Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In the Penny Press - part two!

The 6 November London Review of Books featured two stand-out pieces, one long, one short. The long one is a delightful ramble through the bloody mess that is Thomas Mann and his family, done with signature aplomb by Colm Toibin. As a reviewer and writer of fizzy prose, Toibin can do no wrong, and it's a testament to his talent that you're smiling all the way through this essay, even though the tale it tells - the rise of the Nazis, the exile of German intellectuals who didn't tow the party line, Mann the horrible, dysfunctional father (who both lusted after his young sons and emotionally disdained them), the inevitably screwed-up kids - is hardly a laughing matter.

There were many Mann children - wayward parasite and drug addict Klaus, strident and strong-willed Erika, well-meaning Elisabeth, passive and perceptive Golo, and the two youngest, Monika and Michael - but Toibin's story largely concentrates on Klaus and Erika (he's reviewing Andrea Weiss' book In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story, but even so, the tale couldn't have stressed things any other way) and their various pre- and post-World War II misadventures. Toibin seems a little charmed by the pair, although only a little:

Despite the fact that they often seemed in these years to be the silliest pair of people alive, they came nonchalantly and almost naturally to believe that their right to freedom and fun and half-baked opinions was something worth preserving.

Hee. That's as deliciously sharp as when Toibin refers to Klaus as the writer of "a few almost interesting books."

Klaus was a twit, certainly, and he spent his entire life in the shadow of his much more famous father (Toibin gleefully relates the reaction of his literary acquaintances in New York upon learning that he was going to publish an autobiography: "What will you call it? The Invisible Man? The Subordinate Klaus?"), but there's a pathos in the story nonetheless - this was an unhappy family very much being unhappy in its own way. Still, if Toibin's review is any indication, In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain could very well be worth getting from your local library. Unless the worth of the book has been deceptively represented by the fact that an Irishman wrote a fantastic review of it - that's been known to happen, so be sure to browse the book before you commit to it!

A book you can avoid with a clear conscience is the subject of the second bonny bit in our brief tour of the Penny Press today: Jenny Diski reviews Alastair Campbell's All in the Mind and proceeds to carve the book into tiny edible pieces. But as good as the point-by-point demolition of the review is, the concluding paragraph is soaringly better. Every single writer of fiction or would-be writer of fiction should read the whole of this marvelous paragraph every morning before they start writing:

There is no doubt that a lot of work has gone into writing this book. This is true of all novels, every damn one - eighty thousand words and more take a long time to write, and getting them in the correct order requires a good deal of effort. But though admirable in some Protestant sort of way, trying hard, even trying very hard, isn't quite enough if you can't write and lack wit. If Alistair Campbell wanted to write a novel about such a thing as people's lives coming alive, then he or his editor should have tried much harder to wrench the language away from the turgid and the thought away from the banal. The craft of fiction is not working out a plan that looks balanced on a spreadsheet and then clothing it with words. The trick about writing a good novel is to be a good writer, though I understand that many A-level students these days are assured that there is no such thing as good writing, or even good novels, only what readers like. That'll be the market. 'It'll only sell if it's good,' Campbell says. Or was that 'It's only good if it sells?' And there's that rabbit hole again.

(One side-note to all of this, as pointed to the first part as the second now that I think about it: Golo Mann, though not nearly as limelight-hogging as his older brother and sister, grew up to be a really fine, effortlessly readable historian, in many, many ways a better writer than his father. I doubt his various works of history are available in English, but if you should ever find any, give them a try ... you won't find the insane brilliance of Mann the Elder's best novels, but you'll find a good deal of worthwhile stuff in its own right).


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