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The Mann Nobody Knew

Thomas Mann: Eine Biographie

by Klaus Harpprecht
Reinbeck: Rowohlt Verlag, 2253 pp., DM 98

Thomas Mann: A Biography

by Ronald Hayman
Scribner, 672 pp., $35.00

Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature

by Anthony Heilbut
Knopf, 618 pp., $40.00

Tagebücher 1954–1955

by Thomas Mann, edited by Inge Jens
Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag, 977 pp., DM 128

In 1945, Klaus Harpprecht, then eighteen years old, was in an American prisoner-of-war camp, having spent the previous two years as a flak volunteer and artillery soldier and having been wounded during the German retreat. In the camp there were only four books, which belonged to a former schoolteacher: a Latin grammar, a Bible in the Luther translation, a collection of lyric poetry, and a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Buddenbrooks. Those who wanted to read these put their names on lists and were allowed twenty minutes per book per day. That was enough to carry them far away from their pent-up confinement with more than ten thousand other prisoners. The Latin grammar served as a kind of gymnastics for the mind; the other books as an assurance that whatever became of their country, the German language—the language of Martin Luther, of Gryphius, Goethe, and Mörike, and of The Buddenbrooks—would survive. About the author of the novel, Harpprecht knew only that he was now living in California, but by the time he was released, two months later, he was convinced that this man had written the century’s most beautiful work of German narrative prose.

There were lots of others who shared this admiration, not only for The Buddenbrooks, which had won the Nobel Prize for Mann in 1929, but for The Magic Mountain and for shorter works like Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice. Mann’s reputation was at its height at the end of the war and was to remain little diminished for some years to come. But, perhaps inevitably, voices were already suggesting that he may have been overpraised, that his prose was becoming increasingly leaden and the sententiousness that weighed it down increasingly empty. When the fourth volume of his Joseph saga, Joseph the Provider, appeared in 1944, Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times of June 26 that it was

stiff, pompous and dull. That is the ultimate and most important fact about Joseph the Provider. It is aggressively dull, soporifically dull.

This opinion was seconded by Hamilton Basso in The New Yorker, who wrote that the man who had been regarded as one of the world’s greatest living writers was in danger of becoming “one of the greatest living bores.” Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend, was selected by the Book of the Month Club but attacked by some critics as being pedantic and indigestible. This was bad enough. Worse was the growing view that he was, of course, a monumental figure, but unfortunately oldfashioned and that he had nothing to say to the postwar generation. One indication of this view came when Harry Levin changed the title of his Harvard course on modern literature from “Proust, Joyce, and Mann” to “Proust, Joyce, and Kafka.”

By the time of his death in 1955, therefore, Mann seemed destined to end up as one of those writers who are remembered but are increasingly unread by the cultivated lay public. From this fate he was saved, however, by two things. In 1975, his diaries for the years 1918–1921 and 1933–1955 (he had destroyed all the others) became open to scholars, and in 1979 their publication in Germany began under the superb editorship first of Peter de Mendelssohn, in five thick volumes for the years down to 1943, and then of Inge Jens in five additional ones for the years 1944 to 1955, the last of which appeared last year. The diaries destroyed the persona that Mann had manufactured for himself, that of a modern Goethe in his late years, a remote, self-controlled genius, strictly meditating the, for him, by no means thankless muse. They revealed a man who was prone to all the doubts and frailties that others suffer from, as well as strong homoerotic tendencies that he sublimated in his work, forcing his passion, like Dostoevsky and Platen and Novalis before him, into the service of art. The diaries demythologized Thomas Mann, while at the same time offering new keys to the interpretation of his life and works, and as scholars began to look beneath the surface of his novels and stories and to suggest new readings, Thomas Mann’s reputation as a modernist enjoyed a vigorous revival.

Simultaneously, the progress and resolution of the cold war and the reunification of Germany aroused new interest in the public aspects of Mann’s career and invited a reassessment of his political views and writings. How, it began to be asked, was one to account for the contrast between the Thomas Mann who evolved from a conservative nationalist during the First World War to a defender of the Weimar Republic and an implacable foe of Adolf Hitler and the Thomas Mann who after 1945 became so pessimistic about the prospects of democracy and so critical of Western culture?

