Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
It is late May/early June in Charleston and the Spoleto Festival is in full swing. The Festival hosts two weeks of opera, dance, a garden tour, theater, puppetry, physical theater, music, and artist talks capped with a Finale at the historic Middleton Place. This year the Galway theater company Druid has taken over the Dock Street Theater for the presentation of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature and was the subject of a previous Booklover column. But it is of note, in my quest to read one piece of work by every author to have won the Nobel Literature Prize, that this was a unique opportunity to experience an author’s work presented in a format other than words on a page. A simple stage with a tree and a rock, five characters and a play about nothing — it was funny and riveting. Now it is time to read a work by another author.
Thomas Mann was presented the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature “principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks, which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature.” It is unusual for the committee to reference a single work instead of the author’s body of work. I have chosen instead to read a short story entitled Little Lizzy. It begins: “There are marriages which the imagination, even the most practiced literary one, cannot conceive. You must just accept them, as you do in the theater when you see the ancient and doddering married to the beautiful and gay, as the given premises on which the farce is mechanically built up.”
This story unfolds about a couple in such a marriage. The charming, lovely and young wife, known as Amra has decided to organize a large party with entertainment. She has convinced her husband, “a perfect colossus of a man,” to be the climax of this entertainment event. “Christian (the husband’s name), suppose you come on at the end as a chanteuse, in a red satin baby frock, and do a dance.” Amra continues with her declaration that in addition to the dance he will perform a song. A song that Herr Alfred Läutner, her lover, will compose and provide the piano accompaniment.
“In a choked and gasping voice he sang, to the accompaniment of the piano. The lamentable figure exhaled more than ever a cold breath of anguish. It killed every light-hearted enjoyment and lay like an oppressive weight upon the assembled audience. Horror was in the depths of all these spellbound eyes, gazing at this pair at the piano and at that husband there. The monstrous, unspeakable scandal lasted five long minutes.”
Thomas Mann was born in Germany in 1875. Writing was in his genes. His older brother was the author Heinrich Mann and three of his children became prominent German writers. He was initially designated to run his father’s grain company. His father died when he was a young man and the company was liquidated releasing Mann from the business legacy.
In addition to his exploration of nineteenth century German society that culminated in his novel Buddenbrooks, his literary career also included works like Little Lizzy where Mann tried to understand the psychology of “pathetic, frustrated, and often freakish persons who lack the ability to cope with life.” In addition, the impact of World War I on Germany and the spirit of the German people had a profound impact on Mann and his creative process. He wrote: “Although the war did not make any immediate demands on me physically, while it lasted it put a complete stop to my artistic activity because it forced me into an agonizing reappraisal of my fundamental assumptions, a human and intellectual self-inquiry that found its condensation in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of an Unpolitical Man], published in 1918. Its subject is the personally accented problem of being German, the political problem, treated in the spirit of a polemical conservatism that underwent many revisions as life went on.”