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Alex Carnevale

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In Which Katia Mann Conceived On Her Honeymoon

The Courtship of Katia Mann


To use the words of young Nietzsche, I love and affirm in "the atmosphere of ethics, the Faustian flavour, the cross, death and the grave." In art I believe in pain, experience, recognition, love, profundity, and confront all superficial beauty with either irony or impatience, as seems appropriate.

Four fantastic years of Thomas Mann's life were spent in the arms of a man. Sex with women had never really interested the German writer, although he was able to maintain an erection with women at times while picturing a more masculine partner. His lover during those four annums was Paul Ehrenberg, a German Jew far lovelier than Mann himself. Mann enjoyed the company of Paul, who was a talented violinist and his brother Carl. But the older man was already a visible novelist and critic with a promising future. Nor could Paul's affections entirely be relied upon; Mann wrote of his boyfriend, "How is so much torture possible?"

No, Ehrenberg was the wrong choice for so many reasons. Thomas Mann needed a wife.

Mann's requirements were not demanding. He wanted a woman who was not overly desirous of sex or demonstrative of her ardor. He needed a wife who would not feel thrummed down by the extensive time he devoted to literary craftsmanship, someone with her own life and family. When he first met Katia Pringsheim, that characteristic of a woman enmeshed in her tight knit family was also a curse. How to pry her away.

Katia Pringsheim 

Twenty-year old Katia was not lacking for suitors, and the leading candidate was a professor in his early fifties who, from all available evidence, could furnish her with more of the comfortable upper-middle class life to which she had become accustomed. In Germany before the war, there existed an entire echelon of upper-class, mainly secular Jews, none of whom could ever have imagined the gruesome fate that awaited so many of them.

Katia's father and twin brother Klaus both favored the well-mannered professor over Mann, and it was only Katia's mother, a former actress, who saw something in the awkward, regimented behavior of the writer. Showing up at Katia's door looking somewhat like A.J. Soprano in his military school uniform, Mann was never terribly good at controlling how he appeared to others. "Gently and tactfully," he had written of the brothers Ehrenberg, "they overcame my gravity, diffidence and irritability by accepting them frankly as concomitants of talents they respected."

The pursuit of this woman, unexpectedly, roused something in him. He struggled to work up the courage to have someone introduce him to Katia, even though a few of his friends knew the Pringsheims well. Watching her across an amphitheater, he described "her appearance of wanting to hide her awareness that many people were looking at her." He wrote about her in his journal, mostly to describe how ineffectual he felt his passion was, and sometimes to jot down ideas for stories which paralleled his own experience:

Detail for a love story. As passion wanes, there is an increase in one's ability to conquer, to make oneself loved. For days he had suffered frightfully over her, full of yearning, weak, disoriented broken down, ill. Then after seeing her again in a big hat which did not specially suit her, he suddenly felt healthier, fresher, more free, more forward, less full of yearning, stronger, more "egoistic," able to challenge, score points, pay court, make an impression.

As all this was going on, he was slowly, exhaustively, finishing his reading of Goethe.

his writing desk
Eventually, Mann felt the strong inclination to make himself known to Katia. On a daily basis she bicycled to her experimental physics classes, but when it rained she took the tram. He watched her have a fiery argument with a conductor who demanded a ticket she had thrown away, and something else took over. The next week he pretended to return a book to her house, and in ensuing days he invented other excuses to call on the Pringsheims.

Mann shocked himself by how much he admired her; she was "a miracle, something indescribably rare and precious, a creature who through her more existence has more cultural value than the output of fifteen writers or thirty painters." He also could not help but notice her essential boyishness, an androgynous charm that called to him.

Katia's mother had soundly cast her vote in favor of Mann, but the rest of the family, including Katia, was not as convinced. Mann mostly expressed his feelings to Katia in a mode of worship, a predilection that made the object of his affection uncomfortable. It did not help that they were always chaperoned, ensuring the two would continously encounter various black holes in conversation. Mann did better in his writing, expressing himself in a way that felt oppressive in person. He tried to logically reason things out:

I am quite aware of not being a man who arouses simple and instantaneously safe feelings. To prompt mixed feelings and 'perplexity' is after all forgive me! a sign of personality. Someone who never provokes doubts, never astonishes, never causes a slight feeling of dread, someone who is always simply lovable is a fool, a phantom, a figure of fun.

beach day

This did not even represent the full spectrum of his "awareness."

I am aware of causing a certain awkwardness through my 'lack of spontaneity,' of ingenousness, of unself-consciousness, all the nervousness, artificiality and difficulty of my nature, hinders everyone, even the most well-meaning people, from coming closer to me or even dealing with me in a bearable, comfortable way; and that troubles me all the more when I detect in people's behaviour towards me that warmer interest which is called sympathy, and in spite of all the obstacles, this happens with quite incredible frequency...

