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Literary style inspiration: The Magic Mountain
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Always look up: Learning how to wonder
Rolling with James Joyce on an Irish hill
Ode to the bookish girls
Tea with Frances Towers
When we want “to see something without equal, the romantically different,” where should we go? Thomas Mann’s nameless protagonist asks in Death in Venice, but to a place that bears the “unfamiliar and the unrelated.”
Venice is many things. It is romantic and it is crowded. It is bold and it bears “the blinding composition of fantastic architecture.” Its marble sparkles in the sunlight and the canal rots in the heat of summer days.
Deciding what to wear in Venice depends on how you want to look while walking on bridges and swaying through the canal. Inspired by the romantic and morbid traits found in Mann’s short story, and the beauty of Venice itself, here are five things you can wear in Venice to look like a dream.
Jewelry – “Jewelry, a hot bath, and rest have often made a difference,” Mann’s protagonist says, as he looks to find rest in Venice. From statement necklaces that shimmer with the light of the moon to bold earrings worn with your hair pulled back and colored lips, jewelry always does help in turning us into an Italian dream.
Black – There is something eternally morbid about Mann’s stories and the gondola in Death in Venice is no exception, as it is described as a ride, “reminiscent of death itself…fanciful at times and which is so strangely black like normally coffins are.” I have always loved wearing black and this only gives me another excuse on not question what to wear in Venice in terms of color. So I shall stick to donning black, looking funereal and enigmatic.
Long skirts – Skimming through Daphne du Maurier’s pages of Echoes from the Macabre, I once came across a passage she wrote about how Venice is sinking. “The whole city is slowly dying,” she wrote, and far beneath the water and the architecture there is “a lost underworld of stone.” I always imagine women floating in the dingy waters of the canal, whenever I recall this passage, with their long skirts billowing and holding them up, as if they were Venetian Ophelias.
Dramatic coats – Everybody thinks Venice belongs to lovers but like Mann, I have always thought this place belongs to the loners. “Solitude produces originality, bold & astonishing beauty, poetry,” Mann writes. “But solitude also produces perverseness, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the forbidden.” With our coat collars raised up and dramatic shoulders hiding our body from the world, a coat is the staple winter piece in Venice that will allow us to roam around in perfect solitude.
Hats – Hiding our eyes under our hats, this style accessory adds to the drama of Venice, especially when we finally raise our eyes from under the brim and witness the grandeur in its entirety —when we get to cruise through “the dull labyrinth of the canals, below delicate marble balconies surrounded by lion sculptures, around slippery corners, along sorrowful palace facades,” Mann writes.
Deciding what to wear in Venice is a question that goes beyond a style statement. It is about choosing to look like this unique European spot — looking romantic and enigmatic, dark and rich, historic and utterly timeless.
Have you ever read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain? That Mann, man, he does it every time. Making me want to go live in Venice the minute I read Death in Venice and now, he’s making me want to look funereal every day of the week because of one of the women found in The Magic Mountain, the so-called Tous-les-deux.
That’s not her real name, of course, but it is the only thing she keeps repeating, as she is about to lose her second son, while donning her black lace veil and black dress, looking weary and utterly enigmatic. “From under her mantilla,” Mann writes, “she extended a hand to the visitor – a skinny, yellowish, heavily veined hand, adorned with rings – and went on looking at him and nodding.”
There is more to The Magic Mountain than fashion but there is no better way to introduce you to two unforgettable women in this story, than through their fashion choices, which do well as literary style inspiration. Whether you want to look like the enigmatic Tous-les-deux or the unattainable Madame Chauchat, here are some of the best fashion moments in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece.
Madame Chauchat – The woman who lets doors slam, who is always late, Clavdia gives Mann’s protagonist an important thing for any man — unrequited love. Unattainable, and often causing Hans Castorp a great deal of frustration, Madame Chauchat roams in and out of Hans Castorp’s days, tucking her hair in her braid whenever a loose piece starts skimming her neck.
This woman has several style moments, such as on those warm days when she would wear a lace peignoir, “that only added to her special fascination” or other days, when she would wear “a white sweater and brightly colored skirt.”
It is when I wear a blue dress, however, that I mostly think of Clavdia, on that day when she wore a blue dress with a white lace collar and was “the focus of the group.” She sat on the sofa that day, as Hans Castorp walked in, captivated by her face because it reminded him of something but he couldn’t “really say what.”
Tous-les-deux – At heart, I think my style will always be more like that of Tous-les-deux, and if you love to wear black any day of the week, then you too can relate to this enigmatic woman. Mann’s protagonist first sees her “walking in the garden,” an old woman, “clad completely in black, with a black veil wound round her disheveled grayish-black hair.”
As the novel progresses, we see glimpses of this woman, including her fingers adorned with gold rings, as she moves along the pages in her “somber strides.” There is no other way to emulate her style than by donning black from head to toe, adding a touch of gold on my fingers to adorn my veiny hands, just as she does.
Mann does well in celebrating women in this novel. Even a mere white bandage turns into an accessory thanks to his protagonist’s fascination with what’s morbid, as when he visits Frau von Mallinckrodt, whom he says, managed to turn a white gauze bandage “into a becoming piece of attire.” The master of accessories, Frau von Mallinckrodt is the one who starts each morning with coral and ends the evening with pearls.
Even Hans Castorp himself gives men a dose of literary style inspiration. He waits for his cousin at the train station with his “alligator valise,” and once on board, he has his “rolled-up plaid blanket” ready to keep him warm, while he is wrapped up in his winter coat.
In an asylum where people come to get their rest cure, it is fascinating to see most of them take care in their dress, no matter how bad they feel or think their body is doing. Oh but, as Hans Castorp says, “one of the things that made [life] so beautiful was that women dressed so enticingly, simply as a matter of course.”
I think I shall hold on to this black dress for the rest of the day, channeling Tous-les-deux and taking somber steps, while leaving Madame Chauchat’s fashion choices when I feel like playing games.
Story credit: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain for the fashion inspiration.
I spent most of the time reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in my garden, as the weak winter sun warmed my bones and pink bougainvillea petals emerged slowly, rushed by no one. Despite barely mentioning the atrocities of the concentration camp, every couple of pages I would still need to look up at the clear blue sky and tell myself there was still so much goodness in this world. CONTINUE READING...