Friday, March 4, 2011

Thomas Mann's Wise Words

On my subway ride to work this morning, I began reading "The Best German Novelist of His Time," an article by Phillip Lopate in the February 24, 2011, issue of The New York Review of Books. Lopate is discussing the writer Theodor Fontane, whose work I have never read. In fact, I hadn't planned on reading this article; I'm way behind on my magazine reading (I'm already carrying around the March 10 issue of NYRB), and I usually find the reviews of novels and the articles about novelists to be the less-interesting part of that excellent magazine. But I guess the Germanophile in me won out, and I didn't have to wait long for my reward.

The fourth paragraph of the article is an extended quote from another great German novelist, Thomas Mann, discussing "The Old Fontane":
Does it not seem as though he had to grow old, very old, in order to fulfil himself completely? Just as there are youths born to be youths only, fulfilling themselves in early life and not maturing, certainly not growing old; so it would seem that there are other temperaments whose only appropriate age is old; who are, so to speak, classic old men, ordained to show humanity the ideal qualities of that last stage of life: benignity, kindness, justice, humour, and shrewd wisdom—in short a recrudescence on a higher plane of childhood’s artless unrestraint. Fontane’s was such a temperament.
What a great quote. What a great insight in one man and into men. One could probably stretch Mann's words too far by trying to apply them to not just people but countries, but it would be a fascinating effort, if done well. Until that occurs, however, I am going to let Mann's words shift around in my head and grow more interesting as their human applications add up.

Mr. Lopate's full article (partially behind a pay wall) is on the NYRB's web site. It's also available in print if you can still find the February 24, 2011 issue around.

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