Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann; drawing by David Levine

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quotations—many of them several paragraphs in length—from diaries, letters, working notes, autobiographical sketches, unpublished material, marginalia, and so on: one would guess about a third of the text to be quotation.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

On the other hand, Mann has also frequently been accused of anti-Semitism. In their earliest Munich period he and Heinrich both worked briefly for the right-wing magazine Das Zwanzigste Jahrhundert, which published anti-Semitic material (though not by them). In his middle years Mann adopted a somewhat völkisch stance, but it was dreamily chauvinist rather than racialist. And not every Jewish character in his fiction is as wholly admirable as the doctor in Königliche Hoheit. Critics sensitive on this point might consider, though, that this could easily go on the account of Mann’s literary sadism toward his nearest and dearest. He himself said very reasonably that it was ridiculous “to take the mere fact that someone does not overlook so striking a phenomenon as Jewishness as evidence of anti-Semitism.” He was certainly not fond of closet Jews. On the other hand, he shared with most German Jews a preference for assimilated Jews to those who were not.

When he was wooing Katia, Mann wrote to her that because she belonged neither to the aristocracy nor to the bourgeoisie she was a princess—and he himself had always considered himself “a sort of prince.” He was sounding his most persistent leitmotif—the theme of practically every piece of fiction he wrote: the artist is a being apart. He is cursed with separateness, as the Jews are cursed—possibly another reason he found them so congenial. In Königliche Hoheit it is a lonely prince who symbolizes the artist in his isolation: in other stories the artist symbol may be a cripple (the prince, in fact, has a crippled arm to make doubly sure) or a man of exceptional ugliness. (Mann’s friend, Ernst Bertram, spoke of the artist as “the Beethoven type…the essential ‘ugliest human being.’ “) Individuals at the very top and very bottom of the human scale are alike in having a unique, solitary, tragic experience of life. Mann would have agreed with Diane Arbus that freaks are aristocrats.

The idea that the artist is cruelly cut off from real life was a familiar part of the Romantic agony. Erich Heller points out how it is the theme of Goethe’s play about a poet, Torquato Tasso, how Keats experienced the feeling, and how it was particularly potent in the Zeitgeist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Flaubert, Nietzsche, Rilke, Valéry, Proust, and, later, T.S. Eliot, were all caught up in it. Mann’s version derives chiefly from Nietzsche, who, with Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Wagner, was the great acknowledged influence on his work. Schopenhauer and Wagner dominate Buddenbrooks: reading the one and playing the other in a piano adaptation is how the two autobiographical antiheroes, Thomas Buddenbrook, the father, and Hanno, the son, come to understand themselves and their situation. But Winston is convinced that Nietzsche was more important to Mann than Schopenhauer: “it was Nietzsche whom Thomas Mann loved.”

In Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice (and, of course, in Doktor Faustus, although that was written at the end of Mann’s life and falls outside Winston’s scope) the hero really is an artist and not merely his symbol. In any case, everything Mann wrote is about Mann. (A contemporary caricature shows him delivering an address on the centenary of Goethe’s death. He stands under a bust of Goethe, but the bust’s features are Thomas Mann’s.) Like Mann, Tonio Kröger is a writer and the son of a consul in a Baltic port. (Consuls were not officials of foreign nations, but local grandees who represented these nations.) He has a stronger dash of Latin blood than Mann could claim, and that in itself sets him apart: he is dark, slight, and also physically inept, whereas all his schoolfellows are blond, robust, and excel at dancing and games.

Tonio’s unrequited passion for a blond schoolfellow (and Hans Castorp’s, for another, in The Magic Mountain) is based on a real experience of Mann’s, and so is his later love for a blond girl. In the novella these two are sweethearts when the adult Tonio sees them again at a seaside dance. They pay no attention to him. He knows that he is gifted, unique, and that they are ordinary. But he yearns for them and their ordinariness, from which his genius implacably excludes him. Tonio knows he must accept his lot. The ending is melancholy.

In Death in Venice it is tragic: when the great writer Aschenbach becomes obsessed with a beautiful boy he has only seen, the obsession undermines his Protestant ethic (accused of paganism, Mann insisted that the story was utterly Protestant in spirit) until his whole personality disintegrates. His physical death is not only a blessed release, but also the symbol of disintegration. Mann explained that the homoerotic element in the story was incidental: its archetype was the aged Goethe’s infatuated desire to marry a girl in her teens who had no idea of marrying him. To Mann this painful and humiliating episode in the great man’s life was another version of Tonio’s love for Hans and Ingeborg: it was the mind in love with life, the artist in love with the Bürger—usually translated “bourgeois” but really just the ordinary citizen.

A widower of many years’ standing and with few friends, Aschenbach is utterly alone with his art. With his fastidious standards, his aloofness, irritability, and self-examination, he is, of course, partly a portrait of Thomas Mann. But Mann’s position was not at all as grim as Aschenbach’s. For one thing, until they quarreled for political reasons during the First World War, Thomas was very close to Heinrich, whose prolific output of novels and plays he both admired and despised. Together they plunged into the hectic intellectual life of Munich, working for various literary magazines and getting their work published here and there, until for Thomas the big breakthrough came in 1901 with Buddenbrooks. He was only twenty-six, but no book reads less like a young man’s.

