Thursday, June 19, 2014

and made a gesture

I'm still surprised by the notion that so many moments in this book are either action-oriented or stasis-oriented; that some of them you can look back on and say, “That was the first step in a chain of events,” and of other ones you can say, “That could have happened in a different place, or it might not have happened at all and nothing else would have had to change.”

Also: not knowing which is which when you encounter them.

(I believe it was an education in Mervyn Peake that made me sensitive towards static moments, because he values them: recall the reflective drop near the end of Titus Groan, Peake's response to nihilism if you like, the world being so full, “mine eyes mint gold;” a book with no indifferent instants. The chapter in Gormenghast about the old man who says that death is life until a young man kills him by setting his beard on fire, is a crude version of the same idea. Gormenghast is a cruder book than Titus Groan.)

Not only moments but sometimes words, which I know you could say about any book, but that thought occurs to me especially now because Mann uses so many adjectives to describe furniture and other household objects, and he seems to feel a weight inside these adjectives when he uses them. I'm remembering the word “heavy” in the description of heavy chairs and heavy food in my last post: “There they all sat, on heavy high-backed chairs, consuming good heavy food ...” which (that repetition existing in an undifferentiated and contented utopia) was like opening a story, seeing that the first line was, “They all lived quietly in the peaceful countryside ...” and anticipating trouble.

“Heavy” is a knowing and therefore sinister word, not an innocent word; it can see the future, the characters can't, though it shares their dining room, and supports their bottoms and lies on their plates.

For an example of an adjective that seems static to me, there is the word “oval” when Tom Buddenbooks holds a doorknob (p. 328, Cardinal, 1957). “He held the oval doorknob in one hand and made a gesture of weary protest with the other.”

This “oval” not presaging future disaster or commenting on the present, Tom's weariness not having discourse with the shape of the doorknob, and a square doorknob would have seen him equally weary, or a brass doorknob, or a clean doorknob, or a blue doorknob, none of them having anything to say except that a doorknob of such and such kind existed in this fictional room off its own bat, in a lonely way, filling or defining space; and that the author might have been picturing one kind of doorknob, not another kind of doorknob, that he might have had a specific doorknob in mind (you're allowed to presume) -- maybe there are oval doorknobs in his house at the moment that he's writing this book, or, if you've heard that Buddenbrooks is supposed to be based on the history of his family, you could imagine that his childhood home, or his grandparents' home, had oval doorknobs. You could speculate for hours on the multitude of routes he might have taken before he encountered oval doorknobs.


  1. Here's what I've been meaning to ask, if I can make it coherent: are the static pieces different in a consistent way from the more mobile (non-static, I mean) pieces of the narrative? That is, does Mann write a motionless set piece to convey a certain type of information to the reader, while for other types of information he would never use such a static form? If you know what I mean. Foreshadowing occurs in dramatic scenes rather than static, etc. Or vice versa. Is it a consistent formal device tied to theme or symbolism, etc?

    1. I haven't read the book well enough to know for sure, but it seems to be mainly decorative. He's spritzing up the scenery. Does Herr K. need to play the piano on his shoulder? Only if you want to give your readers the idea that Herr K. is an independent agent with an unexpected tic.

      (Now that I've written the word "independent" I wonder if you could say that these static moments are a way of breaking up the fateful forward movement of the action. Which is not the same as arguing that Mann was putting them there for that purpose deliberately.)