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Kenneth S. Cargill (Tucson, Arizona United States)

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Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art. A Biography
Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art. A Biography
by Hermann Kurzke
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 39.94
13 used & new from CDN$ 19.45

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dissensio?, June 12 2003
I must beg to differ with my colleague in academia.
If it is sophomoric to assume that an author's life is completely mirrored in his novels, than it is the greater fool's error to believe that there is such a thing as an objective biography -- compiled from some sort of secret correspondence, some sort of puzzle contained in the actions of author's life, which will englighten a literary work further.
Kurzke respects a profound idea in his work: Mann wished to remembered by his fiction, and those letters which amplify his career.
Frankly, Thomas Mann is a figure in world literature who respected the idea of leaving for posterity exactly what he wished to said about him. Apparently, this is insufficient to repeat. It seems better to do what Joseph Frank did with his five volume Dostoevsky biography (everyone applauds this biography) -- to pour over the notes and sketches of rough drafts, as well as his surly day-to-day complaints about neighbors and his hemorrhoids. Frank admonishes Anna Dostoevskaya for trying to etch out and destroy parts of the notebooks that she did not wish to be public. Mann obviously succeeded in protecting himself from vulture professors and writers who would years down the road be searching for material to publish to advance their curriculum vitae.
As Settembrini might have said, a fixation on the concrete banal and prosaic facts about an author's life is an (intellectual) disease typical of the century just past. Kurzke's attitude and approach share nothing of this.

The Magic Mountain
The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.61
42 used & new from CDN$ 2.26

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Railing Against Science, July 22 2002
This review is from: The Magic Mountain (Paperback)
Thomas Mann is at the quintessence of twentieth century thought in The Magic Mountain. Those of you who have read Proust might find the book's central thesis similar: (And indeed, the book does have a theme, as much it rambles and tries to confuse you) the subjectivity and illusory reality of Time. From there Mann is a thinker unto himself for he makes sure that you take that statement through all its corollaries. You can't measure the passing of time objectively, and if you had lost your senses (or perhaps you are seriously ill) you will have soon lost grip of its passing; before you've gone to tea again, dinner, and to your second rest cure, you're in your death throes. On the "Magic" Mountain, what's to separate the three weeks that Hans, our main character, initially intends to stay from the seven years it does take him to "be cured," when each day is characterized by monotonous routine?

OK, I'll admit it, this book is not for philistines looking for entertainment, as more than one reviewer has found out. This is cold, hard metaphysics, at times strikingly expressed. The book tempts you to think death is nothing if not constantly occurring, and time nothing other than a "flat-land" device for slowing down that omnipresent decomposition and oxidation of your body, "the natural burning off of life."

Yes, reader, science is at work in this novel. And if I were to flesh out the thesis further, the grotesque and often painful imagery of the sanatorium is Mann's great argument against what science -- medicine -- or further, the industrial revolution -- has given old, antedeluvian society. New ideas work like a disease, no less .. a terminal, horrible dehumanization that makes you doubt all measures in life -- allowing the blinkered Western Civ nothing left but the absolute nihilism.

Beyond the ideas, there is art in Mann's very prolix creation. Unlike other disjointed novels that delve into a character's subconscious, Mann manages to weave it all together. Cliches, slips of the tongue, and dreams hide and obscure fuller, interconnected emotions and strivings that are expressed directly only at brief, lucid moments in the prose -- an original and ingenious device. For example, at the beginning of the book the reader can make no sense of Hans' dreaming and fantasizing about his schoolboy crush for another boy name Hippe -- whose only direct contact he had was that he borrowed a pencil from him. Hans connects this image and episode with his current infatuation for terminally ill guest Clavdia Chauchat. For two hundred pages this point is drawn upon from various angles until finally Mann concocts an occasion where Hans asks Clavdia for a pencil .. and the dialogue, gestures, and body language mirror exactly that long ago encounter with Hippe. It strikes you and comes out of nowhere. Clavdia leaves Berghof the next day, just as Hippe left Hamburg in Hans's youth, leaving the latter to dream and ponder further.

Hans is very much an anti-hero .. while at the same time he is the novel's draw. He's pathetic, lazy, all too comfortable with the disturbing atmosphere of the terminally ill that Mann sketches around him. But unlike everyone else, he seems to be able to preserve simple human optimism and beauty that is obvious dead all around him. Though it's absurd and perverted hope and happiness -- and meant be so. Disturbingly so. Hans is not hopeful about leaving .. rather he is able to look forward to death, all while reclining on his balcony, smoking his cigars, and taking general pleasure as his temperature rises and he becomes presumably more ill. The "Magic" pervades him.

The best that can be said for Mann is this stuff is original while maintaining a great depth of allusion and allegory. Mann doesn't forget he's German -- there's plenty of Faust here. Even a passing reference to Schiller that sticks in your mind. The book abounds with representations and caricatures of Western thought .. everyone is present at the death march that is Mann's portrait of dying Western culture.

My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen
My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen
by Alexander Herzen
Edition: Paperback
14 used & new from CDN$ 27.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Herzen is the Culmination of Russian Romantic Thought, Feb. 1 2002
In the years before Lenin and the harsh, bleak application of socialist thought to autocracy there existed a group of philosophers who believed in the beauty of the commune and its cooperation with a Republican government. Britain had Robert Owen and his factory town, the French had Fourier (the phalanstery) and Proudhon among others, and the Russians had Herzen. Here existed a time where the leading academics saw folly in violent revolution, and Herzen was by no means a demogogue willing to mobilize the Russian peasants in a siege of Moscow like a simple Pugachev or a Decembrist.
This perhaps explains Herzen's stern dislike of Marx and Engels, for he saw too much of the Robespierre in them and their ideas.
Herzen believed in democracy almost in a modern American sense. Indeed, much of the work is laced with arguments in disfavor to the flowering of socialism in Europe, citing particularly the cruelty of the police in France during 1848: "The Latin world does not like freedom, it only likes to sue for it." Certainly the tendencies of the Germans were no more progressive either. Instead at one point in the text the author suggests that those who "can put off from himself the old Adam of Europe and be born again a new Jonathan had better take the first steamer to some place in Wisconsin or Kansas."
The selections and abridgement of the text emphasize Herzen's basic belief about reform: revolution is gradual. One has to breed engrained stupidity out of the ruling class and make laws that better everyone, like the English and Americans. Laws make a better society, not people: "The Englishman's liberty is more in his institutions than in himself or his conscience. His freedom is the 'common law.'"
The text covers the demise of Herzen, culminating in his rejection on his deathbed by the new revolutionary ("terrorist") camps in Russia, headed ideologically by Chernyshevsky and best seen in the widespread incendiary and murderous practices of Sergei Nechaev. These are all topics of the years after Herzen's death, the tragic history of the latter half of the nineteenth century and the prelude to the pall of 1917.

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