German Lit Month: The Black Swan by Thomas Mann

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The Black Swan is the first book by Thomas Mann I have ever read. I picked it up because I was intrigued by the theme: an older woman unwilling to face aging. Only, the “older woman” in this book is younger than I am.

Rosalie was still capable of the old warm laughter that came bubbling from her heart-even at this period of her time in life, the spasmodic withering and disintegration of her womanhood, were troubling her physically and psychologically.

Rosalie Von Trummler is a widowed mother of two. Her daughter was born with a club foot, and has therefore rejected advances of love. Her son requires a tutor for adequate advance in his studies. A young American named Ken Keaton is hired to teach Eduard, and he soon becomes a regular addition to the family’s evenings. I was so intrigued by Ken’s point of view about America, one which I can see Europeans adopting. Yet, he does have valid points:

In general, despite being so unmistakably American in his entire manner and attitude, he displayed very little attachment to his great country. He ‘didn’t care for America’; indeed, with its pursuit of the dollar and insensate church-going, its worship of success and colossal mediocrity, but, above all, its lack of historical atmosphere, he found it really appalling. Of course it had a history, but that wasn’t ‘history,’ it was simply a short, boring ‘success story.’ Certainly, aside from its enormous deserts, it had beautiful and magnificent landscapes, but there was ‘nothing behind them,’ while in Europe there was so much behind everything, particularly behind the cities with their deep historical perspectives. American cities-he didn’t care for them. They were put up yesterday and might just as well be taken away tomorrow. The small ones were stupid holes, one looking exactly like another, and the big ones were horrible, inflated monstrosities, with museums full of bought-up European cultural treasures.

At any rate, Rosalie becomes entranced with Ken and fancies romantic involvement with him. Page after page describes her attraction to him, her imaginations of what could be between them. She embarrasses her daughter by giving Ken longing looks across the dinner table, then alternately ignoring him “demurely.”

What should you say, Anna, if your mother, in her old age, were seized by an ardent feeling such as rightfully belongs only to potent youth, to maturity, and not to withered womanhood?

But what becomes the turning point in the novel is the morning that Rosalie has discovered she has begun bleeding again. A strong believer in the force of Nature, Rosalie is ecstatic. She can hardly contain her joy, which she sees as permission to enter into a relationship with the younger man.

Nature has made her voice heard against it (a motherly dowager-hood). She has made my feeling her concern and has unmistakably shown me that it need not be ashamed before her nor before the blooming young manhood which is its object. And do you not really mean to say that it does not change things much?”

Things are changed dramatically, indeed, for the source of this bleeding is not a reemergence into youth as Rosalie expects, but an admittance into the horrors of cancer. It is an ironic twist to be sure, how the advent of bleeding into a woman’s life can signify two such diverse states as preparation for the possibility of birth, or alternatively, death. Thomas Mann has portrayed an enormously silly woman in the mother, especially in contrast to her practical, more mature daughter. But he has also given us a terrific psychological twist as we realize that of course, our bodies are not under our control. No matter how strong our desire for youth may be.

(I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy‘s German Literature Month this November. I hope to read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as well…)

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27 thoughts on “German Lit Month: The Black Swan by Thomas Mann”

  1. This was a novella, and therefore short, but I do have some concern about Buddenbrooks! We’ll see.

    I took a peek at your All Quiet on The Western Front post, such beautiful writing you have! But it is too painful for me to read with my son a Marine. I’ll be back for your next post. Xo

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    1. Oh, thank you, Bellezza, and I quite understand how painful it would be for you to read anything on All Quiet. I have a new review up today, and it’s a Japanese novella!

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    1. This novella was a wonderful place to start, easy to read in one afternoon and intriguing. Although, almost like Proust, the guy is a bit wordy. 😉

      Didn’t Hemingway say he just wanted to write one perfect (short) sentence at the end of the day? Clearly not an idea shared by all writers, particularly the ones before him.

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  2. It is good to read the above comments and realise I’m not alone! I have had Mann on my shelf for a while, but always been intimidated by him. I agree with the others about how you make him sound appealing for the first time. Thanks for the nudge in his direction 🙂

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    1. You’re so welcome for the nudge, of which I may need several as I stumble through Buddenbrooks. I’m really glad to know more about this author though, and my knowledge of German Literature was sorely lacking. I’ve spent a lot more time with Japanese.

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    1. The Black Swan is thought of a companion to Death In Venice; the later a look at things from a man’s perspective, this from a woman’s. I’ve been meaning to read Death in Venice for at least two years…but I had to see how Mann handled a woman first.

      I’m looking forward to our read along together, too. So glad we’re in it together!

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  3. Mann wrote a wide range of kinds of fiction. Some of it really is difficult in one way or another, but much of it is quite friendly. I don’t know how to tell which is which without reading it. Buddenbrooks is in the “friendly” category in every aspect but length – the social setting is easily grasped and the characters are generally very likable.

    Dog lovers – Mr. Chester! – should definitely try the story / essay “A Man and His Dog.”

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    1. Phew, glad to fall into the friendly corner with Buddenbrooks.

      I was sorely tempted to read the Knut Hamsun with you and a few others, but didn’t know how I could fit it in with Mann this month.

      Hope you’re still considering Little, Big with me in April(ish)?

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  4. That’s not Thomas Mann’s most famous novella, but it is certainly a good one and a possible starting point for his novels. For those who haven’t read him I would suggest to start with Buddenbrooks or Felix Krull. The others are equally great but require much more attention from the reader.

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    1. I agree that it was a good place to start, and I’m glad to continue on with Buddenbrooks. It seems to be the next wisest choice for beginning Thomas Mann. Who knows, I may even get to Felix Krull?

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  5. I’m not sure I’ve read this. If I did it must have been a while ago.
    I agree with Tom – he has accessible and not so accessible books but mostly they are only hard because of the length. Doctor Faustus might be one of the most challenging.

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    1. I hope I can get through Buddenbrooks in November. If not, there will be other months; at least I’ll have dipped my toes into Mann’s work. For the first time ever, thanks to you and Lizzy.

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  6. I saw a TV series with the Buddenbrooks when I was a child and that ‘Downton Abbey’ effect (soap opera with costumes) made it easier for me to turn to the book itself. Which I really enjoyed and reread with greater depth a few years later. So, fear not…

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    1. I find it true for myself, also, that PBS Masterpiece creates such a wonderful atmosphere and characterization that I am immediately drawn into such tales as woven by Jane Austen, or Downton Abbey, or Upstairs, Downstairs (the original). I can see how Buddenbrooks would be magical in their hands. I began it last night, and I even brought it to work today to read during lunch…I have much higher hopes now than I did in October. Thanks for your encouragement!

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      1. I’ve identified it as the Peter Wirth directed West German TV mini series dating from 1979, filmed in Gdansk, Poland, since Lubeck had been too badly damaged during the war.

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          1. When I lived in Germany in the early 80’s, there was still so much destruction from WWII. (Also, there were hardly any men around my father’s age; it was so sad and strange to see such a visible “hole”). I was in a village outside of Frankfurt, and while my husband and I travelled much throughout Germany, I never did make it to Lubeck. I’m glad to hear that it has been restored, Tom.

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  7. I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, but thought I’d wait till I finished reading the Magic Mountain (3 years and counting!) before diving in. But sounds like it may be just the thing to lead me back into that brick (not that the Mountain is difficult or boring — it just needs time to be absorbed). Thanks for inspiring me to check it out again.

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