Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist
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quotations—many of them several paragraphs in length—from diaries, letters, working notes, autobiographical sketches, unpublished material, marginalia, and so on: one would guess about a third of the text to be quotation.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 …