- Reminiscences and Reflections by Golo Mann, translated by Krishna Winston
Faber, 338 pp, £25.00, January 1991, ISBN 0 571 15151 5
The Mann family romance is among the tragic real-life soap operas of the century, a large-cast drama of genius, talent, fame and infamy, fraternal hatred, rocky and rock-hard marriages, open and covert sexual deviancy, secrets and suicides. It provided material for Thomas, Heinrich, Erika and Klaus Mann’s novels and plays, and for plenty of biographies and psycho-literary studies besides. Golo Mann is the third of Thomas and Katja Mann’s six children. He was born in 1909 and must have been the model for the little boy nicknamed Beisser (Biter) in his father’s comical and touching novella Unordnung und Frühes Leid (‘Early Sorrow’) – which, he says, ‘others greatly admired but I found embarrassing’. Graceless, bumbling Beisser is outshone by his flower-like sister Lorchen, who has stolen their father’s heart with her pretty ways. Beisser suffers from terrible rages and is made to stand in a corner where he screams and screams until he turns blue. The nanny thinks he is having a fit, but it’s only the blue nursery distemper coming off on his wet cheeks. Golo Mann quotes his mother’s diary on the subject of himself as a small child:
with his anxious and timid disposition, he goes completely rigid from anxiety at any unfamiliar sight or sound ... He does everything in a strangely clumsy, grotesque way... For the most part Golo is quite well behaved, gentle, and accommodating. He likes to give away all his things. ... One time, when Erika burst into tears about something during lunch, Golo wordlessly offered her a spoonful of his soup to comfort her ... But once he begins to misbehave, he is terrible. He then moans and groans about everything, gradually works himself into dreadful bawling, cannot be calmed either with kindness or with strictness, just goes on screaming for half an hour at a stretch, stubbornly, hopelessly, and looking so repulsive that you can’t help hating him.
The little boy also ‘loves to talk about illness and death’ – a trait he must have inherited, or subconsciously copied, from his father.
There is certainly a streak of valetudinarianism in the self-portrait that emerges almost reluctantly from these generally buttoned-up but sometimes, by contrast, disquietingly confidential pages. It is hard to believe that this is the younger brother of Klaus and Erika Mann, the most way-out of Germany’s iconoclastic bright young things in the Twenties and early Thirties. Golo Mann describes himself as a natural conservative, tender towards the past and respectful of authority. He comes across as a Victorian bachelor professor (and has been a professor of history at American, Swiss and German universities), right down to the habit of what the translator calls ‘hikes’ undertaken ‘for the sake of health and friendship’. Clumsy, anxious, shy, old-fashioned and formal, he hardly needs to declare how vulnerable and lonely he is under his stiff dinosaur skin of upper-bourgeois good form. We see the Beisser prototype growing into a staid and conscientious professor. He himself recognises the pathos of this continuity, and the sense of it helps to get one through some of the drier stretches of the book. They have, after all, a right to be there, for Reminiscences and Reflections is not an autobiography: ‘it is intended to be just what the title suggests. Though of course what author can say anything for certain about a book before it is finished?’ Still, Mann himself admits that early memories are the most vivid, and so are the parts of his book that correspond to its subtitle, ‘Growing up in Germany’.