The Transposed Heads, by Thomas Mann, The Allen Press (1977)

Long time Books and Vines readers know that The Allen Press is one of my all-time favorite private presses. Almost always completely hand-done, their books exude oodles of character. Their 1977 edition of The Transposed Heads, by Thomas Mann, is one of my favorites. The story is phenomenally good, by far the most enjoyable of any Mann work I have read (and Mann himself agrees, as Mann’s daughter said it was his favorite work). Taking such a story and then creating such a special and unique edition results in a very happy private press book collector!

Savor the specifications and the frequent use of the word ‘hand!’ This edition is set by hand in Goudy Thirty typeface, on hand-made all rag paper from St. Cuthberts mill in England, with watermark of The Allen Press. There are fifteen decorative illustrations in three colors each, printed in black over a mustard color tint block with an orange color inner frame. The text pages have decorative Sanskrit running-heads in color (translated as: “Thomas Mann  The Transposed Heads  A Legend of India  Produced by Hand”). All printed damp on an 1846 Columbian handpress.  The book is hand-bound, sewn on tapes, full cloth produced by Indian peasants, and hand-blocked in many colors. To top it all off, there is an excellent and deeply thoughtful introduction by political theorist and philosopher Dr. Raghavan Iyer (Doctor of Philosophy at Oxford, Professor of Political Science at the University of California Santa Barbara, President of the Institute of World Culture), specially written for this edition.

Speaking of the binding, the Allens sought colors that reflected India with a “charming casual style appropriate to the rural scene” of the story. The Allen Press Bibliography tells an interesting story on the binding cloth.

The binding cloth involved a protracted search. It was happily terminated when we found in San Francisco bolts of cotton hand-blocked in many bright colors. Fabricated by Indian villagers, the patterns are primitive and charming — suitable for the unsophisticated country scenes of this ‘Legend of India.’ Casually done, the block printing is seemingly without any plan or symmetry or color consistency. Nevertheless, an executive of a large department store (who buys our books) wrote for information on the fabric, thinking it might be used for making beach-bags. At least the sand was there. Apparently, after blocking, the material was washed in the nearby river because there were tiny grains of sand impregnated throughout the cloth. It was therefore necessary for us to wash thoroughly each piece, then to steam iron and starch them to give body during the binding process and prevent glue penetration. This episode is unfortunately characteristic when trying to adapt materials not manufactured for book work. But we make the effort because our goal is to have all elements of a book harmonize with the text…We are naively apt to choose a text or design or illustrations or materials without fully comprehending possible complications –and resulting vicissitudes.

The Allens, in their aforementioned Bibliography, sound as if they did regret the type choice.

Sympathetic to the antiquarian period of this fanciful novel, are the Goudy Thirty types, a gothicized Roman letter. However, this robust masculine type is not so suitable to the principal feminine character — Sita with ‘the beautiful hips.’

For my part, I agree that the type nicely reflects, with an Indian flair, the antiquarian period. To me, however, type such as this can be tiring to read for long stretches. It did not bother me in this size work, but any longer probably would have been tough. None-the-less, I do think it nice to look at!

Before discussing Mann’s story itself, a word on the translation. Reading wikipedia to get some more background on the translator, H.T. Porter-Lowe, I found the following interesting, so copy here for your benefit.

For more than two decades, H.T. Porter-Lowe enjoyed exclusive rights to translate the works of Thomas Mann from German into English. She was granted these rights in 1925 by Mann’s American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf… Initially, Lowe-Porter was not Mann’s first choice as translator…However, the American publisher Alfred A Knopf overruled Mann’s concerns… Eventually, Mann expressed his appreciation to Lowe-Porter for her work, nicknaming her “die Lowe”, but also added the caveat, “insofar as my linguistic knowledge suffices.” 

The later twentieth century saw major revisions of the theory and practice of literary translation. Thus, Lowe-Porter’s translations, too, have been criticized for their linguistic limitations, for example. While acknowledging the scale of Lowe-Porter’s labors, a number of commentators noted that Lowe-Porter had rearranged Mann’s sentence structure, omitted entire passages from the originals, added others, and deliberately left out descriptive adjectives and adverbs in the narrative. Inadequacies were also identified in Lowe-Porter’s understanding of German, which sometimes caused her to mistranslate particular words.

I have not read other translations of The Transposed Heads, nor do I speak German, so I have no basis for opinion on the veracity of the translation. I can say, however, that as written, the story is very enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and very well-written!

The Allens remarked that Thomas Mann (1875-1955), winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature, was Germany’s “most gifted writer of the twentieth century.”  There is certainly a good argument to that. For those who have not read Mann, and are turned off by the size of The Magic MountainThe Transposed Headsis an excellent place to start. The story would be a fun one to do a bit of analysis on, but doing so would ruin the story for someone who has not yet read it. So I will keep it pretty high level!

