Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Mann

Quote of the Day

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It is only death—that is to say, the opposite of all happenings—which can arrest the flow of time and preserve a character in amber. Life, on the contrary, that is to say a living character in a story, cannot stop as it is, the man must grow older as the story goes on. We ourselves have all got older as we told and listened to this tale; and that is another reason why we should be clear in the matter. I myself confess that I have found it more enjoyable to talk about the charming seventeen-year-old lad or even about the thirty-year-old man than about one hovering round fifty-five. But still we all owe it to life and the process of life to accept and even insist upon the truth.

Thomas Mann, Joseph the Provider

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February 5, 2018 at 7:30 am

My ten great books #3: The Magic Mountain

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The Magic Mountain

Whenever I think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I always begin with the blankets. They’re a pair of lovely camel-hair blankets, “extra long and wide, in a natural beige fabric that was delightfully soft to the touch,” used by the residents of a sanitarium in the Alps while lounging on their balconies for the daily rest cure, which can last for hours. They certainly sound cozy:

Whether it was the texture of the cushions, the perfect slant of the back support, the proper height and width of the armrests, or simply the practical consistency of the neck roll—whatever it was, nothing could possibly have offered more humane benefits for a body at rest than this splendid lounge chair.

If you can relate to the appeal of those blankets—and of their promise of a life spent in blissful inactivity—you can begin to grasp what makes this novel so fascinating, despite its imposing appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, The Magic Mountain may be the least inviting of all major twentieth-century novels: it lacks the snob appeal of Ulysses or Proust, its structure is classical and crystalline, and a plot summary doesn’t exactly make it sound like a page-turner. The first necessary step is a leap of the imagination, a willingness to acknowledge the part of yourself that, like the young Hans Castorp, is drawn to the idea of giving up all advancement, all ambition, all action, for the sake of a life spent in the confines of a comfortable chair. Hans’s reasoning may not be airtight, but it’s hard to deny its power, especially in the decade before the First World War:

On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.

In the end, Hans, a perfectly healthy young man, ends up staying at the sanitarium for seven years. Of course, both he and the reader soon find that this apparent retreat into inactivity is secretly a plunge into something else. Despite its unlikely subject matter, The Magic Mountain vibrates on every page with life, intelligence, and insight. Mann likes to remind us, a bit too insistently, that Hans is “ordinary,” but really, as Harold Bloom points out, he’s immensely likable and curious, and you come to identify with him enormously. The story in which he finds himself has often been called a novel of ideas, and it is, but it’s much more: Mann stuffs it with compelling set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans’s nearly fatal misadventure in the snowstorm, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that would be high points in any novel, and it isn’t hard to see why the book was a massive bestseller in its time. Like Proust, Mann has useful insights into a dazzling variety of subjects, ranging from medicine to music to the nature of time, even as he depicts a world in which these ideas are on the verge of being destroyed. (As Clive James wrote: “The worst you can say about Thomas Mann is that his ego was so big he took even history personally; but at least he knew it was history.”) The characters are rendered with uncanny vividness: when you’re done, you feel as if you’ve passed half a lifetime in their company, and the memory is charged with nostalgia, longing, and regret. It took me a long time to come around to this book, and it sat unread on my shelf for years. When I finally started it for real, it was with a distinct sense of obligation. And what I found, much to my surprise, was that it was the novel for which I’d been searching my entire life.

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Thomas Mann

One of [Thomas Mann’s] many reasons for hating the Third Reich was that it forced him to be a better man than he really was. Left undisturbed, he would have been a monster of conceit. But when thoughtfulness was forced on him, he rose to the occasion…The worst you can say about Thomas Mann is that his ego was so big he took even history personally; but at least he knew it was history.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

Writing in hotel rooms

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Vladimir Nabokov

I got back yesterday from my brother’s wedding in Los Angeles, where I spent four nights with my wife and daughter at the excellent Omni Hotel. Along with a mountain of baby gear, I somewhat optimistically brought a few pages of notes for my novel, thinking that I’d have a chance to do a little work in my spare moments. Not surprisingly, that’s not how it worked out: staying in a hotel with a toddler presents enough of a challenge without trying to write at the same time. (We ended up stashing Beatrix’s travel crib in the bathroom, where she slept happily for most of the trip, much to the relief of her exhausted parents.) I felt a touch of regret at this, since I’ve always enjoyed working in hotels. Most recently, I vividly remember spending much of a trip to Las Vegas in my hotel room at Mandelay Bay, scribbling notes and trying frantically to think of a new title for my third novel, which my publisher had asked me to change. I wasn’t able to come up with much, and it was only while browsing at an airport bookstore on the way home that I finally hit upon the pleasing but relatively meaningless title Eternal Empire—although I still prefer The Scythian.

