Samstag, 23. Februar 2013

Tristan by Thomas Mann

Tristan was an assigned read for my German literature class and a merciful attempt of my teacher to familiarise us students with Thomas Mann without expecting us to read his most famous and dreadfully long book, The Magic Mountain.
It is a novella which already introduces most of the themes that appear in Mann's later works, most prominently the conflict between life and death and in consequence between reality and art.
While I don't usually enjoy the texts I have to read for that class I was surprised how interesting  I found this short work: it is challenging mostly due to Mann's naturalistic style. While very descriptive, his style is strangely detached and so neutral that it makes you almost forget the author behind the narration.

Set in a sanatorium and following the model of Tristan and Iseult, the story explores the growing relationship between Mrs von Klöterjahn, the moribund wife of a wealthy and lively merchant and the writer and fanatical aesthete Mr Spinell. Their love is never consummated and serves only as the framework for a comparative study of the artistic and the bourgeois mind; one of them orientated towards the ideal of beauty in death, the other towards the less noble but more human idea of living a fulfilled life.

What makes this work truly fascinating is the way in which Mann deals with the artistic quest for beauty: Mr Spinell is the exaggerated personification of an idea we have all come across countless times in literature and the arts; the idea that a beautiful, a poetic death at the right time is preferable to a long, ordinary life full of vulgar imperfections. He destests reality because of its uncouthness and loves only beautiful ideas, such as the shadow of Mrs Klöterjahn as a young woman who is too fragile and special for life and therefore consecrated to death. To his mind her death is the only truly beautiful solution because the continuation of her life would only make her common; a fat, wrinkled housewife and mother.

This mindset is (subconsciously) all too common in every type of art, be it poetry or cinematics, but Thomas Mann is the first writer I have ever read to openly address it. I cannot say if he personnally criticises this romanticised death-wish or simply wants to bring attention to it; his style is non-judgmental and at the end of his narration Mr Spinell as an example of the morbid artist and Mr von Klöterjahn as an image of the fun-loving but crude burgher are equally dislikable.
The struggle between a sublime death and an ordinary, but long and happy life is an idea that is as old as the art of storytelling itself, with examples ranging from the Arthurian legend to, for instance, Wuthering Heights and after my first encounter with Thomas Mann one that will probably occupy me for a little while to come.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen