This book took me by surpize. It is an evocation-I usually that word carefully-of the mid years of the Weimar Republic, written, in 1925, when Thomas Mann’s gay son, Klaus, was NINETEEN. The micro-politics of the troubled Mann family and the macro-politics of the equally troubled Weimar embryo democracy and what followed it(the gradual, sinister rise to power of Hitler and his national Socialist Party)are better written about outside this blog; I shall concentrate on the tone and content of this book in particular.
In content, Andreas is trying to find his way as regards his sexual orientation identity and his self generally, though his amorphous, vague, allusive presentation by the omniscient narrator matches this with a similar style/tone. He arrives in Berlin, and explores the underworld and gay/ tranvestite/ cabaret subculture of the Weimar years there, working as a rentboy(it is strongly implied-Mann varies in his overtness, but MUCH coded, reperative reading is not needed)and half-hearted cabaret artiste; he stays in a lodging house, peopled by a lesbian(who has a specified lover), artists and cabaret performers: one of the most moving of many poignant portrayals is of Paulchen , a rentboy, who doubles as a cabaret artist, performing an impression of a little vulnerable bird: Paulchen is camp, flamboyant but very self-unknowing. He falls in love with Andreas, and when Andreas gently rejects him, he kills himself. Andreas , in turn, falls for the heterosexual Neils, and, despite humiliation from the latter, follows him to Paris. The story is only bare bones; the narrative is essentially a series of tableaux or cameos.
It is the TONE and STYLE(indivisible as they are) that I find startling. Colm Toibin, in his essay in the “London Review of Books”, “I could sleep with all of them”,(11/08), which is also a review of Weiss’ book, “In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain:The Erika and Klaus Mann story”, is quite harsh on Klaus’ more well known novel, “Mephisto”,a Faustean indictment of the growth and corruption and evil of National Socialism; I have not read that(yet) so cannot comment on it in particualar; but there seem to me great similarities between Toibin’s style and tone and Mann’s; (Toibin does not mention whether he has or has not read “The Pious Dance”). There is an understated melancholy of tone: for instance, at the end, after Neils has denied him, Andreas is decribed thus:”But his pity was distilled into a fresh formula, a mysterious thought, which was: I believe in this world. He did not quite understand what he meant by that and how he had managed to arrive at it. ..With wind blown hair and clasped hands his eyes rested on the men going by, and they looked back at him laughing and he was a runner, praying”. There is the same yearning, vaguely elusive melancholy Toibin conveys so well in, for instance, the end of the “Story of the Night”, where the two sick lovers re-commit to each other, tentatively and tenderly.”Pious” or “piety” mean, to Andreas, and, probably to Mann, (because the tale is largely autobiographical),not the conventional narrow, sense of religious observance but also that piety is about being open to physical/body/SEXUAL experience; and Mann makes clear that he does not believe in the body/spirit duality or polarization, which has caused so many problems and so much prejudice(for instance, of women and gay people) in many cultures. Even in the free underworld of Weimar Berlin this seems to me quite remarkable.
But that rich but elusive yet alluring tone pervades. I can hear cries of “sentimental”, though all that word means is “full of feeling”, deriving, as it does, from the Latin verb sentire/sentui/sentivi/sentitum, to feel, with no perjorative overtone(later imposed- to mean some kind of “sugary”, “effeminate” emotion).
Read it; it is a candidate for the history of forgotten gay AND any fiction. And see if you are as startled as me; remaindered copies are available, fairly cheaply, from Amazon