Sunday 15 March 2015
Back to Mann (and Britten)
Taking part last week in a Garsington evening event on that enterprising country house opera's forthcoming production of Britten's Death in Venice was the icing on a particularly rich and sometimes bitter Thomas Mann cake I've been digesting over the past month. (Pictured above, Steuart Bedford - conductor of the 1973 premiere and returning to the opera at Garsington - here revisiting his original recording in my treasured Decca box set with one of the Piper designs on the front, and the delightful Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, whom I know of old as one of J's Glyndebourne chorus pals in the early 1990s, holding a copy of the vocal score from which he sang as cover of the role of Aschenbach. From the excerpts he put across so vividly and movingly I want to hear him in the complete role).
Having made a re-reading of Doctor Faustus my big off-duty task of 2014 - and then failing to blog the teeming impressions it left - I thought I'd begin this year with a book I've always seen as the most daunting, the 1500-page Joseph and his Brothers. Returning to Mann's finest novella for the study evening helped me clarify some of the major themes running through the master's work.
Joseph is no chore, at least not the first book and a half of its four, which is as far as I've got so far. Needless to say I hadn't read translator John E Woods' introduction to the Everyman's Library edition* when I embarked, otherwise I might not have begun with 'Prelude: Descent into Hell' (he recommends getting a flavour of Mann's superb narrative skill in 'The Story of Dinah', Part Three of Book One and then reading the rest of that volume before returning to the proper start). It's a bit like ploughing through Tolstoy's disquisitions on the nature of history before beginning War and Peace, yet - steeped as I still was in the philosophical side of Doctor Faustus - I found Mann's thoughts on the recurrence of mythological patterns and aeons of time which may have passed between, say, Abraham and Jacob absorbing as well as beautifully expressed.
For this is supreme myth, its familiar sequence of events interrupted by authorial reflections. The Bible is seen as part of a stream of world mythology in which, for example, the theme of fratricide and brotherly strife is a constantly recurring pattern (Steinbeck knew the same thing in an equal masterpiece, East of Eden). Yet there's nothing dry about the storytelling, which can be humorous and is full of 'period flavour' so vivid that you immediately see these people as living human beings.
There are big set pieces dripping with detail, like the reunion of Jacob and Esau, and there is humour too, for example in the portrait of Joseph as a pretty little snitch. Nor does Mann spare us the horror of his treatment by his furious, jealous brothers or the complex psychology of their behaviour; when it becomes almost unbearable, those objective statements intervene for relief of sorts.
What ties the big, Wagnerian epic - Mann's Ring, taking almost as long to write as the Master of Bayreuth's tetralogy did to compose - to Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus is Joseph's sense of the duality of life - which of course is the (Geminian) author's too (Mann pictured above in 1939). His ambiguity is far too rich simply to lay before us black and white, good and bad. Adrian Leverkühn, the hero (I certainly wouldn't append an 'anti'-') of Doctor Faustus, may or may not have made a pact with the devil: Mann keeps it as tantalising as Henry James in The Turn of the Screw as to whether the voice of the red-bearded one is merely in the composer-protagonist's head or not. But he remains part of humanity even when he most seems outside it.
Integral to this is the misunderstanding I took away from a callow first reading. I assumed that Leverkühn's appropriation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone/dodecaphonic/serial system in all its rigour was a wholescale demonstration of its devilish sterility. But that's only a phase in the fictional composer's bewildering, unpredictable development. Clearly it applies most to his mighty Apocalypse alongside a plethora of quotations for the devil's best tunes, but the Violin Concerto Leverkühn composes for one of his 'victims' is playful, evasive. At a late stage, too, he makes a marvellous plea for the understanding of 'serious-light' music which Prokofiev would have applauded wholeheartedly.
The complexity reaches a high pitch when he discusses with the sometimes blinkered classicist narrator the higher reaches of science, the outer limits of space, which the humanist decries as beyond man's natural realm of compassion and sympathy. Quite apart from all this, I ought to add, is the novel's other side as an increasingly frightening kind of psychological thriller.
