Friday, September 2, 2016
Many burdens: Learning from even a bad novel
Klaus Mann's intelligent, significant, but in the end (well, I probably won't get to the end) bad novel, Mephisto, is still worth reading if for no other reason than to see what makes a potentially good novel so bad. The novel is significant and still of some interest because it's an inside look at the culture of Nazi Germany and it's also an inside look at the Mann family, about which we're interested primarily, maybe solely, because of the great works (and the complex mind) of Klaus's father, Thomas. Klaus gives it a go, but despite rich subject opportunities this novel falls dead flat because none of the characters "comes alive" - meaning, we have no sense of their interior life, their way of thinking about themselves and others. They are just a bunch of words driven by the necessities of plot. Potentially: awesome - an aspiring actor in1920s Germany sells his soul; in order to succeed in the world of stage drama, he becomes a Nazi collaborator and ultimately a friend of Goring. Even better, he marries Thomas Mann's daughter (the author's sister), and the names have been changed apparently not much else changed - leading to a massive lawsuit against Klaus, apparently. But why can't he develop these characters through action, through dialog, and through access to their consciousness? Few novels are better exemplars of the dictum show, don't tell: K Mann spends an entire chapter recounting the early career of actor - Hendrik Hofgen - how he came to a regional theater and dazzled with his wide range of performance, how he was troubled and moody and subject to fits of rage, how he was torn between his violent love affair with a black prostitute and the sudden new love for K Mann's sister (real name, Erika) - but none of this is "shown," it's all just told - as if this were a 300-page outline for a novel. K Mann would have been better off writing a memoir, or a family autobiography (as did T Mann, btw) - but perhaps K Mann just didn't have it in him, just didn't have the talent - either to invent or to confess. Sad - being the son of a Nobelist isn't life's heaviest burden, but it's probably enough to crush a budding novelist - and he had many other burdens to carry in his short, sad life as well. I feel for him, but won't finish reading him, either.