Monday, 18 March 2013

The Mann who changed my life

Thomas Mann has a lot to answer for. It was 2001 when I first read any of his work, but in just a few weeks, I’m setting off on a trip that will take me to the beginning of Mann’s own journey.

And it is no coincidence and will be – in part at least – a pilgrimage.

At the beginning of the century, my reintroduction to the one part of my O’ level history studies that I had enjoyed – Bismarck and German unification – had made me realise that I had more than a passing interest in a number of things Germanic, not least classical music.

After reading The Other Half’s copy of Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, I’d been searching for ideas of some other German literature to read, and it was m’friend George who had suggested Buddenbrooks.

I got a copy, read it and loved it. And on the back of that, I bought a volume of short stories that culminated in Death in Venice, which I had at least heard of.

It took me weeks to get through that book, so dense are the stories with ideas: I didn’t want to miss anything. And then Death in Venice itself left me absolutely shellshocked.

I had, for some years, been attempting to write. After that, I couldn’t put one word after another for three months.

It was only when I stood on the windswept Irish shore, desperate to describe to myself the sight of a carpet of pristine sand hovering above the beach itself, that there was an explosion in my mind of language; a tumult that seemed, in the coming days and weeks, to increase my working vocabulary expotentially.

In the face of such writing and such thought, it had felt as though I had nothing to say and no way of saying anything. It was an awed awakening to what literature can do.

It had a meteor-like impact, changing my reading for ever, and changing my own writing too – given that my core idea of what I wanted to write was both shattered and then remade.

In the years since, I’ve increasingly wanted to visit Lübeck, from where Mann himself hailed, and where Buddenbrooks is set.

There’s a museum to Mann and his brother Heinrich in the city – in what was once the home of their grandparents. Günter Grass lives not far away, and there’s a Grass museum too, which includes some of his paintings and sculptures.

There’s far more to Lübeck, though, than the sort of things that, according to one travel guide, can make it seem “terrifyingly cultural” – terrifying to whom?

Those two museums are both high on the agenda, although for a small city state – Lübeck was the ‘queen’ of the Hansa (the Hanseatic League, of which disappointingly little history is available in English), and is a UNESCO world heritage site – there’s a remarkably large amount to see, from galleries, to Gothic churches, to the Rathaus, where the Hanse court sat … well you get the gist.

I am even contemplating going to the Marienkirche, the city’s biggest church, on my Sunday there, to experience something new. Started in 1250 and finished a century later, it’s one of the best examples of Gothic around. And it is now a Lutheran church. I have never experienced a Lutheran service – and apparently it’s got a great organ, so that should make for good music.

There will also be food – and the cuisine of the region will be covered in more detail in future posts.

But in the meantime, preparation. I’m reading Buddenbrooks again – and such swathes of the weekend were invested in using maps and Google satellite to acquaint myself with the layout of the old city that, by Saturday night, I dreamt about walking the route from the railway station to my hotel.

So on the food front, making frikadellen seemed like as good a place to start as any.

Here’s goes my version – after researching a range of recipes.

For two.

Take 250g each or pork and beef mince.

Mix with a heaped teaspoon of dried thyme and a heaped teaspoon of celery salt – the latter is probably the nearest most of us will get to lovage, a herb that’s found quite often in this dish.

Take two banana shallots and dice finely. Mix together with one large egg and a thick slice of stale white bread that's been soaked in water and/or milk.

Allow to rest for half an hour.

Now, mix together into small balls, then flatten slightly.

Melt some lard and fry until each side is browned.

Serve with salted boiled potatoes and some sauerkraut.

It's not bad at all!

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