'He has enormously increased the difficulties of being a novelist.' Perhaps only a writer of very High Modernist tendencies would take this remark as a compliment, but Thomas Mann certainly did, and it wasn't even addressed to him. He found it in Harry Levin's little book on Joyce, which he read in 1944. He was also much drawn to another sentence in the same work: 'The best writing of our contemporaries is not an act of creation, but an act of evocation, peculiarly saturated with reminiscences.' Mann had assumed, he said, that, compared with Joyce's experiments, his own writing could only look like loose dedication to tradition, but he was now encouraged to see resemblances rather than differences. If Joyce's experimentalism necessarily engaged tradition, and Mann's traditionalism was never untouched by parody, the writers' projects could well meet. Around this time Mann attended a public reading given by his friend Bruno Frank. He liked the writing and the performance but was struck by the fact that Frank used seriously the 'humanistic' narrative style that he himself could use only ironically. 'Stylistically,' he wrote in his diary, 'I now really know only parody. In this close to Joyce.'
LRB 6 February 2003 | PDF Download