The New Mann:
James J. O'Meara
Reflections on Reading, Translating, & Annotating Germany’s Greatest “Black” [sic] Author,
Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
Thomas Mann: New Selected Stories
Translated and with an introduction by Damion Searls
New York: Liveright, 2023
“It is really curious that a life of playing games and dreaming can — if only you go on with it long enough — lead to your being treated like royalty.” — Thomas Mann, author of Felix Krull, Confidence Man
“What a royal gift the imagination is, and what pleasure it affords us!” — Felix Krull, confidence man
Although I bought this book by accident, I can recommend it to anyone wanting to find out about this Thomas Mann chap, or to those already in the know who may want to look into some new translations of familiar works. In the reading, you may also find a surprising amount of relevance in these now century-old texts.
By “mistake” I mean I thought this was a new translation of something like Knopf’s Stories of Three Decades from 1947, or at least one of the many other collections since, rather than less than half a dozen, including yet another “new” translation of Death in Venice (for which the translator himself seems a bit abashed). Why do the publisher and translator think we need this little set?
Unsurprisingly, they tell us that now that the standard translations by H. T. (Helen Tracy) Lowe-Porter are falling out of copyright, it’s time for a reevaluation and, of course, resulting changes to the texts and reputation of Thomas Mann in English. Searls’ Introduction and Notes provide his case for both.
My level of German is not sufficient to let me comment on Searls’ work itself, but as for his dislike of Lowe-Porter’s output, I can say, as a reader of translations, that while they are now, of course, a bit dated in terminology, I’ve always found them readable enough, and have seldom found much improvement in the newer versions; perhaps I’ve just come to accept L-P’s versions as effectively Mann-for-me, just from years of familiarity, the way one tends to prefer the pop music of a particular era for no better reason than hearing it in your teens.
The Man and His Stories
In addition to providing translations that purport to be superior in some way(s) to L-T’s, Searls has some new things to tell us, discoveries based on his work with the texts and newly-uncovered revelations from Mann’s life. That Mann was, despite his admittedly “ironic” haute bourgeois image and marriage and family, emotionally and psychologically rebellious, as well as homosexual, is old news by now. Newer, both chronologically and fashionably, is the discovery that Mann’s mother was not merely Hispanic or “Southern,” as Europeans like Mann would (and Mann did) conceptualize it — the famous “opposition” of North and South, bourgeois and free-spirit, etc. in Mann’s fiction — but actually a mulatto, making, or re-making, Mann into a “black writer.”
Now hold on, there, Professor, what’s this all about? More of this “Hispanics aren’t white” divisiveness? Actually, he does have a point:
His mother . . . was Júlia da Silva Bruhns, a Brazilian Catholic and native speaker of Portuguese whose father had brought her to Germany when she was seven years old, after her mother’s early death. Usually described as being “of German and Portuguese descent” (in other words, European), Julia was in fact the daughter of an émigré German colonist, a major slaveholder and owner of several coffee and sugarcane plantations, and Maria Luiza da Silva, a “Creole,” to use the term of the time: in this context, a mix of Portuguese, Indigenous, and Black [sic].
As he sums up the case (somewhat defensively): “There is definite proof of Mann’s Indigenous [sic] ancestry and only strong circumstantial evidence pointing to his African ancestry.” Perhaps more importantly, Mann was aware of all this, and even wrote — in 1943, no less — that “he saw his mother’s origins as more central to understanding his own work than all his European literary influences.”
Of course, this is difficult for a “respectable” public writer, since he must deny the very existence of race; but like other goodthinkers, he gets around this by handing the tar baby to the bad guys, including the hapless Mann (who, unlike his translator, doesn’t benefit from our Modern Ideas):
By racist Nazi and American definitions, then, according to which the attribution of “one drop of black blood” is definitive, Thomas Mann was a Black [sic] writer. I myself don’t believe in different-colored drops, or proportions of this or that racially marked blood in a person, but Mann did: the stories in this book, and the rest of his writing, is filled with blood being “sensual,” “too-thick,” “southern,” or the reverse. The artist (or trickster, or tempter) characters inevitably have some of both kinds, and this intermixture generates their genius, their danger, and their chronic ill health.
