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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in alex carnevale (227)

Tuesday
Nov152016

In Which Katia Mann Conceived On Her Honeymoon

The Courtship of Katia Mann

by ALEX CARNEVALE

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.

Tuesday
Nov082016

In Which Dorothy Thompson Wonders If It Was Ever There

The Potent Man

by ALEX CARNEVALE

They say it's dead, but for me better the corpse of Vienna than any other place.

The sight of Sinclair Lewis sober was extremely rare. His wife, the writer Dorothy Thompson, had to rely on Vienna's key strength to resurrect her husband from his hangovers: coffee. "Coffee in Vienna is more than a national drink," she wrote. "It is a national cult. Palaces have been built for it: palaces where there are satin-brocaded walls, deep divans, onyx-topped tables, great windows curtained in gold-colored silk. These palaces are center of Vienna's most perfected cultures." Every cafe in town was an institution in itself, "sometimes a club, sometimes an office, sometimes just restaurant, but always full of life, atmosphere, and - smoke."

Vienna's black marketers gravitated towards the Cafe Atlantis, across from the Imperial Hotel. The Lewis' apartment was not far from there. Christmas in Vienna in 1933 might have been a sedate affair had it not been for Dorothy's parties. It was there she felt a final distance in her marriage and realized she was in love with one of her guests: a German artist and writer named Christa Winsloe.

It was Dorothy's third lesbian infatuation. She wrote in her journal, "It has happened to me again, after all these years. It has only, really, happened to me once before." There were aspects of women that she missed in her messier relationships with men, and probably ones she never wrote down. What she would say was that women had softer mouths, and that sex was like, "being made love to by an impotent man."

Dorothy saw the relationship that Christa had with her ex-husband. As she saw, what they shared was as close to loving as a lesbian woman could have with a man. "For two divorced people," Thompson would say later, "they are the most married couple I have ever seen."

Christa Winsloe

It was a fight between the two ex-marrieds that precipated Dorothy's entrance into Christa's life. Christa and her ex had fought on New Year's Eve, driving her into Dorothy's arms. They talked for hours. "We kissed each other and she called me 'liebling' and said 'I will write to you and telephone, and you will not get rid of me.' And I felt full of beatitude." Dorothy checked her enthusiasm for the young relationship at the door, trying to convince herself she would be happy to have simple friendship with Christa.

Her own marriage was getting worse at the same time. Lewis' drinking had worsened, and although his wife was pregnant, he did not treat her any more sensitively. She practiced ice skating in order to prevent weight gain from the pregnancy. One night she came home to find Lewis had wrecked the apartment in a drunken rage, destroying all the rented furniture. He hit her for the first time in their entire marriage when she objected.

posing for a bust

For her, this was the last straw, although Lewis still tried to reunite with his wife, writing, "You seem to me in my mad life my one refuge and security. You see, I don't care a damn - not anymore at least - for fame and all those amiable experiences, but only (and this is a not-too-easy contradiction) for you and Mickey on the one hand, and Freedom (whatever that empty thing may be) on the other." A geographical separation made the two feel a deeper alienation, constituting a second violence. (Lewis had relocated to London while Dorothy wrapped up their affairs at their summer home in Vienna.) Just before leaving Vienna, she also lost her pregnancy.

with her son Michael

She pretended to forgive Lewis, but instead of returning to London, she took the train to Berlin to report on the rise of Nazism. Fleeing that damned place, she moved to Portofino with Christa and a gay butler named Giovanni. She kept her husband apprised of her living situation, informing him that the Italian manservant "does everything but our hair." She also told him how "terribly funny it is sharing a house with another woman."

Much later he would call her to tell her the news: this tendentious alcoholic was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. "Oh have you!" Dorothy responded. "Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"

The initial attraction between Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson had always been a bit of a longshot. Lewis' friends called him Red; he was losing that hair, and precancerous lesions from acne dotted his visage. According to her, he looked like he had "survived a battle with flamethrowers." The day her divorce became final she invited him over for dinner.

As soon as they were married and things started to go sour, Thompson began looking outside of her marriage for what the man inside it could not provide. She entertained her guests at the Austrian villa where she and Lewis spent their weekends. She kept meticulous, anonymous notebooks on the activities of her and her lovers. One reads

I went for a walk with E. and in the woods he turned suddenly and put both hands on my cheeks and we clung together. His mouth tasted deliciously of love, like the smell of semen, and I could have lain down with him right there in the woods then and there as I could have done for five years, except that we agreed that we wouldn't.

As she got older, the affairs turned into even more questioning events. Lewis would come home drunk and strike their son, only inspiring a new round of "What does it all mean?" Household staff could only watch in shock as the couple's bitter arguments went from room to room.

Their son Michael's nurse observed to Dorothy that "he worshipped the ground you walked on. When he heard you were coming home from a trip he would send for the barber to shave him, insist that all his clothes should be in apple-pie order, dress as though he were going to court. And then, often you'd hardly be in the house, when he'd start a quarrel, and then, as likely as not, he'd call the car and leave the next morning."

