Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

24 Jun 2011

(Short Story) Little Lizzy by: Thomas Mann

(Reaction) Missing, Jacoby's spine: If found, please do not return to owner by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Thomas Mann.

Artists, whether they be writers or musicians, painters or dancers, often like blathering on about how art reveals truth. This is a contradictory proposition. After all, art is ultimately artifice, constructed from a scaffolding of words, images, sounds, movement. Truth is the opposite of artifice. It is unvarnished, plain and simple.

Thomas Mann though succeeds in the contradictory. His short story Little Lizzy demonstrates how art can reveal truth and at the same time how art is inherently a construct. Art is not built from truths; yet it can reveal the truth. However this truth is morally neutral; it is what it is, not as a kind world would have it to be. Just as the truth can be painful, so too can art be cruel, twisted, even repugnant.

Art delivering truth

This moment of truth - a genuine epiphany - occurs at the climax of this grotesque tale. The medium of the truth is the music of Alfred Lautner. He is initially dismissed as belonging to the present day race of small artists. Yet Lautner is capable of occasional genuis, a passage of some originality, a modulation, a harmonic phrasing, some sort of bold effect that betrayed wit and invention

It is at the height of Lautner's occasional brilliance that he produces, ...as he said it would be, his masterpiece. He had, that is, brought to its highest pitch his little artifice of introducing into a fairly vulgar and humorous piece of hackwork a sudden phrase of genuine creative art. He plays his composition with the adulterous Amra, to the singing and dancing of the husband he has cuckold, Jacoby.

True art (Lautner's music) delivers the truth to the unfortunate Jacoby, And on the F-major chord Attorney Jacoby stopped dancing. At the crescendo of his performance, realization dawns on him, pathetically late. After all the affair between Amra and Lautner was known to the whole town, who laughed at it behind the lawyer's back. It is in this moment of dancing the fool (coerced into the act as usual by his wife) that he realizes how much of a fool he has been.

In a frightful stillness, unbroken by the smallest sound, his gaze travelled slowly and unesily from the pair to audience, from the audience to the pair, while his eyes widened more and more. Then knowledge seemed to flash across his face...

Thus does art, Lautner's music, illustrate to the hapless Jacoby the reality of his loveless marriage to a woman who possessed a sensuality both tormented and cruel. He possessed himself of the illusion that even though his wife did not love him, she would remain faithful in light of his own expansive love for her, that you will never betray or deceive me, even if you cannot love me, just out of gratitude for this love.

This physical giant of a man, whose spirit is as small as he is large, cannot withstand the shock of his realization. His wife carrying on with Lautner while all this time he has been so meek, so obedient. He topples and as succinctly put by the doctor after examining him, All over.

Yet art is artificial - a construct

Little Lizzy certainly demonstrates art's ability to reveal truth. Yet art is the opposite of truth since art must be constructed, built on an edifice of half-lies (what is fiction if not lies), possibilities and uncertainties.

The short story is conscious of itself (not in the metafictional sense but more in the omniscient/all-knowing narrator sense) as a construct, the product of specifically chosen characters and situation.

Indeed, Little Lizzy relies on a lot of elements which at certain points stretches the credulity of the reader. Two central points stand out artifices necessary for the story's point. One, Why would beautiful Amra marry such a pitiful man? We are never told, the story admits the reason is unfathomable. Two, Jacoby is incredibly pathetic. It is almost unbelievable that any person would be as loathsome as he.

(On point number one, we do know that it wasn't for money, Amra is sufficiently well to do on her own. What is it mere cruelty then, her knowledge that she could forever have a pet in Jacboy?)

Moreover, the story makes no amends for such construction, You must just accept them... as the given premises on which the farce is mechanically built up. In essence the narrator is saying, the play's the thing; never mind if some of its parts are a bit creaky.

Little Lizzy consciously constructs its world and then presents the unappealing truth.

Review:

Jacoby is the epitome of obsequiousness. This forced agreeability is then preyed on by the person he loves the most. The resulting mess is painful to read as the character's main flaw is pitilessly eviscerated by the plot of the story.

I didn't care so much for the arrogance lacing the narrator's tone or the irredeemable nature of Amra. The story says it is a farce and truly, it should be read as such.

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