Just as the evil Nazis used their crazy delusions about “race” to “other” others, so Mann himself bought into the delusion of skin color being more than skin deep and worked it into his major tropes.
He notes, however, that Mann “express[ed] these themes in geographical terms while eliding the global south with the European south.” Just as his mother “was ‘Portuguese,’ not Black [sic],” the “non-northern element of German culture is ‘Mediterranean’ not African, and Western culture is in origin ‘Greek’ and ‘Jewish’ not Asian or Egyptian.’”
Wow, I’m sorry, that’s a lot of politically-motivated capitalizing/decapitalizing, scare-quoting, and out-of-Africa-izing, and if it’s hard to read, just remember how hard it is for me to type it. I’ll try to keep the quotes verbatim, but I can’t be bothered to keep all this straight in my own comments.
Anyway, you might think Searls will celebrate the new Black Mann, especially with his book being released during Black History Month, but he’s far too sophisticated for that:
As the young American writer Brandon Taylor forcefully put it recently, every work of the imagination by a writer tagged as Black or minority tends to get reduced “to testimonials of identity, certainly in our present cultural moment: “You are no longer writing about what it means to contend with the imponderables and unruly quandaries of life. You are writing about what it means to contend blackly with the black imponderables and the unruly black quandaries of black life.”
Or as John Derbyshire would say, and does say:
Blackety-blackety-blackety-black, black black black black black black black black blackety-black, blackety-blackety-blackety-black. This is a full-time professional black guy.
Searls has taken the conservative’s gripe about everything being reduced to identity politics and turned it on its head: It’s the woke academics who are the bad guys now.
The typical grift of some academic or “critic” is to create a new, albeit bogus, dichotomy and then present their own view as a calm, mature alternative to both, if not indeed some kind of grand Hegelian synthesis. Here, we have on the one hand those — ranging, oddly, from traditional academic consensus to the likes of Julius Streicher — who view Mann as personifying German culture (or should I say, Kultur), even if he does so only as a “preemptive strike” against being outed as a culture-distorter; and on the other hand, the woke who would enslave him on the plantation of identity politics, as “merely” another black (or should I say, Black) writer.
But Searls isn’t done yet. His plan is to use Mann as a battering ram (or Trojan Horse) against any idea of a real German (or any other) cultural identity:
So what he is is a mixed writer — as, according to him, we all are, because culture itself is mixed. It’s only the fascists who refuse to admit it.
Or really? Tell us more!
Mann [in a 1936 article] addresses the fascist argument that German literature has degenerated under the influence of so-called Jewish internationalism by arguing that there never was a pure, untainted German literature to begin with.
The fixed categories of fascism don’t match the reality: what’s German is not in fact what’s völkisch (“populist,” “nationalist,” “steeped in German traditions”), what the Nazis hate isn’t ultimately the Jews but Europe, cosmopolitan civilization with its Greek and Latin and Christian roots, and thus “Germanness” itself, which is inextricable from “every civilized bond” between what he calls the land of Goethe and the wider world.
Just as Julia Mann was not an “exotic” in Germany — she as much as anyone was what Germanness is— to oppose any of the streams that flow into and through German culture, to hate and try to purge imagined “impurities,” is to target the culture itself. There is no “land of Goethe” without so-called Jewish internationalism or other exoticized scapegoats, any more than there is “American culture” or “American history” with the Black American culture and history taken out.
This is an argument that it is still, for far too many of us, hard to hear today. . . .
