Nobel Prize-winning German author THOMAS MANN (1875–1955) wrote meticulously engineered anti-Bildung fiction. Critics complained about his syntactically stratified fiction — passages in dactylic hexameter, Dante’s Italian, and pages that pass without periods. Drawing out a story for the intellect to pick apart at leisure is civilized; reading and observing with interest — or even ambivalence — is the antithesis of the brutishness he left behind when he fled Germany in 1933. Nor was Mann an arid highbrow: He hated schooling, which he considered a death sentence to wakeful minds; and mind-numbing social conventions were his stories’ antagonists. Still, it’s true that what he wrote was patently not for everyone, in no small part because of the unforgiving narrative irony. “Freedom exists and the will also exists,” Mann wrote, “but free will does not exist because the will that aims toward its freedom plunges into the void.” Castorp, Leverkühn, Aschenbach, and other Mann protagonists aren’t heroic figures: they’re waxmen in motion toward the sun. You can clutch-and-gear into all life’s spinning constellations either a lot or a little, Mann would have us understand, and in the process you’ll compromise your self either a lot or a little. His self-destructive inner poetics are so intricate they must be real.
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