Posts Tagged ‘Death in Venice’

Grand Tour #19 – Hungary. Journey by Moonlight / Antal Szerb

August 11, 2017

Most of my Grand Tour books I’ve been finding off my own bat, but Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was a recommendation from a friend. When I spotted it was in the library (the only Hungarian novel in translation we have, apart from Imre Kertész’s brilliant but harrowing Fatelessness, which I read last year), I was convinced it was meant to be. I read the Pushkin translation by Len Rix.

I normally know what I’m going to write about a book before I start, but this time I’m stumped. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I found it a hard book to get a handle on. Perhaps writing a basic synopsis will help. It opens with newlyweds Mihály and Erzsi honeymooning in Italy. One night, looking for a bar where he can have a glass of wine, Mihály gets lost in the back alleys of Venice and doesn’t find his way back until the following day. This is a sign of things to come: later in their journey he gets off a train to buy a cup of coffee and boards a different train by mistake, ending up in Perugia. Erzsi and Mihály’s separation is bound up with his quest for his lost … not love, exactly, but a ghost of his childhood. A lengthy but engrossing early chapter is devoted to a description of Mihály’s teenage friendship with two theatrical siblings, Tamás and Éva. Tamás is long dead and Éva long vanished, and the appearance in Ravenna of another friend, the weaselly János Szepetneki, awakes in Mihály memories of these halcyon days.

One of the ways I understand books is to establish connections between them and other books and films – presumably there’s a knotty network somewhere in my head with strong and weak bonds between everything I’ve ever seen and read – and at moments reading this book I thought, aha! Death in Venice, or, more often, aha! Don’t Look Now. Italy, the insatiable desire to pursue the unreachable, even at the expense of your personal safety. Le Grand Meaulnes also came to mind, with its themes of nostalgia, of the folly or at any rate the impossibility of recapturing what is inescapably past. Nostalgia is a powerful pull in this book too. But none of them stayed in my mind for long: Journey by Moonlight is very much its own beast.

I wrote – well, I didn’t write it, but I thought it – that the plot is unpredictable. How is it unpredictable, you ask. Well, one thing is that its characters behave in unexpected ways that are nevertheless utterly credible. The touchingly unconventional relationship of Mihály and Erzsi is a case in point. Ninety-eight percent of the time, let’s say, a husband and wife separated accidentally on their honeymoon would make great efforts to be reunited. Here, neither does: Mihály, one of the more passive of men, has cold feet about his marriage already, feet coldened further by his having received a letter from Erzsi’s ex-husband advising him that because she is accustomed to the finer things in life he had better stop being such a cheapskate, and moreover he wants to spend time chasing his past; for her part, the pragmatic Erzsi not only loves Mihály but appears to understand him, and believes that leaving him alone for a while may optimise her chances of getting him back. She goes to Paris to visit her friend Sári.

‘Well of course you must divorce Mihály.’

‘It’s not quite so “of course”.’

‘What, after all he’s done?’

‘Yes. But Mihály isn’t like other people. That’s why I chose him.’

‘And that was a fine move. I really dislike the sort of people who aren’t like other people. It’s true other people are so boring. But so are the ones who aren’t like them.’

Separated, the unexpected (but nevertheless utterly credible) happens: Erzsi learns to embrace thrift, and Mihály has a fling with a dim American art student, Millicent Ingram (‘She knew of Luca della Robbia that it was a city on the Arno, and claimed that she had been with Watteau in his Paris studio’). There’s a freewheeling fun to the Millicent episode, with Mihály apparently liberated for the first time from his staid adult existence, but it doesn’t last, and once more he sets off in search of Éva. This is followed by further adventures with an old acquaintance, Ervin, now become a monk, and a university friend, Waldheim, now a philosopher of death (a marvellous comic creation, a man who eats only cold meat but welcomes Mihály to his house saying he’s ‘arranged for a bit of variety’ and proudly produces a banana). These characters assume a symbolic importance that was generally lost on me, but might be less so on a second reading. I sensed a spirituality to the book that was tantalisingly out of reach.

In the end Mihály’s life is redeemed by several acts of kindness, and he returns to a semblance of normality. The conclusion is beautiful in its way, though sad, a hymn to a small life. Many people whose opinions I respect not only adore this book but acclaim it as one of the great masterpieces of modern fiction. Nicholas Lezard writes that on finishing it he went right back to the beginning and read it again. I almost feel I should do the same: it’s a book that has grown in stature through my contemplation of it.

