Chekhov, Thomas Mann, and the longueurs of vacationing.
After a proposal from a rich but ridiculous suitor, Tony Buddenbrook, the high-society heroine of Thomas Mann’s first novel, leaves the German city of Lübeck for Travemünde, a resort town where the Trave River meets the Baltic Sea. “I won’t pay any attention to the social whirl at the spa,” she tells her brother Tom. “I know all that quite well enough already.” Tony stays instead in the modest home of her father’s friend the harbor pilot, whose son, a medical student named Morten Schwarzkopf, is also on vacation. On her first day, he accompanies Tony to the spa, and she invites him to meet the friends she had pledged to avoid. “I don’t think I’d fit in very well,” Morten says. “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones.”
By the end of the summer, Tony and Morten have fallen in love, and “on the stones” is a “fixed phrase” in their relationship, Mann writes, meaning “to be lonely and bored.” I visited Travemünde recently and after a few hours felt rather on the stones myself. The Baltic Sea was impotent at raising waves, and an incontinent gray sky drizzled on the city. The riverside homes along the Front Row, where the harbor pilot lived, are now tourist shops and restaurants filled with old German couples not talking to each other. The other nineteenth-century landmarks of Tony and Morten’s romance haven’t aged much better. The Sea Temple, a waterfront gazebo where they sit so close their hands nearly touch, fell into the Baltic in 1872, drowning with it the records of young lovers who scratched their initials on the walls.
I headed to the beach, where I figured Morten’s stones had resisted the fashions of the time and the tantrums of the sea. Candy-striped benches spread out across the sand, like they did in Mann’s day, but the only boulders I could find were stacked along the piers at the beach’s edges. Using the clues I had gathered from the novel, they seemed unlikely to be the same stones where Morten sat. I had become what Janet Malcolm, exploring Yalta, the setting of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog,” called “a character in a new drama: the absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to ‘an original scene,’ which can only fall short of his expectations.”
I read Malcolm’s essay before I went to Travemünde, because Tony and Morten’s romance reminded me of Chekhov’s story. Published two years before Buddenbrooks, in 1899, “The Lady with the Dog,” describes the holiday affair between Dmitri Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna Von Diderits. Mann was emulating Tolstoy when he wrote Buddenbrooks, a family saga thick enough to stop a bullet, but the Travemünde chapters share more than just a time period and seaside setting with Chekhov’s story. Both century-old works conjure a spirit of summer holiday that any beachgoer would recognize today. They capture the sensation I remember from childhood: a series of slow and boring days that somehow hurtle toward the start of school. And Mann and Chekhov each reveal what makes the time warp of a long vacation so seductive and necessary—the fantasy that the ennui will turn essential, that “on the stones” of ordinary life we might discover a truer way of living.
We tend to think of boredom as barren, but on holiday it becomes fertile. Dmitri and Anna begin their affair with a conversation on this theme. “Time goes fast, and yet it is so dull here!” she tells him. Dmitri is familiar with the complaint. “That’s only the fashion to say it is dull here,” he chides her, but he is not immune to boredom either. With Anna, he hopes for nothing more than “a swift, fleeting love affair.”
In Yalta, Malcolm was bored, too. “On our travels,” she wrote, “rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings.” It is precisely this disengagement, though, that unlocks the possibility of real change. At the start of summer, Dmitri is a callous womanizer who eats a slice of watermelon while Anna cries over her infidelity to her husband. But over the course of the story, he develops a real love for Anna—the first love he has experienced in his life. By the end, when Anna cries, “he felt profound compassion, he wanted to be sincere and tender.” Dmitri never quite understands his transformation, but Chekhov says it blossomed from his boredom. “Complete idleness,” he writes, “made a new man of him.”
Downtime in Travemünde works on Tony and Morten similarly. “I came here to get away, to find some peace,” Tony says. What was intended as a diversion—some time “on the stones” from social life in Lübeck—becomes her center. One rainy day, Tony tells Morten, “We’ll both have to sit on the stones today, either on the porch or in the parlor.” Morten then reveals his own transformation. “You know, when you’re along, they’re not stones at all,” he says.
