Your Friday Writing Challenge: Thomas Mann

It feels a little absurd to post a writing exercise when the news is full of tragedy and war. Particularly the passage from Thomas Mann that I was planning to use: macabre, irreverent, even callous.

And yet, writing is not a luxury. The goal of the working artist, of course, is to stick to a routine, as much as security and repose allow. In that ritual of regular work, the artist gives time a human shape, holding up her own life as the promise that one day the universe will accord more perfectly with human desires and human frailties–or, perhaps, that it already has been brought to accord, if only in a limited sense, today.

But even when the goal of writing is simply to entertain oneself, to practise remains no luxury. After all, there is not some more weighty, more substantial world, dreamless and pleasure-free, which is patiently waiting for us to throw off childish things and enter its gates. We would not be so drawn to stories were the need for diversion and surprise not built so deeply into our souls.

William Blake said, “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” I like to think about that, relatively comfortable as I am, with no apparent chance to influence the mighty and the cruel of our world, as I spend another morning imagining my novel’s characters and their plot.

Whew! That’s probably more than enough philosophy. Here’s the week’s prompt:

As before, I will post today the first half of a paragraph from a famous novel. You and I will both write the second half of that paragraph (without looking at the original). In the comments to this post, I will post my attempt, and invite you to do the same.

(Last week, three writers offered up responses, which was amazing. Thank you.)

Then, on Sunday or Monday, I’ll post the author’s original version, and we can judge how closely our paragraph matches up. If we went in a very different direction to the original, we can try to work out why. Perhaps we achieved something better than the classic…

(Click here for a more substantial explanation of the series.)

Berlin, Thomas Mann

Right now, I’m reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by John E. Woods. It’s a whimsical novel of ideas and sexuality, fun to read but quite slow-paced. The premise is this: in the early years of the twentieth century, the protagonist, Hans Castorp, arrives at a health sanatorium in the Alps to visit his cousin, intending to stay only a few weeks. He ends up staying much, much longer.

This paragraph comes very early in the book. Hans has an awkward first day, with several odd conversations with the residents and doctors. Then, in the next chapter, Thomas Mann jumps back in time, and introduces us to Castorp’s origin and childhood, getting us more familiar with our protagonist through a long section of exposition. That childhood was not too happy, as you’ll see from the example passage.

Here’s the original start of the paragraph:

Hans Castrop retained only faint recollections of his actual parental home; he had hardly known his father and mother. They had both dropped dead within the brief period between his fifth and seventh years of life. His mother had died first, quite unexpectedly, while awaiting the birth of a second child, of an arterial blockage caused by phlebitis, an embolism, Dr. Heidekind had called it, triggering instantaneous cardiac paralysis—she had been sitting up in bed, laughing, and it looked as if she simply toppled over in a fit of laughter, whereas in fact she did it because she was dead. It was not something Hans Hermann Castorp, the father, found easy to understand, and since…

To do the writing exercise, write a few more sentences to complete this paragraph. My version will be posted in the comments. If you like, post your own version there, too.

At the end of the weekend, I’ll post Mann’s full paragraph, and we can compare.

Sound interesting?

Best wishes to you all,

Daniel

Photo credits:

Incheon International Airport (summer 2013) 06” by myself (User:Piotrus) – Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H28795, Berlin, Thomas Mann” by Unknown – This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project. The German Federal Archive guarantees an authentic representation only using the originals (negative and/or positive), resp. the digitalization of the originals as provided by the Digital Image Archive.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0-de via Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “Your Friday Writing Challenge: Thomas Mann

  1. Here’s my attempt at the paragraph:

    Hans Castrop retained only faint recollections of his actual parental home; he had hardly known his father and mother. They had both dropped dead within the brief period between his fifth and seventh years of life. His mother had died first, quite unexpectedly, while awaiting the birth of a second child, of an arterial blockage caused by phlebitis, an embolism, Dr. Heidekind had called it, triggering instantaneous cardiac paralysis—she had been sitting up in bed, laughing, and it looked as if she simply toppled over in a fit of laughter, whereas in fact she did it because she was dead. It was not something Hans Hermann Castorp, the father, found easy to understand, and since he was a weak man, fond of eerie and over-complex theories about health and the machinations of government agencies, he became a near-constant inhabitant of his own office, spending long nights there, wrapped in blankets and eating canned food. Young Hans waited alone in the house for his father to return, the freshly painted walls awaiting him everywhere he looked. He thought if he were a good boy, his daddy would come home shortly, and so he attempted to remain at all times silent and still, a boy-sized statue perched on the edge of a chair.

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  2. I have learned that the works of Alfred, lord Tennyson, and those of sir walter Scott are passé and no longer read. I love these two authors. Is it true they are considered to be outdated? What modern works should I read to replace them? I shall love them forever and can’t imagine replacements for them. Peregrine

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  3. Hans Castrop retained only faint recollections of his actual parental home; he had hardly known his father and mother. They had both dropped dead within the brief period between his fifth and seventh years of life. His mother had died first, quite unexpectedly, while awaiting the birth of a second child, of an arterial blockage caused by phlebitis, an embolism, Dr. Heidekind had called it, triggering instantaneous cardiac paralysis—she had been sitting up in bed, laughing, and it looked as if she simply toppled over in a fit of laughter, whereas in fact she did it because she was dead. It was not something Hans Hermann Castorp, the father, found easy to understand, and since Hans, the son, was only five, how could young Hans understand? He couldn’t and his father didn’t try. It would mean a sad life for his son, fearing ever to laugh.

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