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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Mann’

My Autobibliography

June 10, 2016 | by

Building a library in Saint Lucia.


This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today, meet Matthew St. Ville Hunte. 

The first book I consciously acquired for what became my library was V.S. Naipaul’s The Writer and the World. I purchased it at a Nigel R. Khan Bookstore in the departure lounge of Trinidad’s Piarco Airport. This was 2004; I was flying home to Saint Lucia after I spent a summer working for an Afrocentric radical while finishing my junior year in college. At the time, I was drifting into a literary life, thanks mainly to the lack of a serious commitment to anything else. I set myself a program: I would read not just for pleasure or to acquaint myself with the best of what had come before me but to find out where I could fit in as a writer. Naipaul—jaded, deracinated, and irredeemably West Indian—seemed like a natural model. Read More »

Tell Me How You Really Feel, Bro

June 6, 2016 | by

Thomas Mann, right, with his brother Heinrich.

In December 1903, Thomas Mann wrote his older brother, Heinrich, a long letter reviewing the latter’s novel—with brutal candor. Some of the most scathing bits are below. The complete missive is in The Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900–1949.

My impressions? They are not exactly very pleasant—which impressions, indeed, don’t absolutely need to be. It didn’t exactly make agreeable reading—which, indeed, however, is absolutely not necessary either. I struggled back and forth with the book, threw it aside, took it up again, groaned, complained, and then got tears in my eyes again … For days, in the lowest barometric pressure in a hundred years (according to the meteorologist), I went about in the agony your book caused in me. Now I know approximately what I have to say to you.

That I am not in agreement with your literary development—that must finally be said … When I think back ten, eight, five years! How do you appear to me? How were you? A refined connoisseur—next to whom I seemed to myself eternally plebeian, barbaric, and buffoonish—full of discretion and culture, full of reserve toward “modernity” and historically as talented as could be, free of all need for applause, a delicate and proud persaaonlity for whose literary endeavors there would quite probably be a select and receptive public … And now, instead of that? Instead, now these strained jokes, these vulgar, shrill, hectic, unnatural calumnies of the truth and humanity, these disgraceful grimaces and somersaults, the desperate attacks on the reader’s interest! … I read them and I don’t know you anymore. The psychological constant of the work, the desire of weak artificiality for life, this desire that would gladly masquerade as amorous desire within the lonely and sensuous artist—how is it supposed to move, to work convincingly when not even an attempt is being made to come close to life, to observe and capture even the air of the inner impulse of this simple madcap? Everything is distorted, screaming, exaggerated, “bellows,” “buffo,” romantic in the bad sense … Read More »

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