Dorothy's affair with Christa Winsloe ended when Christa fell in love with a man, an Italian basso named Ezio Pinza who she had seen perform in Salzburg. She tried to reassure Dorothy that this was only a passing infatuation, but Thompson realized Christa had become another person who no longer knew how to return her feelings. She wrote,

Like all love I wonder now if it was ever there. Oh, yes, it was there, but didn't all the threads run from me to you, and none really run back? You will not answer me, not help me, perhaps only because you do not want to hurt me. I write with my eyes full of tears, and my heart full of tears, and I wish they flowed because of someone else, because then perhaps you would comfort me. Or would you? Why is it that one's own love can sustain one for so long without any reciprocity, and then, suddenly, it can't anymore?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Friday
Nov042016

In Which Whit Stillman Remakes Metropolitan For Some Reason

Lady Susan

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Love & Friendship
dir. Whit Stillman
93 minutes

Whit Stillman is always saying things he half means. "In terms of almost everything, I think it’s a superior time, for music, architecture, manners, thought," he told an interviewer about the 18th century. What he actually is trying to say is this: "Now is terrible. Why now? Why is this now?"

During one scene in Love & Friendship, a character named Frederica (Morfydd Clark) sits in a parlor and reads a book, a collection by the English poet Cowper. Her suitor approaches and can't believe his eyes. "You read both verse and poetry," he gawps. This is not a superior moment. In 1990, which was also not the best year, Whit Stillman made Metropolitan, and for the next quarter century he has tried to remake it five times, with less and less fidelity.

You see, Stillman had a set of satirical observations about the world and the society in which he grew up (prep school, Harvard, etc). It is to his credit that these were not positive impressions, but it is to his detriment that he never developed any other observations. Now in his 60s, he continues to set the basic story of Metropolitan in a variety of settings: once he even wanted to do Metropolitan in Jamaica! The general undercurrent is usually the same; it is no accident that Stillman mentions the superior manners of the late 18th century, because he has always been obsessed with bad manners.

Jane Austen shared this passion, but unlike Stillman, she felt the need to explain what good ones were. Lady Susan Vernon (a weirdly tan Kate Beckinsale) is one of Austen's great characters – a woman so intrisically diabolical that when she walks into a room the inhabitants shudder. At the beginning of Love & Friendship she has no money, she has one friend and her daughter has no husband or future. By the end, this situation is completely corrected.

Austen found Lady Susan as detestable as some of the other characters in the milieu, but to Stillman's great credit, he sees her as the heroine. She takes an interest in the younger brother of her sister-in-law Catherine (rising star Emma Greenwell), but abandons her plan when the family objects to the merger. She is deeply in love with a married man, a certain Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin, who does not have a single line), who has an obstreperous wife. After they separate, she keeps him around even though he has no money, and marries a man who can get along with them both.

Beginning in 1998's The Last Days of Disco, Stillman saw something in Kate Beckinsale that other directors have struggled to extract from her performances. She projects an aura of genuine feeling at all times that allows us to relate to her despite her varying behavior, even as her availability vacillates between unlikely and impossible. Her sexuality has altered slightly as she enters middle age. Whereas before there was the sense that she might have been preserved in amber, now we verifiably know she has been in the shit. I believe she dated Michael Sheen for quite some time.

Stillman's favorite actress remains Chloe Sevigny, who probably has a good thirty years of playing Ellen Burstyn-esque roles ahead of her. Both actresses excel at the Stillman banter, which is best described in this fashion: one woman makes an observation, the other woman agrees, the first woman demurs, the second woman demurs, accommodation is reached. At times the patter goes a bit quickly, but the writing is so much better than Stillman's brief, insanely boring Amazon pilot that we are just glad he is having fun again.

Hidden behind the incredibly amusing dialogue is a more meaningful story, one that expresses the kind of feeling a mother has for her daughter. Metropolitan itself became quite moving at times, and these are the moments where Stillman himself seems surprised at the depth of his creations: that they almost have their own agency. It is just as inevitable, however, that he becomes appalled by their transparency, as in his 2011's Damsels in Distress, so it is probably for the best that Love & Friendship ends after 90 minutes.

The problem with Austen, and to be honest the 18th century in general, is that it was a real dead end. To see men and women relating to each other in such a dishonest fashion is actually a bit jarring. Stillman draws particular attention to the misogyny of the period, and it is this view which persuades us that he believes the 18th century is no better than any other. He is forced to conclude there is really no special time and place to be a part of, unless you were gay and in Berlin before the war. That was not to be missed.

Allowing for his critical observations of the time period, Stillman finally seems to be enjoying himself at all times. Love & Friendship, besides being completely hysterical and the best comedy this year, unfolds its enthusiasms over even the simplest scenes. Stillman is a fantastic editor of Austen, a fact he openly admits, since he rewrote the epistolary version of Lady Susan into his own novel. If only he were this excited about tomorrow.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.