You know that personally, humanly, I could not develop like other young people, that a talent can function like a vampire bloodsucking, parasitic. You know what a cold, impoverished, merely representative, merely symbolical life I have been living for years, know that for many years, important years, I regarded myself as nothing, in human terms, and wanted to be considered only as an artist. Only one cure is possible for the attachment to the representative and artistic, this lack of instinctive trust in my personal and human side: through happiness; through you, my clever, sweet, good-hearted, beloved little queen. Be my affirmation, my justification, my fulfilment, my salvation, my wife. 

Katia felt she could not give him an answer yet. He despaired at her reticence and caution, and his friend Kurt Martens encouraged him to give her a deadline or pull away for a time altogether to see what she would do. Mann resisted putting this pressure on Katia, correctly thinking that making his feelings seem so changeable was more likely to unnerve her than draw her closer. Instead, he continued along the same lines, making the legal case for himself:

Silly little Katia. Still carrying on about "overrating,' and insisting you will be unable to "be" for me what I expect you to be. But I love you. Good God! Do you not understand what that means? What else is there to expect and to be? My wife is what I want you to "be," and in that way to make me absurdly proud and happy. After all, what I "make of you," the meaning I give you which you have and will have for my life is my concern, and it gives you no bother or responsibility.

Katia and her brother Klaus
Mann's letters were unlike any others she received, and slowly she began to warm to him. Whenever the idea of marriage came up, a deeply fearful look overtook her (Mann described it as that of a "hunted doe"), but other than that, the couple enjoyed spending time together. Finally, one afternoon before she was to leave Munich for the summer, Katia and Thomas were permitted an afternoon alone. Afterwards he wrote "there was a indescribably sweet and painful parting which is still present in all my nerves and senses."

He doubted her until the very moment of her assent. "Her naivety is extraordinary supreme and dumbfounding," he wrote. "This strange, kind-hearted and yet egotistical little Jew-girl, polite and without a will of her own! I can still hardly believe she will ever bring the word Yes to her lips."

the Mann family many years later

Mann tried to appeal to Katia's more rational faculties after all, she was a student of mathematics. She insisted that in comparison to him, she was stupid and not worthy of his adulation. It was his letters that finally got to her. Mann's desire for her to be his wife was so evident and honestly broadcasted, that she could not truly feel she was getting any part of the man that was not the real thing. In one particular missive, he even confessed to weeping at the sight of her handwriting.

At first she had been overwhelmed. Now she was simply whelmed, and Mann knew it was his moment. "I believe you feel as strongly as I do that it is high time to put an end to this in between state! Do you not think that once we belong together in the eyes of the world, the relationship will be much more clean-cut and comfortable?" Mann biographer Ronald Hayman described the moment: "When he took her in his arms, he was half-surprised she neither pushed him away or called for help." The wedding took place on February 11th, 1905. Katia conceived on her honeymoon, and the two had sex very infrequently, mainly indulging themselves only to get Katia Mann with child.

After the engagement, Mann lost all touch with the Ehrenbergs, and Paul himself was married by the next year.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which The Affair Remains Ongoing For This Man

What You Know


The Affair
creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi

This summer in the Hamptons (think of how many sentences begin this way), two British actors were dining among Americans. In their native countries Damian Lewis and Dominic West can eat in relative peace. In a brunch spot that is known for attracting real actors and Real Housewives, the two mercilessly mocked an ongoing series of photograph seekers. I can't blame them for becoming annoyed at the depravity of an American cultural class which admires them as performers, but hopefully not as people. Don't be too critical of these heady auteurs: the Eton-educated Lewis and West pursue a hard but meaningful policy. They are bad men on the screen, and Stanislavsky demands they be just as disturbed on vacation.

It just got worse and worse for Dominic West's loathsome author, Noah Solloway, on The Affair. It wasn't fully clear how sinister he was until that definitive moment in the Hamptons. Noah is the kind of person who can do ten good things for one bad reason. Last season on The Affair, which is without doubt the most sexually enlightened series ever broadcast on pay cable, he had reached the heights of the literary world, and begun setting up a new life with his lover, Alison (Ruth Wilson). By the end of the season, he was about to do a three-year jaunt in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

During this phenomenal second season, which you should really go back and watch, the center of the show moved to his ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney). In her vibrant youth, Tierney was a magnetic actress, too vulnerable to be the girl-next-door and too reserved to elicit anything but our admiring sympathy. She has carried this precious balance into middle age. One episode had her on drugs for the duration, and it was so gripping I squeezed all the juice out of an orange I was casually holding.

