Monday, May 7, 2012

Thomas Mann's Notebooks

Thomas Mann kept a diary during most of his life, but burned many of them at two occasions. He also kept notebooks. While he did not seem to have burned any, only fourteen of them have survived (1893-1943). Apparently, he used them until the material in them was used up. He tore out pages that were still of use and kept them in newer notebooks. Sometimes he also copied entries from an old notebook into a new one. Like Musil he kept several notebooks at the same time, many over a long time. Also just like Musil's notebooks, they contain hardly any personal revelations, but are strictly for his work. Unlike Musil, Mann did not number his notebooks or entries (though he usually recorded on the first page when he had bought the notebook).

Many of the notebooks very small so that he could very them in his coat pocket. Others were larger and were meant for his desk or desk drawer. The notebooks contain everything from observations, short excerpts from books, magazines and newspapers (though he also had collections of newspaper cutouts) and lists of names, addresses, finances, plans of trips and which books he wanted to order. He separated different entries by horizontal lines. Sometimes he skipped many pages to start a new set of notes later in the notebook. Once he was done with a note, he crossed it out.

When time came to write a novel or an essay, he would go through these notebooks and excerpt relevant material on pieces of paper of various sizes and ordered them in accordances with the themes, topics, persons and motives of the work. He kept these stacks of paper on his desk while writing his manuscripts, revising and amending the notes contained in them as the need arose. Some of these intermediate Zettelkonvolute have survived. For Tonio Kröger he prepared about fifty pages.

Writing was thus for Mann a process that involved at least three different steps:
  • Note-taking
  • Sifting and ordering the notes
  • Writing the manuscript
It would, however, be better of talking about three different aspects rather than of steps. First, much of the note-taking took place while he was writing (other manuscripts) and he usually had already a plan for a new project, some of which never came to fruition, like a book on Frederick the Great and the second volume of Felix Krull. The material often found its way into other books. Second, writing led to modification of the sifted and ordered notes, and the modification of them presumably led to changes in writing. Just for a scientist, for a writer just seeing is not sufficient.

It should be obvious why note-taking was extremely important to a writer like Thomas Mann who claimed he did not invent anything but only transformed the ordinary into the "poetic." But in some ways, his way of taking notes was itself rather ordinary.

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