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Friday, October 3, 2014

Thomas Mann, You Sneak!

Image Courtesy: Google Images
ie. the picture is of a copy
identical to mine, and not of
my actual copy.
I recently finished an anthology of stories by Nobel Laureates, which I received as a token of felicitation from my school for qualifying for NTSE. It had been a while since the last anthology I read before this (another Nobel Laureate one, from Mom), and I found it strangely exhausting, having to read so many stories to finish just one book. I've realized that it is the storyline which grips me, not the desire to finish the book. In the course of finishing the anthology I had some wonderful moments of predicting the outcome of stories, which as always made me feel clever. I had some more moments when I was able to mentally compare the work of an author to something else by them that I'd read before -- it made me feel very well-read.
The most exhausting part, though, was reading Thomas Mann's novella Death In Venice, which takes up nearly half the book's volume. When I started the book, I expected short stories and stories, not novellas -- which took me by surprise when this piece refused to end. Then I remembered that the introduction mentioned it as a novella. So I had to persevere, and to put it frankly, in this case the desire to finish the book was what fuelled me to read through it. Being unexpectedly long, its intellectual challenge (and the requirement of constant Googling to get all the inter-textual references), which I usually consider part of the enjoyment of reading, began to feel like a chore. The central character was arguably the creepiest central character in the whole book. The introduction says that the object of the central character's near-criminal creepiness is inspired by a real person, who I feel sorry for. The novella was good, but by the ending I was too tired to be moved by finer things like subtlety and understatement, which is probably why I didn't enjoy the ending all that much. Once I finished that one novella, I had a surge of false gratification which was cruelly dashed by the sight of the remaining thickness of the book, but I got through it; and I must say, after many full-length novels, an anthology was refreshing.
The last story, like in almost any other anthology or compilation I've ever read, was the most psychologically disturbing and confusing. I've never ever comprehended the closing story of an anthology to my satisfaction, barring the ones prescribed as schoolwork, and this one was no exception: even Google could not help me. The story was Il Tratto di Appelle by Boris Pasternak. The scariest story was John Galsworthy's The Silence, and the most intriguing concept, for me, was in Anatole France's The Red Egg. I was pleasantly surprised by The Musician by Selma Lagerlof, because her The Rattrap is in my school text this year. As always, it felt good to find India's own Rabindranath Tagore on the list -- this book contains his Artist, which I faintly remember reading in the original Bengali a long time ago, somewhere. The most predictable story for me was The Hack Driver by Sinclair Lewis, but only because this kind of story, pioneered by the likes of him, has inspired too many later works and become overdone to the point of being cliched. I can only imagine the ingenuity it took to come up with that without inspiration. Then again, who am I to pick favourites in a long list of Nobel Laureates? Shaw, Tagore, Kipling, Hemingway, Yeats... all the greats, and that's the best thing about an anthology -- at the end of the book, we get to come away touched by the thoughts of not one great author, but many. They leave you stimulated, outraged, emotional, sympathetic, enthused, inspired -- not to mention more knowledgeable and mature. To more anthologies!
On second thoughts, The Hack Driver wasn't the most predictable for me, in the literal sense. The Sardinian Fox, by Grezia Deledda, was in common with the other Nobel Laureate anthology that my mother gifted me, and I clearly remember being very disturbed by it at the time. I still did reread it, and this time it outraged me much less than the last time -- back then when I was younger, the concept had seemed far more dreadful and the twist far more, well, twisted. Whether I should attribute that to maturity and age or prior familiarity with the story, I don't know. I could also attribute it to the desensitization by all the way more outrageous things contained in this book.
Now I'm thinking I should probably re-read that other book sometime. I might find more stories in common, or more stories to be outraged by, which I don't remember because I didn't understand them then. By the way, I'm too tired to give hyperlinks for all the works listed above. Google them if you're interested. Seriously people, do your own work sometimes -- I'll catch up with y'all later.

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