In 1936, several short stories by Thomas Mann were translated and published in the collection, Stories of Three Decades. The translator of the anthology, Helen T. Lowe-Porter, omitted six stories, calling them “tentative and awkward efforts”. But I found Six Early Stories (1893-1908) highly satisfactory. This collection is my first encounter with the works of Mann; I have not read any of his novels (yet). As such and unlike the translator, I cannot judge these stories against Mann’s opus. I can infer though that Mann, even early in his literary development, was a writer of considerable talent and technical skill.
In each of the stories, a creative and astute but somewhat weakened or flawed character has to contend with life’s issues within a well-ordered, healthy, middle or upper class environment with accepted bourgeois ethics. In Mann’s hands, these commonplace situations are portrayed with a precocious touch and are highly satirized. But it was the role and voice of the narrator that fascinated me most about the stories. Whether in first or third person, the narrator is detached and analytical yet maintains a keen interest in the story or the central character. The narrator appears conflicted and speaks with an ironic tone. Mann is deliberately unclear about the role or stance of the narrator in relation to the central character or the storyline. He undermines the narrator and the reader cannot quite trust what the voice says. These stories then are complex, multi-layered and well written.
I enjoyed most of the stories in this slim collection. My favorites include:
- The Will to Happiness, Mann’s first artist story, in which a rich family refuses to accept a sick artist as a son-in-law,
- Death – a curios story in which a Baron schedules a date with death, with unforeseen consequences.
- Avenged – a philanderer’s attempts to maintain a platonic relationship with a woman colleague.
Six Early Stories, as a sample of Mann’s early work, has whet my appetite for his longer and later pieces, such as The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice. I recommend this collection, which is translated by Peter Constantine, especially to those who have read Thomas Mann’s classic novels.