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 …

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Letters

Thomas Mann’s Frustration June 6, 1996