street, Northcote)

This re-paste up of Thomas Mann is an attempt to redress the premature disappearance of my original (larger) paste up (lasting only 24 hours) and to allow me to display his beauty once more and also give me the opportunity to say a few things about his novella, Death in Venice (which I’ve just reread . . . four times . . . five soon . . . I’ll explain in a moment).

The story’s details are based on actual events: while in Venice in 1911 with his wife and brother, Thomas Mann became captivated by a boy who was staying at the same hotel. In the story, an aging writer, Aschenbach, experiences a sudden and intensely passionate disorientation (beautifully put by Anthony Heilbut) after becoming infatuated with a young boy, Tadzio, who is staying at the same hotel. 

Aschenbach’s passion, which can be read as both sexual and symbolic, is unrequited. There is never any direct contact with Tadzio and Aschenbach’s/Mann’s cynical view of this type of desire is clear: “Beauty . . . which is Form . . . and naïvety lead to intoxication and lust; they may lead a noble mind into terrible criminal emotions . . . they lead . . . to the abyss.” In other words, the pursuit of erotic beauty, at the expense of reason and self-control, leads to degradation and death. 

Aschenbach is eventually undone by his passion. Aware of the outbreak of cholera in Venice, not only does he not warn Tadzio or his family to leave (at which point, according to Anthony Heilbut, Aschenbach “become[s] criminally culpable”), he chooses to risk his own health by staying on in Venice in order to continue his pursuit of Tadzio. The story ends with his death, most likely from cholera, on the same day that Tadzio leaves. 

It should be noted that Mann’s stay in Venice did not end in either degradation or death.  

Although Mann dramatises his real life encounter in the novella, the story is not wholly shaped by it. In Death in Venice, Mann explores a variety of recurring themes in his work: the conflict between art and life, chaos and order, youth and aging, growth and decay.

Prompted by a new translation of Death in Venice by Michael Henry Heim, Andrew O’Hehir’s review is an invigorating and inspiring reappraisal of the novella. He reminds us that as a work of fiction, over-attention to its biographical incident can make us miss the point:

“Like all of Mann's other books, Death in Venice is a nest of interlocking keys and symbols in which scarcely a word is wasted, a careful balance of opposing polarities and apparent contradictions in which no final, definitive interpretation can defeat all others. This is a book about Italy written by a German, a book about homosexual love written by a married man who fathered six children, a book about a man who debases himself and embraces his own death written by a man who lived to age 80 as the very embodiment of bourgeois literary respectability.”

It’s a solid review and worth reading in full.

Rereading Death in Venice reminded me of my own parallel experience of infatuationan infatuation with the photo of Thomas Mann which I came across in this book I’d bought as a birthday gift for a friend. (Borrowing heavily from Mann), it was with astonishment that when I saw the photo I noticed how entirely beautiful he was. 

I became obsessed with getting a copy of the photo. I had to do a paste up of it. 

At my friend’s birthday party, I enacted my own Aschenbachian descent. Reproaching myself for not having made a copy of the photo before giving her the book, I found it increasingly difficult to sublimate my desire to somehow get a copy of the photo before the party finished. Dismissing the idea of simply tearing out the page (as a crime against books), I stalked the book, finding myself returning frequently to the room where my friend had left it, hovering near it, pretending to make conversation with other party guests while all the time thinking of ways to make a copy of the photo. (Would it be rude to ask to borrow back a gift I had just given? Could I just take the book and replace it and hope she wouldn’t notice? How would I hide a hardback under my coat? Was there a printer with a photocopy function somewhere in the house?) I was feeling increasingly disoriented. Then suddenly I remembered I had my phone/camera with me. Dispensing with good party manners, I ditched the group conversation, grabbed the book, found a quiet corner and started taking photos. I overheard one nosy party guest attempting to draw attention to what I was doing with his admonishing: “Look, he’s taking photos!” Dignity no longer mattered. I had my photo at last.

Thomas Mann is right: intoxication and lust can make you behave inappropriately. 

