This collection of Thomas Mann short stories was my least enjoyable read of the books I’ve written about so far.
The collection of C. Wright Mills writings—The Politics of Truth—was unsatisfying in that I know I wasn’t grasping all of it, I wasn’t seeing the “big picture” of his thought. But there were individual points along the way that I appreciated. And Out Stealing Horses was a moderately dull read most of the way for me, which too had some parts I enjoyed.
But I struggled more to get into this book than either of those. This was one of those things I read for no reason except I’m obstinate and once I start a book I insist on finishing it. Because really I was getting little or nothing out of it.
It’s one of those books where my mind was constantly wandering, where after a paragraph or two or even a page or more, I’d realize I’d been daydreaming about something else as my eyes passed over the words, and that I have no clue of anything I’ve just read. When I snapped back, I sometimes reread what I’d missed, sometimes skimmed over it, and sometimes didn’t bother at all.
The extent to which I was paying attention and conscious of what I was reading varied from maybe 20% in some stories to 70% in others. So really my understanding of these stories was, at best, what you could gain from picking 20%-70% at random from each story and reading just that.
Typically very little happens in the stories. There are long, long descriptive passages (which I almost never get anything out of), and lots of psychological discussion of the inner lives of the characters (which I do like from certain authors, but only occasionally connected with here).
It’s possible I’m just too historically and culturally removed from the stories. They’re about Europeans, mostly Germans, from about a century ago; perhaps similar stories about types of people and situations I’m more familiar with would have drawn me in more. Or maybe I’d have enjoyed it more if I had had a pre-existing high level of interest in that historical period and wanted to better understand how such people lived and thought.
Then again, I certainly have no trouble becoming engrossed in a Dostoyevsky novel, say, and that’s pretty far removed from my life.
One aspect of the stories I was a little surprised by is their treatment of sexuality. Not in terms of their being sexually explicit—they’re not. But the types of sexual desire alluded to, and even the types of sex that I think is hinted occurs, is sometimes of a quite unconventional nature.
Death in Venice itself concerns the first person narrator’s obsessive desires for a sickly fourteen year old Polish boy, whom he follows around in stalker-like fashion though he never actually does anything. I would think that would be as big or bigger a deal than say Lolita, which caused a scandal decades later. Though maybe the difference is that in Lolita there’s sex rather than a desire for sex. Still, it seems like having it be homosexual should at least equal out that factor.
Evidently in real life Mann’s pedophiliac desires were more extreme than those of his character, as I read that he was similarly obsessed for a time with an eleven year old boy.
Death in Venice was a decidedly dull read for the first half or so, then held my interest somewhat better (though still not all that well) once the pedophile and plague themes kicked in. As such, that probably puts it in the top two or three stories in the collection for me, which should give one an idea how little I got into this book.
Mario and the Magician, which culminates in a Jenny Jones/Scott Amedure type murder, probably kept my interest as well as any of them.
A Man and His Dog contains some passages that really rang true to me about dogs and pet ownership and such (actually more so than Travels with Charley), so I did appreciate that. But a few insightful passages like that doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s a very long “short” story where almost nothing happens.
Felix Krull similarly had a few bits that I thought were enjoyable and well-written about the experience of childhood, but not enough to make up for the fact that I was quite bored most of the way.
Tonio Kröger I remember as having indications of a teenage boy having a crush on another teenage boy, and The Blood of the Walsungs I’m pretty sure implies that the twin brother and sister have sex at the end. But other than those, again, surprisingly risqué sexual things, I retained little from those stories.
Tristan, about people at a sanitarium, only occasionally kept my attention. And I’ll take Disorder and Early Sorrow as the one that most lost me. I think it’s just a long static description of some German family, but I didn’t care about the characters in the slightest and zoned out for almost the whole time while reading it.
I don’t doubt Mann’s a wonderful and important writer. But there are things I understand and appreciate and things I don’t, and this happens to be the kind of material that simply doesn’t connect with me. Not to the extreme of, say, poetry, which most of the time literally could be in a foreign language for all I can follow it. But mostly this book went over my head.
So, fine stories I’m sure, and I got into them a tiny bit here and there, but overall not my cup of tea. It was worth giving Mann a try, but I’m unlikely to attempt to read any other books of his.