Writers, of course, have frequently used hotel rooms as places of work. Nabokov spent much of his itinerant life—and his summertime pursuit of butterflies—moving from one hotel to the next, spending his last fifteen years at the Montreux Palace in Switzerland. One particular stay, at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, evidently served as a catalyst for the plot of Lolita, in which a pivotal scene takes place at a hotel called the Enchanted Hunters. (Thomas Mann, a writer for whom Nabokov had little respect, derived similar inspiration from his own hotel visits.) Maya Angelou rented a hotel room by the month in her hometown, where she worked every morning, lying across the bed, the sheets of which she insisted remain unchanged for the duration of her stay. Describing her routine to The Paris Review, Angelou gets close to the heart of why hotels are so conducive to certain kinds of creative thought:

I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.

Maya Angelou

There’s a sense in which a hotel room occupies a unique place in the spectrum of the writer’s routine. Many authors can’t write away from a particular room or desk, to the point where some construct special writing shacks. Others prefer a particular lunch counter or restaurant, like The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, who had his favorite booth installed in his house after the coffee shop went out of business. And a select few take pride in being able to work anywhere. A hotel room represents a kind of compromise between these extremes. All hotel rooms are essentially the same, while remaining subtly different, so they provide a neutral setting for undistracted work while avoiding the boredom or monotony of the same unchanging space. Even now, when few of us write letters on hotel stationery, a writing desk and chair are still among the few standard furnishings of even the most modest of motel rooms. We may not get a chance to use the desk—I don’t think I even sat down at mine at the Omni for the four nights I spent there—but without it, the room would seem subliminally incomplete.

And there’s something fictive about a hotel room, which exists, like a short story, as a sort of simulacrum of real life. Nobody’s real house can or should look like this, although there are certainly people who spend much of their lives shaping their surroundings in imitation of what they’ve seen in hotels, from the towels to the robes to the sheets, just as many of us end up deriving our ideas about life from the books or movies we’ve experienced. Nabokov hints at this in a letter to Katharine and E.B. White, with a wonderful play on words that seems unintentional, although with Nabokov you never know: “I have no illusions about hotels in this hemisphere; they are for conventions, not for the individual.” By “conventions,” Nabokov means the gatherings of the “thousand tight salesmen” who descend on Lolita at the halfway point of the novel, but I’d prefer to focus on its alternate meaning. A hotel life is a conventional life, built up from a stranger’s idea of comfort or convenience, a vacant stage that we fill with our presences for a night or two. It’s a blank page. So it’s no surprise that those two areas of emptiness—and possibility—go together so well.

Written by nevalalee

September 3, 2014 at 10:12 am

My ten great books #3: The Magic Mountain

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The Magic Mountain

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

Whenever I think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I always begin with the blankets. They’re a pair of lovely camel-hair blankets, “extra long and wide, in a natural beige fabric that was delightfully soft to the touch,” and they’re used by the residents of a sanitarium in the Alps while lounging on their balconies for their daily rest cure, which can last for hours. They certainly sound cozy:

Whether it was the texture of the cushions, the perfect slant of the back support, the proper height and width of the armrests, or simply the practical consistency of the neck roll—whatever it was, nothing could possibly have offered more humane benefits for a body at rest than this splendid lounge chair.

If you can understand the appeal of those blankets—and of their promise of a life spent in glorious inactivity—you can begin to grasp what makes this novel so fascinating, despite its daunting appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, The Magic Mountain may be the least inviting of all major twentieth-century novels: it lacks the snob appeal of Ulysses or Proust, its structure is classical and crystalline, and a plot summary doesn’t exactly make it sound like a page-turner. The first necessary step is a leap of the imagination, a willingness to acknowledge the part of yourself that, like the young Hans Castorp, is drawn to the idea of giving up all ambition, all advancement, all action, for the sake of a life spent in the confines of a comfortable chair. Hans Castorp’s reasoning may not be airtight, but it’s hard to deny its power: “On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.”