Morten’s coy flirtation turns inflorescent: to be bored with someone you love is to defeat boredom altogether. The stones have become the foundation of not just a happy life but also a free one. Few would approve of Morten and Tony’s relationship, after all. He is a middle-class medical student in Göttingen who speaks passionately of “freedom,” and she is a wealthy socialite in Lübeck with little political consciousness whatsoever. But the summer holiday liberates them from the expectations of their social class and families. Sitting side by side in the Sea Temple, “Tony suddenly felt herself united with Morten in a great, vague, yearning, intuitive understanding of what ‘freedom’ meant.”
Morten’s life flips inside out. He tells Tony he dreads “the future, perhaps, when as Madame Such-and-such you will vanish for good and all into your elegant world and … it’s off to sit on the stones for the rest of one’s life.” Home is supposed to be where the heart is—“where the riches of experience are distributed,” Malcolm wrote—but for Morten going back to his studies in Göttingen, it has become a life sentence to loneliness.
And yet the routines of regular life—work, family, school—demand our return. Dmitri says good-bye to Anna at the train station, where there “was already a scent of autumn.” He returns to Moscow, expecting that he will soon forget her. But after a month, “his memories glowed more and more vividly.” He contacts her, and she begins to visit him secretly in Moscow. His life has been inverted, too:
He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.
Dmitri knows, at least, to keep his secret. For Tony, a life with Morten is so self-evidently better than a life with her suitor in Lübeck that she declares her love to her father, expecting his approval. Shortly thereafter, her suitor shows up in Travemünde and Morten’s father sends him back to school. “You’ll forget,” Tom tries to comfort her as he takes her home. “But I don’t want to forget!” Tony cries out. “Forget? Is that any comfort?” She has formed, like Dmitri, a kernel of her life: Her memories of Morten would be “a secret treasure that she could enjoy whenever she liked. In the middle of the street, at home with her family, at the dinner table—she would think of them. Who knew?”
In Travemünde, I walked northward off the beach and hit a dirt path along coastal cliffs. The forest trees grew to the very edge, like lemmings on the march, and benches were placed at scenic vistas. I took a seat and watched distant sailboats glide silently across the blue. It was a bench like the one Malcolm found outside of Yalta, where Dmitri and Anna sit and listen to the ocean:
So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection.
Tom Buddenbrook is soothed similarly by the Baltic Sea. “What sort of people prefer the monotony of the sea, do you suppose?” he asks Tony. “It seems to me it’s those who have gazed too long and too deeply into the complexity at the heart of things and so have no choice but to demand one thing from external reality: simplicity.”
In this simplicity—“this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us”—we can live freshly and free from convention, if only for a few warm weeks. This is the promise of a summer holiday, and one does not need to fall in love to reap its reward. Buddenbrooks returns to Travemünde years later, when Tony’s young nephew Hanno visits for a four-week vacation. He spends his vacation like most of us, in “peace and seclusion,” swimming in the ocean, playing in the sand, and exploring the coast. He finds in these simple activities the promise of “a wonderful lazy and coddled life of ease that passed serenely and without a care.” Hanno does not need a romance to be heartbroken by the end of summer, nor does he need a lover to find a “secret treasure” of his own:
He had what he had. When it all came raining down on him, he would remember the sea and the hotel gardens, and just the brief thought of the sound that the little waves made in the still of the evening—coming from far away, from some remote distance wrapped in mysterious slumber to splash against the rampart—would comfort him, put him out of reach of all life’s hardships.
After Hanno returns to Lübeck, Tony is eager to hear about his vacation. She never spoke to Morten after their summer together, and her life has been a hard one. Her first husband, the suitor, was a con man who goes bankrupt; she divorced her second husband after he sexually assaulted their cook. Now middle-aged, Tony “showed the most ready understanding for Hanno’s yearning for the sea.” She tells her nephew to never forget his four weeks in Travemünde. “The true things in life will always be true,” she says. “Until they lower me into my grave, I will always have happy memories.”
Ben Crair is a writer based in Berlin.