All four of the books reviewed here have been influenced by these new considerations. Ronald Hayman, who has written well-received biographies of Proust, Nietzsche, Kafka, and Sartre, gives us here a straightforward and readable account of Mann’s literary and public life, but his main interest, as he makes clear from the outset, is the influence of Mann’s homoeroticism upon his works. In the center of his book stands the Thomas Mann who, at the age of twenty-one, wrote to a friend, “What am I suffering from? From sexuality….is it therefore going to destroy me?—How I hate it!” and a year later suggested that he had found a solution: “I am now finding novelistic forms and masks which can be displayed in public as a means of relaying my love, my hatred, my sympathy, my contempt, my pride, my scorn and accusations I want to make.” With the aid of the diaries, Hayman seeks to look beneath the masks. Anthony Heilbut, in a book written with great energy and verve, does much the same, but with less restraint than Hayman, for he appears at times to regard Mann as the voice of sexual revolution, arguing that his “entire career consisted of yoking Eros and the word” and going on to elaborate this in a series of interesting readings of the novels and stories.

On the other hand, Donald Prater has little interest in Mann’s homoeroticism and, in sharp contrast to his own method in his excellent life of Rilke,1 disclaims any intention of dealing with Mann’s literary works. His view is that, whatever the fate of his literary reputation, “the historical figure of Thomas Mann will remain of absorbing interest, above all for his personal perception of the ‘German problem’ and the painful road to its solution,” and he describes the evolution of Mann’s political ideas in great detail and with objectivity and detachment.

These last qualities cannot be attributed to Klaus Harpprecht’s long and fascinating volume, which throws new light not only on every aspect of Mann’s life and work but gives us intriguing and revealing information about his colleagues and friends in Europe and the United States during the Hitler years, about his tortured relationship with his brother Heinrich and the tragic and unfulfilled careers of his children Klaus and Erik, about the feuds within the exile community, about his problems during the McCarthy years and his retreat to Switzerland, and a good deal more. A person of strong liberal convictions who has written a distinguished life of the German naturalist and revolutionary Georg Forster and who was a speechwriter for Willy Brandt, Harpprecht is deeply engaged in the story he tells, and he makes no attempt to hide his opinions. Like Prater, he is primarily interested in Mann’s politics, and in his introduction he explains why, writing about his own feelings when he was released from the prisoner-of-war camp.

In those first postwar years, we wished that we had a Dichter, a writer, a philosopher who would take up arms for the second—the Federal—Republic in the way that Thomas Mann had pitched in for the state of Weimar in the years from 1921 onward. [Karl] Jaspers made a start. But almost two decades passed in the country before Günter Grass remembered Thomas Mann’s example of the American poet Walt Whitman and began to sing the prize song of democracy.

Harpprecht implies that Mann’s great failure as a politician was to remain aloof from the West German scene after 1949, when his voice and authority would have given crucial aid to the new democracy.

1.

In the first poem of his fourth book of odes, Horace ends a plea to the goddess Venus to refrain from submitting him to temptations unbefitting his age by crying:

   My Ligurinus, why
Should the reluctant-flowing tears surprise these dry Cheeks, and my fluent tongue
Stumble in unbecoming silences among Syllables? In dreams at night
I hold you in my arms, or toil behind your flight Across the Martian Field,
Or chase through yielding waves the boy who will not yield.2

The mood was well known to Thomas Mann. His Ligurini were his Lübeck schoolmates Armin Martens and Willri Timpe, the art student Paul Ehrenberg, with whom he became a close friend in 1899, during his first years in Munich, and, later in life, the seventeen-year-old Klaus Heuser, whom he met while vacationing on the island of Sylt in 1927, when he was fifty-two, and Franzl Westermeier, a waiter in the Grand Hotel Dolder near Zürich, with whom he became infatuated while staying there in 1950. In each case, the passion with which he was affected was powerful, brought him moments of exaltation and despair, and, in the case of Ehrenberg at least, to open declarations of love. But in no case, as far as we can tell from the written record, was his love reciprocated, let alone consummated; and in all but one of these cases there is good reason to believe that Mann, who was always more interested in his own emotions than in those of others, never meant the pursuit to end with the loved one’s yielding. In the case of the long friendship with Paul Ehrenberg, which came to an end when, in 1905, Mann married the well-to-do Katia Pringsheim, some doubts remain, and in 1934, after reading the notes he had made during the Munich years, Mann wrote of “the central emotional experience of my first twenty-five years,” of having “been able really to take into my arms what I yearned for,” adding that this was “humanly normal, and thanks to this normality I can feel that my life is more a part of the canonical order than it is through wife and children.”

There is a curious abstractness about the language here that makes it impossible to tell exactly what took place between Mann and Ehrenberg. Hayman, in any case, believes that “without ever taking the step from homoeroticism into homosexuality, [Mann] let himself be diverted into respectability, marriage, and family life.” That this was not an easy decision, he writes, was clear.

  1. 1

    Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1986, 1994).

  2. 2

    The Odes of Horace, translated by James Michie with complete Latin text (Washington Square Press, 1965), p. 209. (“Intermissa, Venus, diu/rursus bella moves? Parce precor, precor.”)

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