In the end, Hans, a perfectly healthy young man, ends up staying at the sanitarium for seven years. Of course, what he and the reader soon discover is that this retreat into inactivity is secretly a plunge into something else. Despite its unlikely subject matter, The Magic Mountain vibrates on every page with life, intelligence, and insight. Mann likes to remind us, a bit too insistently, that Hans is “ordinary,” but really, as Harold Bloom points out, he’s immensely likable and curious, and you come to identify with him enormously. The story in which he finds himself has often been called a novel of ideas, and it is, but it’s much more: Mann stuffs it with compelling set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans’s nearly fatal misadventure in the snowstorm, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that would be high points in any novel, and it isn’t hard to see why the book was a huge bestseller in its time. Like Proust, Mann has useful insights into a dazzling variety of subjects, ranging from medicine to music to the nature of time, even as he depicts a world in which these ideas are on the verge of being destroyed. The characters are rendered with uncanny vividness, and when you’re done, you feel as if you’ve passed half a lifetime in their company, and the memory is charged with nostalgia, longing, and regret. It took me a long time to come around to this book, and it sat unread on my shelf for years. When I finally started it for real, it was with a distinct sense of obligation. And what I found, much to my surprise, was that it was the novel I’d been looking for my entire life.

Written by nevalalee

September 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 16, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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“When Maddy emerged from the train at Southampton…”

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(Note: This post is the eighteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 17. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of my favorite works on creativity of any kind is a short essay titled “Fantasy and Faculty X,” by the British author Colin Wilson, which I first encountered in the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, edited by J.N. Williamson. Wilson believes that because the left and right hemispheres of the brain operate at different speeds, it’s necessary for both readers and writers to bring the two halves into sync, usually by slowing the left brain down, in order to fully immerse themselves in a fictional world. With respect to the writing process, this partially explains why writers often get their best ideas in the bus, bath, or bed, when a state of relaxation naturally allows both hemispheres to move at the same pace. And for readers, it sheds light on why a long, slow, descriptive section of a novel can plunge us into its world far better than nonstop action ever can—as long as we’re willing to follow the story wherever it’s trying to go.

This is why authors like Proust or Thomas Mann can immerse us in the details of a party or other social gathering, sometimes for a hundred pages, and leave us feeling as if we’d attended it ourselves. And it also applies to more mainstream works of art. For readers and audiences to really believe in the world they’re about to enter, it’s often useful to slow things down, which is why the languorous shots of spacecraft in movies like 2001 and the early Star Trek movies are so crucial in setting the tone for the story. (As much as I liked the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, I felt it was missing some of this fundamental sense of awe, which it might have achieved if it had eased up on the action for a moment or two.) And this is part of the reason why both Thomas Harris and Jonathan Demme spend so much time on those long walks down the hallway to Hannibal Lecter’s cell. It builds suspense, but it also puts us squarely into a particular state of mind before introducing us to the monster at the end of the corridor.

In a thriller, such a change of pace can be tricky to manage, which is why it’s often best to save it for times when the reader knows that something big is coming. This is why Chapter 17 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy finally attends the party at the Hamptons that has been built up for much of Part I, is structured entirely as one long scene of arrival. If I were operating entirely by the principle of starting each scene as late as possible, I could have begun the chapter at the gate of the mansion, or even halfway through the party itself. In this case, however, it seemed better to take my time: I’ve spent several chapters leading up to this moment, establishing that this is where the various threads of the plot will finally converge, and if I’ve done my work properly, the reader will see this chapter as not just another transitional scene, but the overture to arguably the most important set piece in the entire novel. And having invested so much time and energy in preparing the reader for what follows, it doesn’t make sense to hurry past it.

This is why the chapter begins, not at the mansion itself, but with Maddy’s arrival at the train station in Southampton, and why I devote several pages to her preparations for the party, all of which I might have covered elsewhere in a paragraph or two. It helps that the details here are a lot of fun: the contrast between the sketchy share house, in which Maddy has arranged to sleep in a walk-in closet, and the opulence of the party itself, and between her own insecurity and the guests she encounters. In fact, this is one of the rare sections in the novel in which both my agent and editor actively encouraged me to add more detail, both visual and sociological, until the reader fully saw it in his or her mind’s eye. (In an earlier draft, Maddy overhears a guest say, enunciating carefully, “Fuck the endangered piping plover“—which my editor rightly flagged as being a little too on the nose.) As a result, when Maddy finally passes through the ranks of guests and comes face to face with the man she has come to find, the oligarch Anzor Archvadze, the moment has the impact it deserves. And I hope the reader also senses that there are some big things around the corner…

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