Mann, the Magician

by Abiola Lapite | 2/27/97 6:00am

It has recently been my opportunity to have undergone a truly sublime experience, an experience so fateful in its implications and so richly productive that I feel myself duty bound to communicate, or at least try to communicate, something of the flavor of this experience to my fellow students; I encountered the genius of Thomas Mann's fiction.

I imagine that there are a good many individuals out there, not all of whom are irredeemable bottom-feeders, who might be a bit nonplused as to why they should find my enthusiasm for Thomas Mann's writing of any relevance to themselves. I can only say by way of reply that it is not my purpose here to make a convincing case for the many richly rewarding moments that await those who are of fine enough material to seek out his books and read them. No, Mann's creations make a good enough case for themselves. My purpose is simply to serve as a guide, a signpost if you will, to the accomplishments of an author whom the Encyclopedia Britannica deemed worthy of the appellation "the greatest German novelist of the 20th century," yet whom it seems precious few people from any station in American life bother to read today (unless of course his works are assigned reading for a class ...)

I will admit that it was not too long ago in the past that I realized my inexcusable ignorance of Mann's accomplishments, a state of ignorance I am even now struggling to amend. I have read "The Confessions of Felix Krull" and "Doctor Faustus," and am at present making my way through "The Magic Mountain," but that is about as much of Mann's work as I have so far managed to read. That with this little familiarity with his oeuvre I should feel enthused enough to write a column preaching his greatness says something for the tremendous impact the above mentioned novels have had on me.

To say that Thomas Mann is a master stylist would be an understatement. I believe that there is no writer in the history of the novel who displays an equal facility with irony; here is a man who can make you feel the hopelessness of life and have you almost splitting your sides with laughter in the course of a single story. In Mann, one has an author who is able to present the most complicated and abstruse ideas in such a fashion that the reader neither feels overwhelmed nor condescended to. His prose is, to use a fashionable phrase, "tight." There is no superfluity, no feeling that the author is rambling or striving for bombast. This is not to say that Mann's is a blunt, uncommunicative style -- far from it! He is challenging in places, but his is a challenge for the reader to stretch his mental horizons, the best and sweetest kind of challenge there is.

If it were merely a matter of style, I would not hold Mann in the esteem that I do, for style, while important, cannot be everything. There is another aspect to Mann's writing that makes him stand out from the rest of the pack, and that is a quality which I can only describe as intellectual courage. For Mann has the courage to deal with themes and concepts in his novels which are above the commonplace, themes of great difficulty and generality. Nor does he merely touch upon these themes only to cowardly back away from their implications into a safe conventionality. No, Mann handles them head on, explores them, giving a hearing to the ambiguous quality of truth in the real world. He is no pious moralizer, a la Dickens; if one were to place Mann in the literary firmament, one would call him a follower in the great tradition established by Dostoyevsky and expanded upon by Joseph Conrad, for these are all writers who refuse to shy away from the contradictory nature of man and his relations with the external world.

I will admit that there is a further aspect to my admiration for Thomas Mann, an aspect which is likely to be most contentious to some of those who are reading this column. I admire Thomas Mann's writings tremendously for the values that pervade them, by which I mean their humanism, their respect for the accomplishments of reason, their high regard for learning and curiosity. Mann recognizes the importance of an independent and searching attitude, and that men cannot separate the worlds of learning and action, but must work to engage the two. In all this, as well as his cosmopolitanism and his penchant for philosophic speculation, Mann is the very embodiment of all the values which certain sections of our community make no secret of loathing.

To those unfortunate people I have nothing to say, but to those among you who have listened with a receptive ear to all that I have said, I advise that you proceed with the greatest possible haste to acquaint yourselves with the works of Mann, for it is no less than your duty to do so.

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