Thomas Mann: Diaries 1918-1939
From the time he was a schoolboy in Lübeck until his death in Zurich in 1955, Thomas Mann kept a diary. Its purpose in the early years seems to have been to serve as a repository for stylistic exercises, drafts of stories, and copies of letters, but we have no exact knowledge of its contents because he burned all of the early volumes in 1896. He wrote to a friend,
They were a burden to me; in terms of space and in other ways as well…. It became awkward and uncomfortable for me to have such a mass of secret—very secret—writings lying around. All your letters and some ancient stories of questionable nature..sent their chemical components up the chimney. I suggest a similar cleaning to you. One truly gets rid of the past and can live cheerfully in the present and face the future without qualms.
This purge may have served the purpose of getting rid of a lot of prose whose awkwardness now embarrassed the young writer, but it did not persuade him to change his habits. He went on with the diary. Its nature, to be sure, now changed, and it became much less of an exercise book and much more of a record of its author’s daily life and work. But there is no question of its importance to him. In February 1934, he wrote:
These diary notes, resumed in Arosa during days of illness brought on by inner turmoil and the loss of our accustomed structured life, have been a comfort and support up to now, and I will surely continue with them. I love this process by which each passing day is captured, not only its impressions, but also, at least by suggestion, its intellectual direction and content as well, less for the purpose of rereading and remembering than for taking stock, reviewing, maintaining awareness, achieving perspective….
With painful regularity, Mann sat down before going to bed and recorded what he had seen and heard and felt during the day, who his visitors had been and what had been talked about, whether he had taken a walk and what the weather was like, what the current state of his relations was with his wife and brother and children, where he had his hair cut or his teeth cleaned, what he was writing or planning to write and how his works were being received, what he felt about the latest political developments, what he had for tea and what brand of cigarettes he was smoking, and, more and more, in the later volumes, what he thought of his country and its future.
There is no doubt that Mann often questioned the usefulness of this enterprise. “Why do I write all this?” he wrote on August 25, 1950. “Only so that I can destroy it in time before I die? Or is it that I desire that the world know all about me? I believe it knows more in any case—at least,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.