It made him immediately famous, and he was invited all over Germany to give lectures and readings. He loved the podium. As a child he had loved acting. Stiff and reserved though he seemed, he was a performer. With one aspect of his nature, he believed, every artist is a performer, a creator of illusion, manipulating his public—a kind of charlatan, really. The lonely artist, like Vigny’s Moses on his mountaintop, is a tragic figure; the artist as conjurer or confidence trickster generates comedy. Mann’s comedy is the Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, which did not appear until 1954, but which he began in the early years of the century. The disreputable Krull is as much a self-portrait as the austere Aschenbach.

But they are portraits of his innermost being rather than of himself in the world. For the first six decades Mann’s life was not particularly tragic and certainly not disreputable. He had six children, a huge family circle of his own and his wife’s relations, and an endless stream of distinguished and congenial visitors flowed through his town house in Munich and his country house outside. He worked regularly every morning, and in the afternoon he had a siesta and took the dog for a walk for the sake of his digestion (his own, not the dog’s, though the dog’s health was also a subject of much anxious attention). He was a concerned and devoted father and doted on his youngest daughter. He spent many evenings at the theater, the opera, and concerts. He watched conscientiously over his health and was a busy valetudinarian. His homosexual tendencies were not revealed (except between the lines of his work) until his diaries of 1918-1923 unexpectedly turned up in 1979, and cast a retrospective light on earlier events and attitudes.

At school Mann had an intense emotional friendship based on mental affinity with a boy called Hans Kaspar von Rantzau, who figures as Hanno’s friend little Count Mölln in Buddenbrooks. Then he fell in love with a good-looking blond boy, Armin Martens, the prototype for Hans Hansen in Tonio Kröger—“and a more delicate, more blissfully painful love was never again to be granted me,” he wrote at the end of his life. The year after writing love poems to Armin he was writing them to a girl with pigtails. In his early Munich years another intense friendship developed, this time with a young painter called Paul Ehrenberg, who belonged to Mann’s bicycling and music-making set. His feelings for Ehrenberg took on a “character of somewhat excessive suffering,” he wrote. But, Winston says, “there was no suggestion of anything remotely resembling a physical relationship.”

In 1910, years after his marriage, Mann began a long friendship—at first a pen friendship—with a young academic who had written an extraordinarily perceptive review of Königliche Hoheit. Ernst Bertram was a homosexual; through his lifelong lover Ernst Glöckner he was loosely connected with the homosexual circle around the poet Stefan George—a set which Mann could not stomach at all. Again the relationship was not remotely physical, but, Winston says, “an understanding of the homoerotic urge formed a secret bond between him and the respectful, highly intelligent, and equally reticent Bertram. The secret did not have to be articulated for it to ease and warm their relationship.”

In the 1918-1923 letters, Mann reveals occasional homosexual twinges experienced on trams or beaches. Nevertheless, the publication of the letters in 1979 caused a furor. Winston, however, remains perfectly calm. Mann uses the German word Knabenliebe

… whose overtones are somewhat different from our clinical pederasty. The disposition was neither rare nor unmentionable in Wilhelmine Germany. In fact, at this time it was enjoying a vogue in artistic-intellectual circles, under the banner of Stefan George. …

Never in his whole life was [Mann] to admit openly to that defect, except in the deep privacy of his diaries. Yet he nursed this secret as a source of pleasure, of interest, of creative power. Perhaps he exaggerated the strength of the inclination in himself, as he exaggerated all his little ailments, the headaches and incipient colds, he recorded in his diary.

Were they too “a source of pleasure, of interest, of creative power?” In a sense they were not. Mann was a Leistungsethiker: his work was the most important thing in his life. So every cold or bout of indigestion was a vexation: it had an adverse effect on his creative faculties. In a sense his careful valetudinarianism was a regime to keep the machine in good condition. And yet sickness and death are so important in his work that perhaps he needed to experience them in a diluted form and in small doses.

The peculiarly German form of the Romantic preoccupation with death derived from Schopenhauer. His seminal Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung appeared in 1819; but its greatest impact came a generation later. By the middle of the century, by the Sixties, when Thomas Buddenbrook reads it with shattering effect, its philosophy was simply in the German air: people were Schopenhauerians even if they had never read the master.

The longings for nirvana, for release from the Will and the world, for death, were the maladie du siècle. First in Thomas Buddenbrook, then in Hanno, heightened sensitivity and artistic talent were linked to weakness, sickness, unfitness for life, the extinction of the Will. Hanno is a potential artist: he has the artist’s clear and therefore pessimistic and despairing vision of life, the Schopenhauerian disgust with existence. They take away his desire to live, his resistance to illness: he dies while still a child. Tonio Kröger is a less severe case: he grows up and becomes the artist Hanno might have been, except that he is a writer and not a musician. His sickness is confined to his thoughts and feelings and does not affect his body; but he is fit for art only, not for life.

In spite of his profound understanding of the modern artist’s dilemma, Mann—unlike his contemporaries Proust or Rilke, for instance—managed both art and a thoroughly bürgerlich life. Winston’s book, though it leaves him at the age of thirty-six, is interesting mainly because it shows in some detail how he did it.

This Issue

February 18, 1982