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The 1947 Club: Doctor Faustus / Thomas Mann

October 14, 2016

Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend was a book I vowed to myself to read at the start of the year, and when the 1947 Club came along and I spotted the publication date of Mann’s book it seemed a pleasingly neat coincidence. I’ve loved Mann since discovering Death in Venice at 14, a book I’ve read more times than probably any other, and given it’s been five years since I was blown away by Buddenbrooks, it was high time to try another. I read the 1997 translation by John E. Woods, then Michael Beddow’s volume on the book in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series.

doktor-faustus

The book, ostensibly a fictional biography of the composer Adrian Leverkühn written by his friend Serenus Zeitblom, is Mann’s reimagining of the Faust myth. Leverkühn, perhaps in a hallucination brought on by syphilis, makes a pact with Satan: he will forfeit his soul in exchange for 24 years of success. Success comes, but at great personal cost. Leverkühn’s story is set against the rise of Fascism in Germany. Beddow:

The relationship between Mann’s novel and the history of Germany is in one sense simple to the point of crudity. Adrian Leverkühn is meant as an allegory of modern Germany.

I’ll get the apologies out of the way at the start: because my own understanding of the book is indeed at the crudest of levels, I will restrict myself to a handful of observations that occurred to me as I read it. This is very much a novel of ideas, and though my musical education enabled me to follow the musical elements (which, as you’d expect, are several), I floundered during the lengthy discussions of philosophy, theology and political theory.

Within the first few pages I was put in mind of a favourite book of mine, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, another fictional biography. Nabokov’s narrator, Charles Kinbote, is an egotist who sees himself represented throughout the work of his subject, the poet John Shade. I was pleased to see Beddow draw the same parallel. Did Nabokov, who detested Mann, intend the Kinbote/Shade relationship to be a travesty of Zeitblom/Leverkühn, he wonders. There are many similarities, and most of Mann’s humour (and he’s not a humourless writer, though next to Nabokov he can seem that way) comes from Zeitblom’s pomposity, enhanced by the occasional hint of passive-aggressiveness. On the subject of names:

Our use of familiar pronouns is rooted in those years, and he must have addressed me by my first name back then too – I can no longer hear it, but it is unthinkable that as a six- or eight-year-old he did not call me Serenus, or simply Seren, just as I called him Adri. It must have been during our early years at school, though the exact moment cannot be determined, when he ceased to grant me that intimacy and, if he addressed me at all, began to use my last name – whereas it would have seemed to me impossibly harsh to reply in like fashion. It was so – though far be it from me for it to appear as if I wished to complain. It simply seemed worth mentioning that I called him Adrian, whereas he, when not evading use of a name entirely, called me Zeitblom.

Mann and Nabokov must both have enjoyed the invention of fictional bodies of work for their creations. Mann also does it with Aschenbach in Death in Venice, devoting several pages of the novella to a description of the writer’s output, establishing his credentials as a man of letters. Zeitblom again:

It was my lot in life to spend many years in intimate proximity with a man of genius, the hero of these pages, to know him from childhood on, to witness his growth, and his fate, and to play a modest supporting role in his work. The libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, Leverkühn’s mischievous youthful composition, comes from me; I was also permitted some influence on the preparation of the texts for both the grotesque opera suite Gesta Romanorum and the oratorio The Revelation of St. John the Divine.

Nabokov goes so far as to present Shade’s poem ‘Pale Fire’ in its entirety as a preface to the analysis/biography. Leverkühn is a composer, and so isn’t accorded this luxury, though Mann describes certain works of his in detail. The violin concerto, untypically romantic, sounded bewitching to me in Zeitblom’s description, like the most beautiful piece ever written, and I wondered if any composer had tried to extrapolate any of the music from the book. Proust’s Vinteuil Sonata too: there are various pieces thought to have inspired it, but has anyone set out to compose the piece in real life? A thought that occurred to me in passing.

Theodor Adorno, scourge of music students throughout the world, advised Mann on the book’s musical content. Some readers equate Leverkühn with Arnold Schoenberg because Mann has Leverkühn invent twelve-tone composition. Schoenberg was a bit put out by this, and Mann was obliged to insert a disclaimer at the end of the book setting the record straight. In fact Leverkühn resembles no single real composer, but in some respects Stravinsky is a closer fit than Schoenberg. Around the time of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), Leverkühn composes a work, Marvels of the Universe, that feels very much its counterpart, and the changeability of his style recalls Stravinsky’s series of chameleon-like self-reinventions.

