The Brothers Mann—and Nelly

ullstein bild/Granger Collection
Thomas and Heinrich Mann, New York City, 1940

Few writers have ever revealed themselves as daringly and completely as Thomas Mann; and from the very beginning, one of the things he felt it most urgent to reveal was his obsessive sense of fraternal rivalry. In Buddenbrooks, the family epic that made Mann famous in his mid-twenties, we meet Thomas Buddenbrook, a rigidly disciplined businessman (and the author’s namesake), and his brother Christian, a neurotic loafer whose only interest is the theater. Precisely because Thomas feels himself vulnerable to the same vices that have destroyed Christian, he holds his brother in “fierce contempt”: “You’re an abscess, an unhealthy growth on the body of our family,” Thomas rails.

In Mann’s next novel, Royal Highness, he tells the story of a younger brother, Prince Klaus Heinrich, who takes the place of his older brother, Albrecht, as the ruler of a small German principality. “I’ve always looked up to you because I’ve always felt and known that you are superior to me and the more distinguished of us two, and that I am a mere plebeian compared to you,” Klaus Heinrich tells Albrecht. But Albrecht, who hates being king, recognizes that it is Klaus Heinrich who has received the mysterious blessing of popularity. In the younger brother, and not the older, the people recognize “an idealized version of themselves, whom to cheer would make them happy.”

After such beginnings, it seems inevitable that Mann would turn, for his magnum opus, to the biblical story of Joseph—the younger brother destined for great things, who is sold into slavery by his older brothers and repays them by saving their lives. The trope of fraternal struggle was so deeply ingrained that when Mann wrote an essay about Hitler, in 1938, he titled it “My Brother.” Even the tyrant he fled and fought appeared to him as “a brother—a rather unpleasant and mortifying brother. He makes me nervous, the relationship is painful to a degree. But I will not disclaim it.”

To be the brother of Thomas Mann, clearly, was no easy fate. Actually, he had two brothers, but he was never deeply invested in his relationship with Viktor, who was fifteen years his junior. It was Heinrich, his elder by four years, who mattered. As Thomas once put it in a letter, Heinrich was “my brother (in the higher sense I have only one; the other is a good lad with whom no enmity could be possible).” Any pair of brothers start life as rivals, for family status and parental love; when the brothers pursue the same career—say, as partners in a family firm—the rivalry can become all-consuming, the kind of thing novels are written about. But when the brothers are novelists themselves, when the success or failure of their work is a kind of public referendum on the quality of…

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