Divorce proceedings had begun for Helen and Noah, but there seemed to be a possibile reconcilation of sorts when he went to Fishkill Correctional Facility for a crime that she ostensibly committed — running over the brother of Pacey (Joshua Jackson) one foggy night. Three years seemed a bit much for this crime, but I suppose there was negligence involved. In any case, the third season of The Affair has Noah in a full beard, on parole, teaching at a New Jersey college.

Everyone he meets in this new life knows about his past because they read his book. Noah Solloway is the kind of author who writes only from his own experience. This is a necessity, since he only gathers flashes of what other people feel as it relates to himself, and cannot assemble these insights into a larger whole. This is Noah's crippling flaw, and boy does the guy pay for it.

On campus, he meets a comparative literature professor (Irene Jacob) who looks at him the way I look at a croissant. It feels like The Affair creator Sarah Treem could not wait to get Noah Solloway on a college campus, because from Noah's amusing scene meeting with his parole officer in his own classroom, to the traditional parody of a horrid writing workshop, Noah seems satisfyingly out of place among all these normals. Only he could turn the wackiness of higher education into something reassuring.

Treem sets up an exciting enough cliffhanger for the end of the first episode. When The Affair gives us the usual satisfactions of its noir concept, we are pleased enough. Treem is the kind of writer who is good at everything she does, it is only a matter of what she chooses to do.

The Affair's subject matter is so wide-ranging from episode-to-episode that when it finally coheres as a whole, the entire stunning achievement comes suddenly into view. The more imminent pleasures of this New York-based series are to be found in Noah's misanthropic little phone calls to Alison, his chopped but respectful way of speaking to his ex-wife, in the fashion he begs a liquor store owner for forgiveness. Even the most powerful can be reduced to desperation in only an instant.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Perform An Operation On Doctor Strange

You Would Have Done It So Easy


Doctor Strange
dir. Scott Derrickson
115 minutes

Everyone in Doctor Strange is extremely cognizant of Dr. Stephen Strange's white privilege. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is overly contemptuous of the knowledge Strange presumes as a neurosurgeon. "There is no such thing as a spirit," Strange proclaims to her, touching her chest with his hand. Strictly speaking, he tells the truth — magic in Doctor Strange consists of hand-to-hand combat at a slightly quickly pace. When the characters enter The Mirror Dimension, they move slightly quicker and everything looks like an M.C. Escher drawing. But they still fight each other as men and women do.

Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a talented surgeon whose hands are destroyed in a car crash. When he wakes up, his ex-lover and colleague Christine (a pert looking Rachael McAdams) explains that no one could have fixed his digits to the point where he would be allowed to continue performing surgeries. "I could have," he tells her, and then passes out from the extreme trauma of his ordeal.

He is a serious dick after this to everyone, but not exactly as bad as he could have been. He blows through all of his savings looking for a cure, to the point where he is unable to pay the mortgage on a glitzy condo. He finally meets up with Benjamin Bratt on a basketball court, who tells him to head to Nepal.

The next forty minutes of Doctor Strange takes place in Nepal without featuring a single individual from that country, which has to be some kind of record. Swinton runs a cute retreat there, with fully featured wifi and an incredible library. The most dangerous books in the facility are held against the wall by chains for some reason. It is a symbolic imprisonment that parallels the weight of the knowledge they hold.

Slowly, Dr. Strange becomes substantially more attracted to Tilda Swinton than his old girlfriend, who took care of him. Doctor Strange implies that we should be contemptuous of those who tell us how to help ourselves, and treasure more direct aid. When Strange returns to Christine, she moves in for a soft kiss, but he tells her that he has to go away. He can't bear to even look at her. 

Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is the kind of patient villain who is always explaining his point of view. He seems strangely sympathetic by the end, reducing the weak plot of Doctor Strange to an internecine struggle between coteries within the same discipline. Cumberbatch gets a lot of scenes with Karl (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Ejiofor is not really suited to this lame sidekick role and he and Cumberbatch have about zero chemistry together.

After its bravura opening, Doctor Strange turns into a slog, an impressive feat considering the movie is well short of two hours long. Strange's powers mostly consist of projecting green and orange circles at his opponents, and sometimes toying with time. Both are among the most basic tricks that a wizard can master, and really don't come across as all that eye-popping. Inexperienced director Scott Derrickson seems overwhelmed by the material, and his action scenes are frequently confusing but never pleasantly surprising.

All the emotional parts of Doctor Strange happen in the first thirty minutes of the film. After that, nothing is the least bit consequential, especially after Tilda Swinton has a long talk about how many different universes there are. If so many outcomes are indeed possible, then it is hard to care about any singular one. Kaecilius destroys an important building in Hong Kong, so Strange rewinds time and tries to prevent it.  

Eventually he meets a purple head in another dimension with whom there is no reasoning. This is a prescient metaphor for our current president-elect, or maybe just terrible storytelling. I couldn't tell which.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.