Actually, I think this is an “argument” that all of us hear, all the time; as Joe Sobran said about homosexuality, “the love that dare not speak its name has become the love that won’t shut up.” In fact, this “argument” is really a demand that the rest of us shut up and just admit that we’re all just mutts, foolishly dreaming of some long past and in fact mythical state of homogeneity and resisting the rational and moral demand that we all just miscegenate ourselves into a worldwide state of brown (or Brown) sludge. It’s the message of every “reimagining” of intellectual property deemed “too white,” directed at those Neanderthals who refuse to swallow the idea that because there was a black guy in England once, England has always been “multicultural” and Henry VIII’s six wives are likely to have been dusky Nubian princesses.
So Mann is just as Black [sic], and just as German, as Goethe; just get used to it, fascist.
It’s all so tiresome. There’s just so much sophistry here. Even if we accept the idea of some discernable German Culture, which is the product of all kinds of influences, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t want to preserve it as is, just as a delicious cake may be the product of a combination of ingredients, but nevertheless exists as a finished product not subject to additional fiddling. Moreover, it’s not improved by simply increasing the quantities of the ingredients, as if adding 300 eggs to the recipe would improve the cake. Chefs are notoriously dictatorial, but they’re not “fascists” because they stick to recipes, or don’t arbitrarily mess with the ingredients.
So even if blacks and Jews “contributed” to British or German or American culture and history, it hardly follows that we must allow that to continue, and that if we do, it will just get better and better, rather than going all to Hell. Homosexuals may have made enormous contributions to Western Culture, but that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to turn everyone gay.
Moreover, there’s no reason we can’t decide that we don’t like the finished product, and that the “contributions” come with drawbacks as well, just as we may decide that the delicious fat or sugar or gluten in the cake has bad consequences, and would be better left out. How many murders and rapes are worth it to have jazz? And in the case of Jews, perhaps we come to realize that their “contributions” are actually distortions, perhaps part of a group evolutionary strategy to parasitically exploit or even destroy us?
One more time: Conservatives may want to preserve or return to some (possibly mythical) Golden Age, but fascists want to purify and improve the culture, so as to produce a future Golden Age. (The cultural equivalent of eugenics). Yes, actually existing German culture or American history contains many strands, but some of them (blacks, Jews) have proven to be hazardous to our health, and should be . . . removed. The parasite or bit of sand may produce a pearl, but ultimately with Jews, you lose. Indeed, all these half-assed tropes about “multiculturalism” and unlimited immigration are themselves tools of cultural distortion, employed to destroy the host culture: As always, it’s diversity for thee, not for me.
Julius Evola, for instance, was quite aware that cultures are not homogeneous, and identified as the fascist task to promote the higher strains (e.g., the Northern) and weed out the lower (the Southern). One can disagree with the analysis or the method or the goal, but it’s just a straw man to argue as if the fascist idea is to preserve the current state of affairs or return to some imaginary Kultur of the past.
Fascism was less an ideology than a reaction by normal people (especially the ones in the most intelligent and well-educated group in Europe) to economic crisis and cultural degeneracy (of the sort Mann documents, especially here in “Disorder and Early Sorrow”). Hence the differing forms it took in each country. Hitler succeeded in reviving the economy and removing Jewish cultural distortion. If a few scribblers like Mann — along with a host of other, lesser, dispensable figures — had to suffer some minor inconvenience (akin to doxing and other woke harassment today) and perhaps some well-funded exile, too bad. As the Coen Brothers tell us, the world doesn’t revolve around what rattles inside some kike’s skull.
As always, it’s multiculturalism for thee, but not for me.
Constant Readers know about my enjoyment of notes, and Searls’ do not disappoint. He has an interesting principle of translation: to try and pack in enough information into the English text to make a note unnecessary, or at most just a filling in of the background:
For example, I translate “Burgtor” as “Burgtor Gate,” even though this is a pleonasm — Tor means “Gate” — because German readers would know that the Burgtor is a famous medieval city gate in Lübeck, and the translation conveys in English what the reader needs to know.
