I have just finished reading the bio-novel about Thomas Mann by Colm Toibin. The Magician delves into Mann’s repressed homosexuality and, as I see it, Toibin views everything Mann wrote through this lens. As much as I enjoyed reviewing Mann’s life again, after a while I found the constant homoerotic perspective irritating.
One positive aspect for me in reading this book is it has reignited my interest in Mann’s works. I am starting the process of revisiting his writings. I say “revisiting”, but if it weren’t for my markings in the ancient and frail copies of Tonio Kröger and Der Tod in Venedig, I would have said I had never read them before. Buddenbrooks is next on my list.
My first interest in the author dates way back to college when I read Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) as an independent study – in German, of course – and wrote a paper on it, although I barely understood it. I’m pretty sure my tutor hadn’t read it either, so I was able to get away with it. Now, after living in Germany for around forty-five years, my German is infinitely better, and I not only understand the language, Mann’s ironic voice shines through.
Buddenbrooks was Mann’s first novel and an immediate success. He writes about his hometown, Lübeck, and the decline and fall of the eponymous family. It was indeed autobiographic, and as widespread as his fame for this work was, the people of Lübeck hated him for it. But it catapulted him to stardom in 1901 at the tender age of twenty-six.
Thomas Mann’s use of irony goes a long way to explain why his writing is so attractive. In fact, this post was going to be about that very literary device. But when I started investigating its definition, I found that it’s not that easy to pin down. Just looking it up on Wikipedia is dizzying. For example:
Henry Watson Fowler, in The King’s English, says, “any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” Also, Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, writes that “Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant.”
The use of irony may require the concept of a double audience. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage says:
Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders’ incomprehension.
Got that? In Tonio Kröger from 1903, a young writer goes on about what it means to be an artist, how you are set apart, exotic; part of him yearns to be normal, ordinary – “blue-eyed and blonde-haired”.
In Death in Venice, written in 1913 when he was thirty years old, his protagonist is a fifty-something magisterial author who is also struggling with his greatness. It’s just too much to bear. For the first twenty pages, Gustav von Aschenbach shares with the reader the trials and tribulations of his greatness. I am certain these novellas were written by a man with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek and a twinkle in his eye, a man who was well aware of his powers and happy to send himself up. Self-irony then. His six children called him the magician, for he performed magic tricks for them when they were young. I’d say his use of irony is another magic trick he performed flawlessly.
And thus, we humble apprentices can learn from the great man. Self-irony may be a good place to start.