As the prospectus and introduction note, The Transposed Heads is a traditional Hindu tale of “fateful conflict” between love and physical desire, following two close friends “united and divided by their love for one woman.” Dr. Iyer  explains in the introduction the important distinction between true love (which is a “creative force that emanates from the One Logos. Never divisive, it has a universally beneficent and unifying influence.“) and that of possessive love (which is “born of the perishable part of human nature and forms a temporal chain of enslavement rather than a timeless bond of total communion.“). He further explains:

When we are enamoured by the meretricious fascination of possessive personal love, we cling to it through inordinate craving until we invite unnecessary suffering and inevitable frustration…Passionate love may be a leaping, devouring fire, but a fire that can turn to ice, doomed to a tragic end, death-dealing and futile.

The illusion caused by desire “begets delusion.” Dr. Iyer reminds us that individuals are “intellectually capable of surmounting those external conditions which interfere with inner clarity.”  Unfortunately, “the actual victory of reason over life’s confusion is always precarious.” I would add to that rare. All to often desire and possessive love triumph over true love, not only because of  human weakness, but also due to a lack of thought or understanding of what true love is. Possessive love and desire are instinctual, a function of the body, whereas true love can only exist through intellectual effort and reasoning, a function of the head. Thomas Mann’s story is an deeply thoughtful, and deeply entertaining, exploration of the question: which creates and rules the person—the mind or the body? Mann does not answer the question, he explores them for the reader to contemplate. As Dr. Iyer concludes:

‘The Transposed Heads’ raises issues greater than the answers given while its open texture leaves ample room for introspective insight.

Before closing, and allowing you to feast your eyes on this beautiful edition from The Allen Press, the following are a few quotes from The Transposed Heads to give you an idea of Mann’s style and substance in this work.

On the entrapment of external beauty:

A figure like that is taking. But why taking? Just because it takes us captive, making us prisoners to the world of delights and desires. It tangles the beholder deeper in the snares of Samsara, so he simply loses consciousness just the way one loses one’s breath.

On the importance of looking beyond the external beauty:

…All beings have two sorts of existence: one for themselves and one for the eyes of others. They are, and also they are to be seen, soul and image; and ever is it sinful to let oneself be influenced by the image only and not heed the soul…For what affects us is impression, not reality; we must go behind it to reach the knowledge to which every phenomenon can lay claim, for it is more than phenomenon, and one must find the being or soul behind it.

Therefore, ideally we would attain:

…the world’s goal is union between spirit and beauty, a bliss no longer divided but whole and consummate.

More on desire:

The lust of thy awakened creature was greater than its satisfaction, its craving greater than its joy.

And

Our desires are boundless, their fulfillment sharply restricted; ‘If I only could’ is met on all sides by the stern ‘It won’t do.’ Life soberly bids us put up with what we can achieve.

And

We need only recall that to realize how much obsessed a man is, not only with the desired one but with desire itself; how he is not seeking sanity but intoxication and yearning, and fears nothing more than to be undecided, that is to say relieved of his delusion.

Last but not least, as one who is not highly social, I found this comment amusing:

For of it is self-denial to avoid men, it is still greater self-denial to put up with them.

The Transposed Heads is a great short story from one of Germany’s greatest writers. The edition highlighted here from The Allen Press is nearly perfect for the work, and probably the finest edition of this story that exists. I highly recommend tracking one down for your library. While only 140 were made, one can usually find one in near fine or better condition for the unfathomable low price (for this quality) of $350 or so.

About the Edition

  • Produced entirely at hand in 1977 by The Allen Press
  • H.T. Porter-Lowe translation
  • Introduction by Dr. Raghavan Iyer
  • Printed damp on an 1846 Columbian handpress
  • Goudy Thirty typeface, set by hand
  • Hand-made all rag paper from St. Cuthberts mill in England, with watermark of The Allen Press
  • Fifteen decorative illustrations in three colors each, printed in black over a mustard color tint block with an orange color inner frame
  • Text pages have decorative Sanskrit running-heads in color (translated as: “Thomas Mann  The Transposed Heads  A Legend of India  Produced by Hand”
  • Binding is books sewn on tapes, full cloth, produced by Indian peasants, hand-blocked in many colors
  • 13″ x 8.5″, 108 pages
  • Limited t0 140 copies

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Slipcase (custom)
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Slipcase (custom)
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Book spine and covers
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Book spine and covers
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Spine
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Spine
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Covers
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Covers
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Cover
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Cover
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Title Page
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Title Page
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Title Page
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Title Page
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Colophon
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Colophon
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Text #1
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Text #1
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #1
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #1
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Sample Decoration with Text #1
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Macro of Sample Decoration with Text #1
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #2
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #2
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #5
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #3
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #7
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #4
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #9
The Transposed Heads, The Allen Press, Sample Decoration with Text #9

3 thoughts on “The Transposed Heads, by Thomas Mann, The Allen Press (1977)

Leave a Reply