As another example: when Max Hergesell makes a remark and then fishes for praise for how civilized and well educated he is, I translate it as “he says, quoting Goethe and glancing over at the professor to reap the applause his erudition deserves”; Goethe is not mentioned by name in the original.
And here is a note I would be proud of adding to one of my own works:
Cornelius is often referred to throughout the story as “Doktor Cornelius,” sometimes as “Professor Cornelius”; I translate both terms as “Professor,” the respectful term for a historian in English. Here, at this formal moment of social interaction, I kept “Doctor” to convey Mann’s terminology somewhere (and to have a reason for this note).
A man after my own heart! And indeed, I cannot help but add some notes to his notes. For example, Mann, as per usual, draws his details from “real life,” and so the music the youth dance to in “Chaotic . . .” can be readily identified — at least by someone who’s done as much research into German jazz recordings of the period as Searls has:
Some of these dances, such as the Java dance and Creole Polka, are specific enough to identify the music as recordings by the Bernard Etté Jazz Orchestra put out by Vox Records; Etté also recorded “Yes! We Have No Bananas” twice, in 1923 and 1924 (see above). The Vox logo that appeared on the labels in the centers of their LP records is a stylized, African-looking mask or head, which Cornelius is perhaps referring to by calling the records “African amusements.”
Searls seems to slip here, since these couldn’t be “LP records,” although they were apparently the first German label to use electrical recording.
According to the “78 RPM Club”:
VOX Schallplatten- und Sprechmaschinen-Aktiengesellschaft, Berlin was a German record label founded in 1921. The name “VOX” (Latin for voice) was protected by law as a trademark. [The label] was designed by a professional graphic designer and painter Wilhelm Deffke. The stylized “Negro Head” is one of the most impressive trademarks in the history of the recording industry – a landmark of Art Deco.
As a curiosity it should be noted that VOX announced a record of the “Neger-Jazz-Orchesters G. Ruthland Clapham” in September 1924: Since this record is [not?] detected in any collection, it may be one of the world’s rarest jazz records.
All of which reminds me of the research Nabokov pursued to the opposite goal: convicting Sartre of being a jazz poseur. Nabokov would be horrified to find so much attention given to Mann, who, along with T. S. Eliot, is “a fake,” and Death in Venice is “simply asinine.” Today, of course, we can easily spot Lolita’s similarity to Death in Venice; Nabokov’s protagonist, HH, also dies, but not before he’s arrested and jailed — which, Searls tells us, is what students think should have happened to Aschenbach.
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 “There have been dozens of retranslations . . .”
 For a rather detailed and devastating examination of Lowe-Porter’s sins, see David Luke’s introduction to his translation of Death in Venice and Other Stories (Bantam Classic, 1988, reissued 2008). For an overview of critical reaction to L-P over the years, see here. Perhaps the estimable Theodore Ziolkowski, who admirably introduced Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game to readers like me years ago, sums it up best:
It is a truism that every generation needs its own translations. Lowe-Porter provided a valuable service by making Mann’s novel initially accessible to the English and American publics. In [John E.] Woods’s sparkling new translation, the reader approaching Buddenbrooks in English now encounters a work that is closer in style, vocabulary, idiom and tone to the original and can thus appreciate more fully the monumental achievement of the artist as a young Mann.
 Searls’ words, including his italics. For some reason he doesn’t actually quote Mann’s letter, perhaps due to those pesky copyright restrictions?
 Searls quotes a 1932 article in the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff , saying that Mann had “once again dropped the mask of the civilized good German citizen and proven, as clearly as can be, that Creole blood is coursing through his veins.”
 I don’t think this is proper English; he’s using “elide” to mean “cover” or (a favorite of mine) “occlude.” The American Heritage Dictionary gives “strike out” as a meaning, so maybe the idea is Mann “strikes out” global and replaces it with European — but isn’t he really occluding the one with the other, such as how the Sun occludes the stars during the day?
