- The Architecture of Narrative Time: Thomas Mann and the Problems of Modern Narrative by Erica Wickerson
What is the place of Thomas Mann in contemporary modernist studies in the Anglophone world? The question may seem absurd. After all, Mann remains one of the most canonical German-language authors from the early twentieth century—eclipsed by Franz Kafka, perhaps, but surely still ahead of Alfred Döblin and Stefan George, probably also of Bertolt Brecht and Rainer Maria Rilke. But when was the last time any trailblazing general study of literary modernism included a chapter on Mann? His name dutifully appears in listings of major figures, but rarely are his actual works deemed worthy of sustained analysis anymore. When we want to illustrate what constitutes modernist prose, we readily turn to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and a handful of others, but no longer really to Mann. He himself anticipated this. During the last decade of his life, the fear that he might be eclipsed by Joyce remained perpetually with him, and his late masterpiece Doctor Faustus was partially born from the ambition to write a novel that might compete with the likes of Ulysses.
One great achievement of Erica Wickerson's book, then, is that it unapologetically juxtaposes analyses of many of Mann's major works with equally trenchant readings of other twentieth-century texts: Mrs. Dalloway, The Tin Drum, Saturday, and Maus, to name just a few. The connections that Wickerson draws between these works are formal, rather than historic, stylistic, or personal. She is interested, in other words, in helping us see how narrative innovations pioneered by Mann can help shed light on a whole host of other authors as well.
Wickerson's overarching aim in the book is "to establish how the experience of time may be evoked in words" (2). This is well-trodden territory, of course. In the English-speaking world, Mann's most popular longer work has always been The Magic Mountain (in contrast to Germany, where Buddenbrooks far outranks it in terms of readership), and the "experience of time" is unmistakably that novel's central theme. But Wickerson believes that this emphasis on a single novel has caused previous critics to overlook the rich investigations of temporal problems that Mann conducts in his other works. As we shall see shortly, this is a somewhat dubious claim, though Wickerson undeniably offers up an array of fresh readings.
Her study is divided into five chapters, which are devoted to "Space," "Performance," "Symbols and Motifs," "Myth," and "History," respectively. The invocation of these brief titles already indicates that this is not a conventional foray into the poetics of time. And indeed, after dutifully summarizing some of the main narratological and philosophical treatments of the subject (by A. A. Mendilow, Paul Ricoeur, Gérard Genette, Mark Currie, etc.), Wickerson charts out her own ground.
The opening chapter investigates how what Joseph Frank would have called "spatial form" may be used to manipulate the experience of time on the level of a single scene or even sentence. It is in this chapter also that we find what was, for me, the most riveting close reading in [End Page 847] a study that is full of close encounters with literature. To illustrate how spatial description itself can become a vehicle through which to convey temporal experience, Wickerson turns to a short passage from The Magic Mountain in which the protagonist Hans and his brother Joachim visit the home of the Berghof's chief clinician, Doktor Behrens. As Wickerson shows, each sentence in this passage hangs in a remarkable balance between stasis and action, description and movement. The whole paragraph is constructed like a mobile made of words. Wickerson then juxtaposes this passage with related moments in Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, and The Trial, thereby showing us what connects Mann to other writers of his generation, but also what makes him original.
The second chapter is even more interesting than the first. Drawing heavily on Judith Butler's concept of "performativity...