Close Reading: Thomas Mann

From time to time in this blog, I’ll comment on a line or two of prose I find particularly pleasing or intriguing.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas MannIn his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann offers us the following portrait of a painter in Munich during World War I:

Over the years, the apartment grew more beautiful still, or at least more crowded and color, for Dr. Institoris was a friend of several of those Munich artists associated with the more sober Glass Palace school (his artistic taste being rather tame despite theoretical advocacy of glittering violence), in particular of a certain Nottebohm—a native of Hamburg, a married man, gaunt-cheeked, goateed, and droll, with an amusing talent for imitating actors, animals, musical instruments, and professors; a pillar of those carnival balls that now, to be sure, were on the wane; a man adept at the social technique of ensnaring his subjects and, I may say, an inferior, all-too-smooth painter. (p. 346, John E. Woods translation)

I particularly like the order in which Mann lists Nottebohm’s imitations. We seem to be working down a sliding scale of consciousness—actors, animals, musical instruments—and then—boom!—like a kettledrum going off we get the word “professors.” It makes Nottebohm’s impression of professors seem all the more mincing and ridiculous. The line is much funnier than if Mann had begun with professors, which might have been a more logical choice. But Mann is deft. He doesn’t overlook this opportunity for a bit a carnival humor and a way to enliven his description of this all-too-smooth painter.