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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Mann’

That Old Goat!

September 30, 2015 | by

Robert Walser’s scrupulous art of translation.

Robert Walser

Today is International Translation Day, an occasion of particular piety among the few who observe it. Translation, that glorious service to culture and human understanding!

There are failures, too, though. Some are of the sort that plague most any endeavor in this vale of tears: inadequacy, incompetence, ineptitude. A New Yorker cartoon, beloved in translator circles, shows someone approaching a horror-stricken writer and saying, “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the book of you?” Read More »

The “Romance” of Travel

August 25, 2015 | by

Joseph Roth’s hotel years.

The Grand Hotel des Bains, where Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice.

“I am a hotel citizen,” Joseph Roth declared in one of the newspaper dispatches anthologized in The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars, “a hotel patriot.” It’s easy to see why: Red Joseph was nothing if not a cosmopolitan humanist, and the hotel was his natural habitat. “The guests come from all over the world,” he explains:

Continents and seas, islands, peninsulas and ships, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists are all represented in this hotel. The cashier adds, subtracts, counts and cheats in many languages, and changes every currency. Freed from the constriction of patriotism, from the blinkers of national feeling, slightly on holiday from the rigidity of love of land, people seem to come together here and at least appear to be what they should always be: children of the world.

 Read More »

Reader’s Block

August 22, 2013 | by


For a year and a half I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s sauntering, elegant translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain at the rate of about one paragraph a day. For months I envisioned Hans Castorp lighting up his Maria Mancinis or gazing at Frau Chauchat’s creamy white arm curving along the back of a dinner chair. The sentences were amplified with a key transitive verb or with a subtle detail of winter in Davos and then slowly unfurled. Inevitably, several sentences in, I would put the book down and polish some sentences of my own. This happened nightly. I made it through three-quarters of the book, to the point just after (spoiler alert) Joachim dies, and I cried again, just as I had a decade earlier when I first read the entire novel.

During the day, I’d go to the writers’ space I belonged to in Brooklyn, a gloomy place filled with dark cubicles, and write all day. Never once did I flip open a book. That was for nighttime reading and always Thomas Mann. He, or rather Lowe-Porter, had the right tone for the book I was writing.

Nearly two years later, dozens of books lie scattered on the floor beneath my bookshelves. Some are piled on top. These are the books I mean to read. Many I ordered in one fell swoop from Open Letter Books. Others are offbeat wonders from the NYRB Classics. A handful are poetry books that I’ve read and re-read for decades. But you don’t read poems as much as you hear them in your head. They go on and on, with no end and no beginning, as T. S. Eliot might have said. But you can, of course, read fiction. My neglected authors are an eclectic mix: César Aira, Willa Cather, Roberto Bolaño, Tanizaki, Sholem Aleichem, Thirty Umrigar, Mercè Rodoreda, Jean Genet, Natalie Sarraute, Jennifer Egan, Tessa Hadley, Christina Stead, Don DeLillo, and a dozen or so books by friends, which I promised I’d get to “immediately.” I envy my multi-tasking friends who read voraciously while they write.

It started to worry me a little. I picked up books I knew I loved—like The Magic Mountain or The Master and Margarita—and put them down again after lingering over select pages. I made it part of the way through infuriatingly opaque books, including Gombrowicz’s Cosmos and emotionally compelling ones, such as Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, a beautifully composed and moving book told in the alternating voices of a 100-year-old woman and her therapist in the asylum where she lived out most of her adult life. It takes place in Sligo, a word that makes me swoon. Sligo County in Ireland is the setting for W. B. Yeats’ famous poem, “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” where he hoped to put his clay- and wattles-made cabin “and live alone in the bee loud glade.” Still, I put the book down. Read More »



June 6, 2013 | by


“In books we never find anything but ourselves. Strangely enough, that always gives us great pleasure, and we say the author is a genius.” ―Thomas Mann



Natural History: Adalbert Stifter

May 20, 2013 | by

Statute of Stifter, Linz.

Statute of Stifter, Linz.

My literary hero, Adalbert Stifter, was introduced to me by a professor of German studies during my sophomore year at Binghamton University. At the time, I lived alone in a studio apartment on the west side of Binghamton, a small city in upstate New York crippled by its loss of the computer and defense industries. The low standard of living and high crime rate, palpable even in the city’s nicer parts, are all the more jarring for the beautiful view of the Catskill Mountains that graces the area. At the end of the school year, the cold lifts, the rains stop, and the weather turns mild. The air, normally raw and wet, is balmy, and thick with the smell of pine.

In an e-mail, I expressed particular curiosity about the desiccated natural landscapes in Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and my professor suggested that I read Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian author who, despite the endorsements of Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald, is remembered as a hokey sentimentalist, interested mostly in mountains and flowers.. The stories, novellas, and novels for which Stifter is known were written at the height of the Biedermeier period, a time of bourgeois reaction after the catastrophic, continent-wide destruction unleashed by the Napoleonic Wars. Beidermeier culture was fond of middle-class comfort, of painted plates, copper prints, simple furniture, and little knickknacks. Rather than challenge the political repression of post-Metternich Europe and take stock of the hopes for equality and immediacy in human relations shattered by the failed revolutions of 1848–49, the German-speaking world of Stifter’s time withdrew into the home, the family, and from there, into a world of fantasy.

Desperate for my professor’s guidance and approval, I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Read More »


Dear Paris Review, Where Do I Publish?

July 20, 2012 | by

Dear Editors:

Have made writing full time. Have novel and short essays. Attended NYU’s Summer Writer program last year. Would you have a good list of places for submissions beyond The Paris Review, The New Yorker and The New York Times? Thank you for reaching out via Twitter and offering some of us (hopefully lovable) newbies some guidance.

Dear Newbie,

We get asked this a lot. It’s a reasonable question, but it always makes our hearts sink.

Here’s the thing: no matter how many classes you take, no matter how much time you spend at the keyboard, you cannot write seriously unless you read. And that means, partly, reading your contemporaries. Their problems are your problems; you can’t write—that is, you can’t write for serious readers—until you know what the problems are. Read More »