The Black Swan is a slight work that followed the vast, complicated novels of Thomas Mann’s later period—such works as Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers, 1948) and Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948). Mann had previously worked successfully in the brief narrative form of the novella in Tonio Kröger (1903) and Death in Venice (1954). As he demonstrates in The Black Swan and the earlier stories, he does not need breadth to give his writing the effect of depth and insight.
In this work, there are reminiscences of Death in Venice, that wonderful short novel dealing with the dissolution of personality and with death in a plague-stricken pleasure resort on the Adriatic. The Black Swan presents on several planes of meaning the writer’s favorite themes of life and death, body and soul, nature and spirit, art and decay, love and death. At the same time, his sense of ironic detachment and the deliberate parody of eighteenth century style make this one of the most puzzling books of his career.
The plot of The Black Swan is simple almost to the point of banality. However, by manipulating symbols and repeating key words and phrases that linger in the memory like motifs in music, Mann infuses multiple levels of meaning. In one sense, The Black Swan is a fable of one of the ways in which the creative spirit...
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