 “Mann’s imperious persona, his Olympian self-definition as German Culture incarnate, starts to look like a preemptive strike, and that persona’s icy, off-putting demeanor like a sign that he overshot the mark a little.”
 Well, I suppose one ethnic group gets to keep their ethnicity pure.
 Amusingly published the same week Angela Davis found out she’s descended from Mayflower passengers . . . and slave owners.
 On cultural distortion, see Yockey; on group evolutionary strategies and the Jews, see Kevin MacDonald.
 “Certainly, we must not generalize and think that it is about that in every case. The traditions encompassed in the ancient Roman world are more varied and complex that has been supposed up to now. Both ethnically and spiritually, diverse influences met in the most ancient period of Rome. . . . One can nevertheless not contest the idea that in the greater number of cases the highest tradition was present in Rome and that in its development Rome was able to ‘rectify’ and purify to a not negligible measure the different traditions that it had included.” Julius Evola, “The Mystique of Race in Ancient Rome.”
 In Mann’s Dr. Faustus, the Junker “conservatives” are satirized in the person of von Riedesel, whose cultural salon is titillated and horrified by an ultra-conservative who ups the ante by tracing the rot all the way back to the development of harmony. The “conservative” nobleman “was a prey to sheer confusion. ‘Pardon me,’ he said, ‘permit me . . . Bach, Palestrina . . .” These names wore for him the nimbus of conservative authority, and here they were being assigned to the realm of modernistic disintegration.” (Doktor Faustus; trans. Lowe-Porter [New York: Alfred A. Knopf], p. 281). That Mann puts the thesis — the sort of thing Searls would call “fascist” — in the mouth of a Jewish “private scholar” based on the real Oskar Goldberg, whom he called “a “typical Jewish fascist,” is typical of his famous “irony.” But as we know, with the Jews it’s multiculturalism for me, not for thee. See “A ‘Jewish servant of the fascist era’? Thomas Mann and Oskar Goldberg,” Etudes Germaniques 59(2):343-357.
 On the other hand, there’s no need for Mann to “explain” the “irrational” support for Hitler with such allegories as magic (“Mario and the Magician”) or deals with the devil (Dr. Faustus).
 Barton Fink (1991).
 Although experimented with in the 1930s, “the first successful LP record was developed by Columbia Records, under the direction of Dr. Peter Goldmark, a Hungarian-born electrical engineer” in the 1940s.
 “Great importance is attached to an American song on the café phonograph: ‘Some of these days you’ll miss me, honey.’ In an equivocal flash of clairvoyance he visualizes the composer as a clean-shaven Brooklynite with ‘coal-black eyebrows’ and ‘ringed fingers’ writing down the tune on the 21st floor of a skyscraper. The heat is terrific. [Foreshadowing Barton Fink?] Presently, however, Tom (probably a friend) will come in with his hip flask (local color) and they will take swigs of liquor (‘brimming glasses of whiskey’ in Mr. Alexander’s lush version). I have taken the trouble to ascertain that in reality the song is a Sophie Tucker one written by the Canadian Shelton Brooks.” Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre; New York Times review first published on April 24, 1949.
 From a 1965 interview with Robert Hughes, as reprinted in Strong Opinions.
 “A friend of mine recently taught the novella in an Ivy League literature course, and his students’ reaction was that Aschenbach should be in jail.” While Mann continues to tower, Nabokov’s reputation seems more and more to be sheer literary log-rolling. “Only now, 40 years after his death, are some critics daring to suggest that many of his 18 novels are mediocre at best and that his masterpiece, Lolita, is a gruesome celebration of pedophile rape [and] a sprightly little tale about the serial rape of an unwilling or indifferent 12-year-old, embraced and promoted by the male literary establishment.” See “Nabokov was such a jerk.”
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