While Zeitblom’s laughableness is entertaining – the fact that as a student he misses his own lectures to attend Leverkühn’s, so convinced is he that he must observe everything his idol does, already certain that one day he will write this biography; the conviction (like Kinbote’s) that he sees cryptographic messages in the master’s work that no one else does – his political observations make for sober reading, perhaps because his horror of the rise of totalitarianism feels eerily current. There are innumerable passages about art as the antidote to extremism, about the anti-intellectualism of his society, about the ‘anti-humanity’ of the odious iconoclast Chaim Breisacher, misrepresenting Bach and Palestrina as hateful reactionaries who despoiled the glory of monophony, and about the scourge of nationalism, where I felt sharp pangs of recognition as I read. His shame at the moral bankruptcy of his country mirrors what I have sometimes felt about my own in recent months:

Our thick-walled torture chamber, into which Germany was transformed by a vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start, had been burst open, and our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world … is it mere hypochondria to tell oneself that all that is German – even German intellect, German thought, the German word – shares in the disgrace of these revelations and is plunged into profoundest doubt? Is it morbid contrition to ask oneself the question: How can “Germany,” whichever of its forms it may be allowed to take in the future, so much as open its mouth again to speak of mankind’s concerns?

In these passages, where (perhaps) we see ourselves reflected, this is a viscerally terrifying book, more so than any horror story I’ve read. Books don’t usually scare me, but I was glad to get to the end of this one. It’s brilliant, but profoundly unsettling. Part of the scariness, as my fellow blogger the Argumentative Old Git has observed elsewhere, is that Germany has such a rich cultural history. If Germany could turn to barbarism, what hope for the rest of us? Let us pray that we heed the lessons of history.

Back to the allegory: the political life of Germany in the first part of the twentieth century seems to correspond to Leverkühn’s own. He sells his soul and ends up killing the things he loves and descending into madness. But although the two mirror each other, their stories don’t seem inextricably linked, and the comparisons are not exact. Take Leverkühn’s music. Serialism – a democracy of tones in which no single note of the twelve is superior to any other – is a logical extreme, a dead end. There is nowhere beyond it to go, which is not to say that much great serialist music has not been written. With political extremism, when things are pulled down we have no option but to carry on, and good generally emerges from the wreckage. (I suppose I mean the NHS.) What came after serialism? Minimalism, blankness, emptiness? I think I’ll keep Schoenberg, thank you. The more I compare political with musical extremism, the more I see it can’t be done. For the reader of Doctor Faustus to feel tempted to equate twelve-tone music with Nazism is, I think, to misread the book. I just can’t say exactly why.

Literature as consolation

November 22, 2014

When I started the last post but one on this blog I’d meant to write about books.

All literature is consolation.

I believed for a moment that was an original thought of mine — after all, it’s about time — but in fact it’s something said by Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as he makes the point that history is written after the fact. Even if it’s representative of euphoria, by the time it’s written the euphoria is over. By extension you might say it’s written by losers. If they were winners they’d be out there doing it, but they’re not so they’re in here writing about it.

When a couple of months ago a meme reached me on Facebook asking me to name ten books that had ‘stayed’ with me (retch), I listed ten favourite titles off the top of my head, the predictable Middlemarch, which I had just reread, Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice. If I had disregarded the accompanying instruction not to give the formulation of the list too much thought (thought, of course, being the enemy of the list), I might have ended up with something more interesting. What if I’d made a list of the books that had consoled me over the years?

Treehorn

As a little boy, I didn’t have much need of consolation. Mostly, I was happy. Children find comfort in familiarity, hence the bedtime plea to have Owl Babies for the ten thousandth time. There were fictional worlds I certainly did love and feel at home in: A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood; the unobtrusively Jewish milieu of Florence Parry Heide’s three offbeat books about the little boy Treehorn and his friend Moshie, with illustrations by Edward Gorey; the half real, half invented world of The BFG, which mixed places I knew couldn’t exist with places I knew did, though London felt as tantalisingly out of reach as Giant Country.

