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The Magician

Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist

by Richard Winston
Knopf, 325 pp., $17.95

In 1975 Thomas Mann’s publisher, S. Fischer, brought out Der Zauberer (“The Magician”), the first volume of Peter de Mendelssohn’s biography of the great German novelist. It has 1,181 pages of fairly small and very small print, the very small being for quotations—many of them several paragraphs in length—from diaries, letters, working notes, autobiographical sketches, unpublished material, marginalia, and so on: one would guess about a third of the text to be quotation. It covers only just over half of Mann’s life, from 1875 to 1918—he died in 1955—and is daunting, though far from unenjoyable. Very much the contrary: it is full of insight and amazingly lively and direct, even colloquial sometimes.

De Mendelssohn enjoys himself over the details: Mann’s father-in law’s brand new house in the Renaissance style is lovingly described with all its pillars, coffered ceilings, and balconies, “and not without its occasional lapses of taste…like the stuffed peacock on the landing or the bouquet composed of coloured light bulbs over the sofa in a corner of the ladies’ sitting room.” On a sheet of notes for Königliche Hoheit, de Mendelssohn found a list of tips Mann intended to give the staff of a Düsseldorf hotel: “two marks each for the porter, floor waiter, chambermaid, and pageboy; one mark fifty for the boots; but this ‘gala lordliness’ was not allowed to get out of hand: the chambermaid is crossed out; sum total: seven marks fifty.”

But the method is so exhaustive that it is hard to see the wood for the trees, or even the trees for close-ups of their bark with all the insects on it, including the husbands of Thomas Mann’s wife’s three maternal aunts. When the second volume appears it will surely be the definitive life of Mann for a generation or two and will be translated into English if a translator of sufficient stamina can be found.

The aunts’ husbands are relevant, though, to de Mendelssohn himself. Like Katia Pringsheim, the girl Mann married, he belongs to the Central European haute juiverie, among whom much of Mann’s life was spent. Its genealogies are at his fingertips and he has a feel for the Central European upper-middle-class milieu in general and the upper intelligentsia in particular. Being only a generation younger than Mann, de Mendelssohn caught the afterglow (or backwash) of the ideas and trends that helped to form Mann, and he grew up against the background of those ideological and political questions that occupied Mann in his maturity. All this gives him an advantage over Richard Winston, and also over Nigel Hamilton whose double biography, The Brothers Mann, appeared in 1979.*

Hamilton set out to “provide a historical portrait of undoubtedly the most distinguished and representative literary brotherhood in modern history. Curiously, neither life has hitherto attracted a biographer in English.” Thomas Mann was born four years after his brother, but they were close to each other from the time they shared a bedroom as small boys, through the long summers alone together in Italy as young men, each working away at his fiction, and on to Heinrich’s death in 1950. Thomas was the one who suffered most from fraternal jealousy. The two were closest, in a way, during the years 1915-1922, when an ideological quarrel separated them: they did not communicate directly all that time, but everything either of them wrote was aimed directly or indirectly at the other.

To put it very baldly, Heinrich was a republican and pacifist, and Thomas was a conservative who supported Germany’s going into the First World War, at least at the outset. He gradually moved to a position much closer to Heinrich’s. Hamilton treats their quarrel and reconciliation as emblematic: “In the brotherhood of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, German history was mirrored.” Concentrating on the ideological aspect of his subject, he does not go in for literary criticism; and the personalities of the brothers remain somewhat obscured by ideas.

Winston, on the other hand, subtitles his book “The Making of an Artist,” and closely relates the events and personalities in Thomas Mann’s life to his work. In less than 300 pages he takes Mann to 1911—the year Death in Venice was written, and ten years after the appearance of Buddenbrooks. Together with the very late Doktor Faustus, these are Mann’s most famous works in his own country. By 1911 the artist was made, and though Winston intended to finish the life, this volume can stand on its own.

Winston refers to de Mendelssohn’s and must have known Hamilton’s book before he died last year with his own unfinished. His project was less comprehensive than de Mendelssohn’s and more literary than Hamilton’s. He began work in 1970 when he and his wife had just finished translating Mann’s letters: he wanted to provide a biographical introduction, and in so doing, his widow tells us in an afterword, discovered a more complex and vulnerable personage than the accepted image of Mann as the grand old man of German letters and archetypal Good German. The fact that this other Mann had already been sighted in Germany and elsewhere hardly matters. Winston’s book does just what it was intended to do. It is written with patience and sensitivity and gives a vivid sense of its prickly, difficult, self-regarding, self-absorbed, self-satisfied, and yet self-tormenting subject.

Winston came to Mann as a translator, so one is justified in worrying slightly about his feel for the German (and English) language: “One cannot shake pages out of one’s sleeve,” he makes Mann write, translating literally a common German idiom; and would Katia (who had a highly developed sense of the ridiculous) have accepted a suitor who called her “you amazing, painfully sweet, painfully tangy creature”? In his book on Mann, The Ironic German, Erich Heller regrets that “what the translation invariably misses is the ironical elegance and the overtone of mockery, subtly ridiculing the habitual posturing of the German language.” Winston, alas, misses more than just that.

