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?


Leila said...

Phew, well that's a big question, Leslie! :) Not sure if it is one that can ever be answered to satisfaction, either. There are fashions, of course, in literature. Plenty of authors who were considered good a hundred years ago are no longer so considered. When you compare Jane Austen to Maria Edgeworth, you can see why Austen has survived to be so well loved, and Edgeworth is hardly read except by specialists. Austen is just much more of our time. What's the answer? I dunno...

Andrew Strong said...

James Wood in "How Fiction Works" began to persuade me that there is such a thing as intrinsic merit. His is a very conservative position, but nevertheless, the book is a very rewarding read.

Katherine Langrish said...

C.S.Lewis's position, in 'An Experiment in Criticism', was that since literary judgements are so subjective, we should use as a criterion 'how the work is read'. In other words, if a book can stand multiple re-reading, if even one reader 'would notice and complain' if a chapter was altered or cut, then - since who is to say if F. R. Leavis's opinion is worth more than mine or yours - we have no option but to agree that the work may be good.

He was being provocative, of course, but I've always thought it's a nice democratic idea and he may have had something there.

Amy Arnaz said...

The book that popped into my mind from your question about literary merit is The Shack. I did not like that book even though people raved about it. Seems to me the public accepted that book because it was the popular thing to do. I received two copies from two friends and cringed all the way through. I didn't want to finish it but I did finish it so I could give my friends an honest book report. Ha! I'm not a literary whiz so maybe it did have merit ~ but not to me.
~ Amy Arnaz

Stroppy Author said...

'Austen is just much more of our time' - that's absolutely the point! If something has literary merit it endures because it has something relevant to *all* times. I don't think being popular in one short time span is enough, but if people still want to read it and get a lot from it years later (when it may in some ways be out of fashion) it has literary merit. So it's tested over time.

It doesn't need lots of people to like it immediately, but it needs to contain sufficient universal truths about the human condition to speak to more than a contemporary and socially similar audience.

Are we allowed to say that Mann was usually clothed but sometimes (perhaps in this case - I haven't read this book) naked?

Leslie Wilson said...

well, yes, and today when I was at lunch with some other authors one of them talked about the difficulty of writing your best book first, citing 'Catch 22'.
'Buddenbrooks' wasn't Thomas Mann's absolute first, he'd written novellas and short stories, but it was his first novel and it was the kind of book that most people write to crown a lifetime's striving. A pretty hard act to follow. And he himself realised that his first novel, if not his best, was undoubtedly his most popular in Germany - that is also a hard thing to cope with. Also, 'Buddenbrooks' was heavily based on family history 'I recorded,' he said. 'I didn't compose.' So maybe he was struggling with the work of composing and imagining from scratch - a challenge he rose to later. That's my theory, and I think I shall stick to it! Unless something else comes up that convinces me otherwise, of course.