On the train back from visiting J's ma in St Leonards-on-Sea yesterday, I laboriously wrote out the passages that I'd pencilled as significant when I read the book. I'll spare you those here, and there will be time enough to return to Joseph once I've finished it. Instead I'll move on swiftly before I get too carried away to Death in Venice (which, of course, is back in time to 1912; the only photo of Mann I could find nearest to that period dates from 1905).
Here I'll take the liberty of quoting part of Mann's letter of 1912 ('1902' in David Luke's introduction to his translation must be a misprint) to Carl Maria Weber in which he refutes Weber's claim of a sort of homophobia in hero Aschenbach's destruction by his pursuit of the 14 year old Tadzio (the real-life counterpart, whom Mann certainly found entrancing but whom he did not, as far as we know, chase all around Venice or follow to his bedroom door, was not yet 11 - another crucial connection with torn Britten's interest in the story at the end of his life). Telling Weber that homosexual experience is very familiar to him, he tries to outline the essential duality.
The artistic reason lies in the difference between the Dionysian spirit of lyric poetry as it individualistically and irresponsibly pours itself out, and the Apolline spirit of epic narrative with its objective commitment and its moral responsibilities to society. What I was trying to achieve was an equilibrium of sensuality and morality, such as I found ideally realized in [Goethe's] Elective Affinities.
Except that, as in the greatest of Britten's operas, there is no equilibrium, only conflict and ambiguity. Mann went on to say that he had been after something along the lines of the 74-year-old Goethe's obsession with 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, but that the proper turn of the screw had been 'a personal lyrical travel experience' in 1911 when he met young Wladyslaw, the future Baron Moes, at the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido ('Adzio' pictured kneeling on the left at that very place and time with 'Polish mama' and siblings. 'Jaschiu', his friend, was a real person, too, and apparently turned up while Visconti was making his film).
So the twist was personal and became realised, in a rather healthier way, when in the late 1920s the 50-odd-year old Mann fell in love with 17-year-old Klaus Heuser - and was requited. There's a curiously touching recollection of that time in a diary entry of 1942 when he remarks:
Well, there it is - I have 'lived and loved'. Dark eyes that shed tears for me, beloved lips that I kissed - it all happened, to me too it was given, I shall be able to tell myself this as I die.
Aschenbach's love remains unconsummated, but his death, in the opera at least, is transcendent in Britten's 'emancipated' A major (the novel gives us the vision of Tadzio as Mercury, messenger of death, only to end drily with the famous last line 'later that same day the world was respectfully shocked to receive the news of his death'). But he's had his vision, and perhaps it is a kind of Liebestod, or Liebesverklarung parallel to Isolde's. I suggested as much last Wednesday to a gentleman in the audience who asked about pessimism in Britten's endings. I don't think there's pessimism here at all. A conflicted life reaches an apotheosis composed only a couple of years before Britten himself died. Again, this photo is only approximate to the last years - a Decca publicity shot of 1968.
No-one could have been closer to Mann in spirit: both were pillars of the community with a puritan streak at odds with their true sensual natures, upon which Britten, at least in respect to his obsession with pre-pubescent boys, never acted (if you seek a nuanced, sympathetic examination of this, read John Bridcut's Britten's Children). Rich pickings for a complex art indeed, which may have revealed to both writer and composer more than they consciously knew themselves. Still, it's perfectly clear why Der Tod in Venedig so appealed to a composer who was soon to die himself.
*No more the H T Lowe-Porter translations, which both Woods and David Luke in his introduction to the Vintage volume of Death in Venice and other stories repudiate. Well, they would, wouldn't they, you might say, but it's clear that her idea of Biblical conversation in Joseph and his Brothers is more antique and less real than Mann's, and there are some shocking omissions/mistranslations in her approach to Aschenbach's dark/light night of the soul.