As with my first blog entry on Mann, I continue to obsess over the different translations of his work. I just happen to have four different translations of Death in Venice. And soon I’ll have a fifth: Michael Henry Heim’s translation, especially after Andrew O’Hehir’s promise that “Aschenbach's story no longer feels antique; in this illuminating new English version, Death in Venice comes back to life.” 

In his book Literary Translation, A Practical Guide (a gift, and none too subtle hint from my chess partner, who still thinks I should give translation a go), Clifford Landers draws attention to the unending “skein of choices” the literary translator faces. 

Starting with the original German text, and in order of preference, I present the same excerpt from each of the four translations of Death in Venice:

The original German text:
Seine ebenmäβigen Brauen zeichneten sich schärfer ab, seine Augen dunkelten tief. Er war schöner, als es sich sagen läβt, und Aschenbach empfand wie schon oftmals mit Schmerzen, daβ das Wort die sinnliche Schönheit nur zu preisen, nicht wiederzugeben vermag.
1. David Luke’s translation:
His symmetrical eyebrows stood out more sharply, his eyes seemed much darker. He was more beautiful than words can express, and Aschenbach felt, as so often already, the painful awareness that language can only praise sensuous beauty, but not reproduce it.
2. Joachim Neugroschel’s translation
His symmetrical eyebrows stood out more sharply, his eyes darkened deeply. He was more beautiful than any words could say, and Aschenbach painfully felt, as so often before, that language can only praise, but not reproduce the beauty that appeals to the senses.
3. Helen T Lowe-Porter’s translation:
The shapely brows were so delicately drawn, the eyes so deeply dark – lovelier he was than words could say, and as often the thought visited Aschenbach, and brought its own pang, that language could but extol, not reproduce, the beauties of the sense.
4. Kenneth Burke’s translation:
His regular eyebrows showed up more sharply, the darkness of his eyes was deeper. It is hard to say how beautiful he was; and Aschenbach was distressed, as he had often been before, by the thought that words can only evaluate sensuous beauty, but not re-give it.
Landers would argue that “each [translation] convey[s] the same information but differ[s] significantly in aesthetic effect; each is defensible, and each would have its defenders, but the literary translator must make a choice…” But “must make a choice” equates to dread and trauma for me. I will continue to resist translating.

I’m a big fan of words and I have a voracious appetite for text but Thomas Mann is right in attesting to the inadequacy of language to describe beauty. Lengthy rambling post aside, I prefer doing paste ups and stencils to writing because they can clearly show what words must struggle to describe.

Further reading:

For an account of Wladyslaw Moes, the boy who inspired Thomas Mann’s story, read Gilbert Adair’s book The Real Tadzio, reviewed here.

I’ve ordered a copy of La muerte de Tadzio by Luis G. Martín which recreates the story of Tadzio who as an old, sick man returns to Venice in order to die. But it’s only available in Spanish. It’s described promisingly as: una novella que pretende rastrear en los deseos oscuros, en la morbosidad del sexo y en la perversión.

Deseos oscuros, morbosidad y perversión...can’t wait...hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Then there’s Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film version of Death in Venice which, for me, is memorable mainly for its use of Mahler’s Adagietto from symphony number 5. Otherwise, I have to agree with the Time Out reviewer who says that Mann’s metaphysical musings on art and beauty are jettisoned in favour of overblown, pathetic and entirely risible scenes.

Much more interesting is Luchino Visconti’s documentary Alla ricerca di Tadzio (In Search of Tadzio) which is available on YouTube.

Sometime soon I plan to read Goethe’s Elective Affinities (described as a disturbingly dark work about rational people driven to distraction by passion and love). Mann said he reread it at least five times while writing Death in Venice. In fact, he claimed the original idea for Death in Venice was drawn from the aged Goethe's infatuation with a seventeen-year-old girl, Ulrike von Levetzow, attesting to the fact that, as well as real life events, literary sources provided significant inspiration for the story. 

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