Thomas Mann was born in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck into a family of grain merchants. His father was a senator. The Manns belonged to the cream of Lübeck society—an urban patriciate quite different from the landed nobility or court aristocracy who composed the cream in the rest of Germany except for a few other ancient free cities. Mann’s caste, for one thing, was imbued with the Protestant ethic; the term had not been invented when he was young, but he coined his own: Leistungsethik, the ethic of achievement. It went along with hard work and self-discipline—Aschenbach, in Death in Venice, is imbued with its principles. As a child Mann was not an achiever: twice he had to repeat a year at school and he left at nineteen without even having attained the qualifications necessary to enter a university. This comes as a surprise when one considers what an excessively erudite writer he was.

Mann’s family had also stopped achieving. The old ethic was weakening. When his father died while Mann was still a schoolboy, the family firm and house had to be sold, and the widow, with four of her five children (the eldest, Heinrich, was already out in the world), moved to Munich—partly, it seems, to conceal her reduced circumstances. It was one of Mann’s self-romanticizing theories—developed from Bourget’s notion that dilettantism (aestheticism) is a symptom of degeneration—that whereas aristocrats in decline revert to the barbarism of their ancestors, patrician families throw up artists. This pourriture noble is a major theme in several of his works: Tonio Kröger, Tristan, and, of course, Buddenbrooks, subtitled “The Decline of a Family.”

Buddenbrooks, set in a Baltic port, is so obviously based on Mann’s own family and its connections that le tout Lübeck was scandalized when it appeared. Throughout their writing lives both the Mann brothers went much further than was customary in their use of autobiographical material and real characters: everyone knows that Natasha in War and Peace is modeled on Tolstoy’s wife and sister-in-law, and Swann on Charles Haas; but only in part. Both the Mann brothers, on the other hand, used their youngest sister’s suicide with every ghoulish detail, including their mother’s hearing her gargling at her washbasin as she tried to cool the burning sensation of cyanide in her throat. They even made their fictional characters unsuccessful actresses, as Carla Mann had been. The elder Mann sister also committed suicide and does so thinly disguised as Inez Rodde in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus: Carla is Clarissa Rodde.

Katia Pringsheim was deeply attached to her twin brother Klaus. Immediately after his marriage to her, Thomas Mann wrote “Wälsungenblut,” a parody of Wagner’s Die Walküre: it is about a pair of incestuous twins called Siegmund and Sieglinde whose father is a Jewish millionaire like Professor Pringsheim. No wonder the professor didn’t care for it, though Katia and her mother, to whom Mann read it aloud, don’t seem to have minded it. Publication was suppressed for a while. Still, there is surely something perverse, exhibitionist, and sadistic about such lack of pudeur. Thomas Mann blandly defended himself on the ground that an artist can use what material he pleases and that in any case he was equally brutal in his self-revelation: all this seems oddly out of keeping with the gentlemanly and korrekt persona he adopted—a sort of German T.S. Eliot.

Wälsungenblut” (“The Blood of the Walsungs”) raises the question of Mann and the Jews, which figures prominently in Winston’s book. It was fashionable in Germany from the last quarter of the nineteenth century onward to be steamed up about what was called “blood.” Two attitudes were possible: you could be völkisch and regard all foreign blood as inferior and all miscegenation as pollution; or you could be bewitched by the mysterious, exotic juice running in the veins of Latins and Orientals and admire them for being either more passionate and uninhibited than yourself, or else more subtle and sensitive, according to what your sense of your own deficiencies might be. Thomas Mann was among the wistful admirers of foreignness. His mother was a German from Brazil; she had one Portuguese ancestor, and Mann made much of the Latin streak in himself. An Israeli scholar has felt it necessary to examine whether the Portuguese ancestor could have come from a converso family descended from Jews expelled from the Hispanic Peninsula by the Inquisition. He found no evidence but concluded that it was not impossible.

Long before the Nazis Mann was accused of being verjudet. He replied that from his childhood he had been attracted to Jews because they cared for things of the mind: but when he wrote letters to Katia or portrayed her with besotted rapture as the ravishing Imma, the American millionaire’s daughter with Indian blood who marries the prince in Königliche Hoheit, then it is clear that what turned him on was not merely her intellect, but her exotic appearance and unfamiliar ways—especially her manner of talking, which she shared with her four brothers: it was darting, allusive, elliptical, full of wordplay and jokes, slightly aggressive, and perpetually “ironizing the language,” as de Mendelssohn puts it. Imma talks like that, but in “Wälsungenblut” Mann deliberately distorted the manner: Siegmund sounds like a relation of Proust’s Bloch, with his affected, parodistic style. Mann’s philo-Semitism was in the tradition of the German Romantics at the turn of the eighteenth century who were dazzled by Jewish women like Rahel Varnhagen van Ense and Henriette Herz, and enthroned them as queens of their coteries.

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    Yale University Press.

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