And yet still I worried about things. I worried about a fire breaking out on the landing in the middle of the night, which would have blocked my path downstairs to safety. I worried too about growing up and having to do National Service. (This was the time of the Gulf War.) If I’d known how to put my fears into words I could have been reassured about the abolition of conscription, but I didn’t, so I suffered in silence. Perhaps this explains my devotion to Peanuts, with its children (and animals) trying to cope with the challenges of a life they aren’t prepared for. I remember particularly Linus having to prepare a Bible reading for the Christmas pageant, something I empathised with. For recitation at school I had to learn

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

I didn’t understand all the words, and I still can’t parse ‘As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky’.

I think I also had a crush on Woodstock.

Woodstock

When I was a teenager I turned to books for some kind of validation of my sexuality. Not that I ever agonised about being other — I always thought it was perfectly natural to feel as I felt — but I wanted to explore authors who might turn out to be kindred spirits. I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice when I was fourteen, which I loved. (Had I seen Visconti’s film first? Possibly.) I think Edmund White may have been next, though the chronology is confused in my mind. White bemoans the fact that Death in Venice was the only ‘gay’ book he had access to. He thought it painted a grim picture of homosexuality, whereas I fell in love with the idea of the contemplation of beauty. Meanwhile, White’s writing pointed to a life of empty promiscuity, which didn’t appeal to me then and still doesn’t. (A neat demonstration of the fundamental difference between me and White: when he read Death in Venice at the same age as I did, he imagined himself as Tadzio, a boy with a power over older men; I automatically identified with Aschenbach, a man in the thrall of beauty, the pursuer but not the pursued. White was an instigator, I a mere observer.) James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was another important book to me at that time, especially the episode early on describing the narrator’s intense affair with another boy. I wish now that my reading had been less earnest. If I’d known about Armistead Maupin or David Sedaris, maybe I’d have had more fun.

Giovanni's Room

When I was fifteen I did a week’s work experience at a local independent bookshop. I suspected my boss of harbouring unpleasant right-wing views — he was a Rotarian and looked like General Pinochet — but at the end of a week of making window displays and drinking repulsive cups of tea made with Coffee-Mate he said I could choose £20 worth of books to take home, a generous gesture. One of the books I chose was Stephen Fry’s memoir Moab is My Washpot, just out in paperback. Ron made some quip about Fry being an ex-offender, but acquiesced to my selection.

More than any other book, Moab broadened the scope of my reading. The books Fry read became the books I read. He turned me on to forgotten men like T.C. Worsley and Angus Stewart and Michael Campbell (whose Lord Dismiss Us became a favourite novel of mine). I graduated much later to Henry de Montherlant. But more vital than the bibliography he provided was the story he told of his own adolescence, which mirrored my own in ways that made me feel I’d found not merely a friend but a confidant, odd though that sounds. I didn’t need to talk to him or write to him, as I knew innately that he understood me. I’m not as devout a Fryphile as I once was, but I will be eternally grateful to him for having written that book.

Nowadays when I turn to books for consolation it is invariably because of some emotional turmoil. My friend the Argumentative Old Git occasionally writes of his resistance to the idea of books as escapism, and I feel similarly, that the best literature is not a refuge from life but an exploration of it, that may help us to understand the world and ourselves more deeply. Nonetheless, when I want to escape something that’s plaguing me there are writers I turn to. Increasingly P.G. Wodehouse is the first I think of. I sometimes wish I knew what the alchemy was that makes his books so magical to me, but I imagine that to understand it would be to dissolve it. There’s something very comforting about reading a writer whose very presence is benevolent. That’s the case with Wodehouse and Maupin and Sedaris, and Anthony Trollope and Alexander McCall Smith and Jan Morris. The pianist and music writer Susan Tomes is another. A digression sideways to end with, the opening of an essay from her latest book, Sleeping in Temples:

A few years ago I became intrigued by the number of people coming up to me after concerts and telling me that listening to the music had helped them to feel better. Sometimes they were quite specific. They mentioned having felt unwell at work, feeling unsure if they ought to go to the concert or just go straight home instead and rest. They said that they took their seats in a pessimistic frame of mind, were drawn in by the music, caught up by the interaction between the musicians, somehow soothed by the effect of the music and gradually realised that the horrible headache had gone, the fatigue had lifted, that they were no longer feeling so down about whatever it was that had been on their minds.

Funny thing, art. Certain government ministers may wish to take note.