Tag Archives: philosophical fiction

Phi Fic #19 “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann

In 1911, the great writer Thomas Mann (1875–1955) went on vacation with his family to a seaside resort in Venice, Italy. There, he came across a beautiful 14-year-old boy and it inspired his great novella Death in Venice. This experience sets up the central struggle in the story: where eros—or erotic love as seen in Plato’s dialogue Symposium—can lead one to recognize beauty in its “pure” or “ideal” form and toward an understanding of truth.

To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence… –Death in Venice

The story’s main character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer in his fifties. Suffering from writer’s block, he resolves to take a vacation in Venice, where he crosses paths with a 14-year-old Polish boy—Tadzio—and his family. Aschenbach soon becomes obsessed with the exquisite Tadzio. As Aschenbach follows his muse through the streets of Venice and finally to the beach, struggling all the while to master his creeping infatuation, the city itself is overtaken by a mysterious plague. Ultimately, Aschenbach is overcome by the plague as he watches Tadzio playing in the surf.

But now, as he mused idly on such profound matters, the horizontal line of the sea’s shore was suddenly intersected by a human figure, and when he had retrieved his gaze from limitless immensity and concentrated it again, he beheld the beautiful boy, coming from the left and walking past him across the sand. –Death in Venice

Join our heated discussion about Mann’s intentions in this complex and remarkable story. Laura was immediately distressed by Aschenbach’s behavior given the Socratic ideal of beauty as pure and reverent as discussed by Mann; Nathan takes note of Aschenbach’s internal struggle, and wonders what he’s searching for; Mary questions how we approach manners, and how we experience beauty; Cezary insists that Socratic love is too neat, and that real love is an unruly, unraveling experience; and Daniel sums up the struggle in the book for Aschenbach and Mann as one of tensions between the ways we perceive and interact with beauty.

Watch Luchino Visconti’s search for the right boy to play the character of Tadzio in 1970 for his 1971 film based on Mann’s novella.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.


Phi Fic #17 “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. –Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a novel about a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino’s fragmentary study of urban images is composed of brief prose poems, structured as the traveler’s report on the emperor’s expanding empire. And even deeper than that, it becomes a question of whether Polo is creating his reports from his imagination or merely describing his native city, Venice. A tapestry of discussion weaves throughout Polo’s poems tying in ruminations on stories, linguistics, and human nature.

…the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping… something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene…. –Invisible Cities

Join us as we discuss this beautiful novel, as Cezary notes of Calvino’s distortions, “that in an exact description there is a destruction of the thing described…[that] in leaving space for the reader to chart out what they’re thinking is [his] goal In a work like this,” and Nathan’s reflection that “there’s a reality here but it’s also something spiritual or emotional… I love this style of writing because of what it makes you feel and understand,” while Mary observes that “in describing the relationship with a city as a love affair, it gives it a sense of urgency and closeness,” and Laura wonders if this novel falls into the postmodern construct of eliminating the artist from the work.

*Note: Mary had to leave early to fight a cold and Daniel was absent this time, reprogramming the internet.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.

Phi Fic #16 Stories by Clarice Lispector

This time we discuss two works by the remarkable Clarice Lispector—born to a Jewish family in Ukraine shortly before they emigrated to Brazil, where she became one of its most important writers. We read two of her works, the novella The Hour of the Star (1977), and the short story “The Departure of the Train” (1974).

I know there are girls who sell their bodies, their only real possession, in exchange for a good dinner instead of a bologna sandwich. But the person I’m going to talk about scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her. –The Hour of the Star

In The Hour of the Star, the narrator continually breaks the fourth wall as he obsessively addresses the reader about Macabea, the story’s primary character, whom Lispector describes as “… a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs… The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”

In the short story “The Departure of the Train,” Lispector writes about two women who meet on a train—the first, a young woman escaping her boyfriend’s overbearing intellect and lack of sensual passion; and the other, an elderly woman escaping her daughter’s negligence to return to her more loving son:

Donna Maria Rita was so ancient that in her daughter’s house they were accustomed to her as if to an old piece of furniture…. Since [she] had always been an ordinary person, she thought that to die was not a normal thing. To die was surprising. –”The Departure of the Train”

Join us as Daniel explains that while The Hour of the Star is “very intellectual, very heady” he’s never read anyone who writes with this sensuous quality; Nathan observes that the narrator is the only one in the novella who really sees this girl, that the world doesn’t see her—“she’s the grass.” Laura comments on Lispector’s “passion for the void” in her writing, while Mary notes that both women in “The Departure of the Train” were traveling from emotionally cold relationships to warmer ones—to people who were more loving and affectionate. And Cezary speaks for all of us when he describes Lispector’s writing as “maddeningly brilliant.”

In his 1989 L.A. Times review of Soul Storm, Richard Eder wrote of Lispector’s characters: “Lispector has not lodged her own poetic and subtle qualities in them; she has found their ‘ordinariness’ in herself. She hasn’t given them spunk, or fight or hidden wit. She hasn’t brought them, one by one, to her writer’s table and made them unforgettable by processing them with art. She has stripped herself of art and gone to them. She has made herself as foolish and uncertain at her typewriter as they are in the street, cabaret, or bedroom.”

Benjamin Moser, author of Lispector’s biography, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, calls her the “most important Jewish writer since Kafka.”

Here’s a link to the only televised interview with Lispector, in 1977. She died later that year. And here’s some info on the jabuticaba tree.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Please note: We had some technical problems that cut off Laura a short way into our talk.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.
Image of Clarice Lispector pulled from the cover of The Complete Stories (2015).

Phi Fic #4 “Grendel” by John Gardner

What’s with these self-aware monsters anyway? Both Frankenstein and Grendel bemoan their fates as the necessary evils in this world—so that goodness may exist, perhaps? Listen as we join their struggle, and Mary calms Laura’s frantic worry about Gardner’s use of the “other” to make his philosophical point while the guys argue about who is the real monster here: Grendel or man?

“All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal—a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world—two snake-pits.”

Grendel by John Gardner. Join Nathan Hanks with Cezary Baraniecki, Daniel St. Pierre, Laura Davis, and Mary Claire.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.

Phi Fic #2 “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy

Looking for the meaning of life? You and me both, my friend. And so is Binx Bolling, protagonist in The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Join us as Mary and Daniel praise this story for its examination of the existential crisis presented in beautiful language and Southern charm, and as Nathan salutes Bolling’s view of life’s preciousness. So step away from the dishes to be washed and the beds to be made and listen to Binx explain: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

Join Nathan Hanks, Cezary Baraniecki, Daniel St. Pierre, Laura Davis, and Mary Claire.

Worth mentioning; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami, The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy, and “My unbelief was invincible from the beginning”–The Moviegoer.

Write us with recommendations or what have you, phificpodcast@gmail.com

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for music.

Hear more Phi Fic discussions at PhiFicPodcast.com.