Thomas Mann’s persona fits bulkily into much of his fiction, like an outsize old-fashioned oblong brass-tacked trunk—the sort that Gustave Aschenbach might well have had carried into his suite at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, in Death in Venice. Mann was almost insistently conscious of this autobiographical presence. He writes to Felix Bertaux in 1923 explaining that Death in Venice is the autobiographical Tonio Kröger “retold at a later stage of life,” while Tonio Kröger itself is the autobiographical continuation of Buddenbrooks.
In his early letters to Katia Pringsheim, later to become his wife, he writes of himself as though he were emerging from the chrysalis of Tonio Kröger. He confesses that up to the time of meeting her, “where I had loved I had always despised. The mingling of longing and contempt, ironic love, had been my most characteristic emotion. Tonio Kröger loved ‘life,’ blue-eyed commonness, nostalgically, mockingly and hopelessly. And now? A being sweet as the world…: ‘something absolutely and incredibly new!’ ” This echoes “Welch ein fremdes, neues Leben!” bringing us back, as so often with Thomas Mann, to the universe which is Goethe. Life is literature even when he has emerged from the chrysalis of Tonio Kröger.
In dramatizing the hero as the artist living his life but always conscious of his art (and thus introducing a note of “insincerity” into living) Thomas Mann was, in the first decade of this century, very much of his time. The idea that the Dichter, the imaginative writer, had, for the purpose of creating a work about, and yet detached from, himself—and in order to relate himself to the world around him—to adopt a deliberately self-conscious pose, make and wear a “mask,” still lingered on from the 1890s. With Tonio Kröger, as with Stephen Daedalus, the mask became the persona of the writer himself.
The Stephen Daedalus persona ultimately became absorbed into the dream, larger than the poet’s individual character, of Finnegans Wake. A disappearance of the figure of the subjective artist into objective art also takes place with Thomas Mann, a process beginning with The Magic Mountain and finally achieved in Doctor Faustus. But the process of objectivization in Mann is very different from that in Joyce. For with Mann the external world does not become transformed into a Joycean inner world (a kind of subjectivity which becomes objective—objective, say, as sleep—by being flooded with unconscious forces). The Joycean imagination implicitly stakes claims to be more significant than the historically real world (hence Joyce’s remark to Cyril Connolly shortly before the outbreak of war, to the effect that what happened in his Paris workroom was more important than those insignificant events going on outside).
In Mann’s work the historic and contemporary retains its outsideness. He is a Wagnerian spellbinder, a mythmaker, but the myth always refers back to the real world: the shallow Bohemians sitting in the Munich cafés, the fact that Venice is, or was, an unsalubrious …