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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Outsider art: Three Thomas Mann stories

Read some of the Thomas Mann stories Charles May suggests in his list of great 20th-century stories (just read the ones that I hadn't read before, most of which are in the Vintage Death in Venice edition), the 3 being: Railway Incident, Gladius Dei, and Little Herr Friedmann - the last in the sequence (though the earliest of the stories) being the most significant. Amazingly, TM wrote this story in his early 20s, amazing because it seems like such an autumnal piece: the eponymous Herr Friedman was, so family legend goes, injured in infancy by an alcoholic, neglectful nurse (that account is doubtful; it appears that he has some form of severe scoliosis, and that the family legend blames the nurse rather than the Friedmann family for his disability). HF has always feels like an outsider - has some friends in school but can never participate in sports and suspects there's some pity and condescension in their friendship. He falls in love from a distance at about age 16, then one day spies his beloved in the embrace of a fellow-schoolboy, and from that point on vows to live without love, to make the most of his life and live with his disability. He has a modestly successful business career, and lives out his life with his unmarried older sisters in the family home, and all goes quietly OK until a stranger comes to town, a beautiful married countess - he's entirely smitten, awkwardly presents himself to her, she talks kindly to him, invites him and his sisters to a soiree at her estate where she singles him out, leads him on, until he grasps her hand and falls to her feet, head in her lap, sobbing, confesses his loneliness [ spoilers to come ] and then she cruelly pushes him aside, laughs derisively, and returns to her other guests. Amazingly cruel person. He crawls to the edge of a stream and drowns himself. OK, this story is incredibly sad, written with such insight and delicacy, a true portrait of the life of an outsider. But of course the ending is melodramatic and unsatisfactory - the author pushing his very realistic story toward a conclusion. This story makes a great comparison with the more mature Tonio Kroger - taking them together, you can see how TM identifies with the outsider who can never be part of the joys and celebrations that others experience, but in TK he makes the outsider not a many w/ a physical disability but an artist - and he's not "pushed away" by a sadistic harpy but he sees others enjoying life and one another - I think it ends with him watching old school-day classmates dancing at a beer fest or some social gathering? - and he knows his life has taken a different, and perhaps more difficult course - a far more complex story on a similar theme. Herr Friedmann, though TM may not have known it at the time, is also a story about an outsider artist (and we also have to wonder, looking back from beyond Death in Venice, whether all three stories are also about the struggles and shame of a closeted homosexual).

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