Thursday, 6 January 2011
Does it matter if the Emperor is really naked?
Over Christmas I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s ‘Royal Highness’ (first published 1909)– which is published in the UK by Vintage. It’s rather different from the rest of Mann’s work – though he actually wrote it about the role of the artist in society – an early-twentieth-century conception of the artist which saw him/her as a being essentially set apart from everyday life – it’s a Ruritanian romance – impoverished grand-ducal prince falls in love with American millionaire’s daughter and finally marries her. Though themes of madness, disease, a crazy dog, an insane countess, and a rose that smells of decay run through the novel, its subject-matter is an up-market treatment of one of the penny-novelette themes of the time.
Re-reading it for the first time since university – and for the first time since I became a published author – I found it hard work. Granted, I find ‘The Magic Mountain’ hard work, but that is for different reasons. There are many touches of humour and wonderful writing that show that the novel is really written by the Thomas Mann who wrote the wonderful ‘Buddenbrooks’ but my judgement, after reading it was that a novel of 381 pages (this comment, as Amazon likes to say about customer reviews, refers to the German version, the length of the English one may be different) has about as much proper, publishable material as a novella. It should have been cut, cut, cut.
Now Thomas Mann’s work is not where you would expect to find brief, punchy writing, but whereas his other works are meaty, and all those pages are stuffed full of intelligent and and thought-provoking subject-matter, I found this one sadly repetitious and full of empty narrative spaces. He spends far too much time describing domestic interiors, for example – I kept thinking I was reading World of Interiors magazine and wondering where the photographs would come. (They’d be taken by Fritz von der Schulenburg of course.)
Mann famously (well, famously in Germany) refused to cut ‘Buddenbrooks’, and I think there he was right. I wouldn’t miss a word of that wonderful novel. But he should have cut ‘Royal Highness’. Mind, the early twentieth-century critics had different reasons for greeting it with less than enthusiasm: the ‘Happy End’ and the operetta-atmosphere of the whole thing. ‘A descent into the flat land of optimism,’ one critic called it, while another remarked that ‘German novels should end tragically, in downfall, in the twilight of the Gods.’ (The history of the next thirty-six years provided plenty of material for such literature, but I won’t go there now.)
Of course novels were much longer in the past, and that it’s wrong to apply modern-day criteria to them – but I do honestly think that ‘Royal Highness’ has survived hostile crits, is in the canon, still published even – and translated into I dunnamany languages – just because it’s been buoyed up by the author’s other work. And of course because it provides material for students of German literature to chomp.
My question is: does it matter? Does it matter if some ordinary person picks up this slightly flabby novel and thinks this has to be good writing, because everyone respects it, because the rest of Mann’s work is brilliant? Clearly it doesn’t matter to the publishers. They can sell it. If they couldn’t, it’d be for the scrap-heap licketty-split. We all know THAT.
But that’s my question for the New Year: is a work of fiction good if the public has been persuaded it is, or is there such a thing as intrinsic literary merit?