Why should you be the only ones that sin?

Colm Tóibín

  • Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature by Anthony Heilbut
    Macmillan, 636 pp, £20.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 394 55633 X
  • Thomas Mann: A Biography by Ronald Hayman
    Bloomsbury, 672 pp, £20.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 7475 2531 5
  • Thomas Mann: A Life by Donald Prater
    Oxford, 554 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 815861 0

All his life he kept his distance. At readings and concerts he would notice a young man, gaze at him, make his presence felt and understood, and later, in the semi-privacy of his diaries, record the moment. On Sunday morning, 31 October 1920, for example, when he was still working on The Magic Mountain, he went with Katia, his wife, to an open rehearsal of the Missa Solemnis, a work which would figure in Doctor Faustus more than twenty years later. ‘My chief impression,’ he wrote, ‘was of a remarkably handsome young man, Slavic in appearance and wearing a sort of Russian costume, with whom I established a kind of contact at a distance, since he noted my interest in him immediately and was obviously pleased by it.’

These were the diaries he left behind in Munich in 1933 and worried about. On Friday, 7 April 1933 in Lugano he noted in his diary: ‘The news that in Germany they are beginning to clamp down on intellectuals; not only the Jews, but all those suspected of being politically untrustworthy and opposed to the regime. One must be prepared for house searches. Fresh anxiety about my old diaries. Imperative to bring them to safety.’ And later: ‘They’ll publish extracts in the Volkischer Beobachter, they’ll ruin everything and me too.’ This did not stop him making further observations in his diaries. On Monday, 23 April 1934 he recorded a meeting with a Swiss youth, Hans Rascher, to whom he gave a complimentary ticket to a reading. ‘I seem to have made a conquest there, or so Katia thinks,’ he wrote. It is easy to imagine his gaze, you can see it in the photographs, direct, unflinching, all-embracing, but guarded as well, and melancholy in the knowledge, as he wrote in his diary, that the ‘goal, it would appear, is realised in gazing and admiring’. Only a few times in his life, as far as we can gather, did he do more than look at another man. He saved his desire, his erotic energy, his secret sexuality for his work: each morning in his study, for almost sixty years, he unmasked himself, removed his guard. His work from Buddenbrooks, published in 1900, to Felix Krull, published in 1954, is steeped in the homoerotic. The destinies of most of his heroes – Hanno Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, Aschenbach, Hans Castorp, Adrian Leverkuhn, Felix Krull – are shaped by their uneasy and ambiguous homosexuality.

For Mann being German came first, and he learned, as Anthony Heilbut rather quaintly puts it, to

read German history as one long queer epic – he alluded to Frederick the Great’s homosexuality and depicted Bismarck as ‘hysterical and high-pitched’. When considering literary history, he enjoyed couples, charging the marriage of true minds with a physical Eros. Thus Schiller’s courtship of Goethe; or, likewise, his contention that Schopenhauer had found his aesthetic mate in Wagner.

In this way Mann was able to suggest that his own concern with homosexuality was an aspect of his German heritage, was literary rather than personal. He enjoyed his role of bourgeois parent, loved building houses – he built four in all – celebrating birthdays, taking holidays. Long before he met Katia in Munich he had seen the portrait by Fritz August von Kaulbach of her as a Pierrette with her four brothers as Pierrots. ‘The young Thomas,’ Katia wrote in her book Unwritten Memories,

who was 14 years old at the time the picture was done (I was six), was still living in Lübeck and, like so many others, saw the picture in a magazine. He liked it so much that he cut it out and tacked it over his desk ... I don’t know whether his interest in me had anything to do with the picture he had as a boy. I never asked him about it.

It fits somehow that he imagined her before he saw her. And she records, too, that he watched her (‘he had already been observing me at a distance ... he was always watching me’) with that gaze of his at concerts in Munich when he was a young novelist and she the brilliant daughter of a rich, Jewish and fascinating family – her grandmother was the leading German feminist of the age; Mahler was a visitor to her family house.

Thomas Mann was both Hanno in Buddenbrooks, dreamy and talented and useless to the family, and his father the senator, practical, bourgeois, humourless. In his fiction, he revelled in the drama between those opposites. He combined the Brazilian roots of his mother and his father’s Hanseatic heritage: the sharp, steely, distant Northernness of the Manns with the flighty, ethereal and romantic Southernness of the da Silva Bruhns. (This powerful mixture gave him and his brother Heinrich their genius, but for his two sisters, Julia and Carla, it offered instability and self-destruction: they both committed suicide, Carla in 1910, Julia in 1927, just as two of Mann’s sons, Klaus and Michael, would commit suicide.) ‘At an early age,’ Katia Mann wrote of her mother-in-law, ‘the foreign girl married Senator or Consul Heinrich Mann. She had definite artistic talents, played the piano quite nicely and sang. My husband learned the entire literature of the German Lied from his mother. While she played and sang, he was permitted to be present, just like little Hanno.’

Katia Mann’s Unwritten Memories, prepared with the help of Erika, Golo and Michael, three of her children, was published twenty years after Thomas Mann’s death, when Katia was in her nineties. It is extraordinarily frank and perceptive in its own naive way; with Mann’s diaries, it offers all we need to know about him. Three new books on Mann, however, each as long as Buddenbrooks, have appeared in English. Ronald Hayman and Donald Prater are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Anthony Heilbut’s Hamlet. They are dull and worthy and useful perhaps, and they repeat the same facts and the same narrative. Their desire for Mann to be a better person is almost comic. Heilbut has clearly been to Wittenberg, he can be brilliantly perceptive about Mann’s books, he can put on an antic disposition, he can lose himself in long soliloquies about Mann’s sexuality and his work: ‘Just because heterosexual marriage cannot fulfil him, he inhabits a state of productive melancholy. Forecasting his next fifty years, he finds the Eros life denies him only in his work.’ Both Hayman and Prater dislike Mann; they would prefer him to be kinder and gentler, less cold-blooded, less self-absorbed and less single-minded about his work. Prater describes Mann crossing the Atlantic in September 1939: he holds ‘obstinately to his purpose, scribbling on at his deck-chair every morning at the Lotte’, and writes in his diary that he was ‘more and more aware how incalculable, both in time and outcome, is the process that has begun and whose end I can’t be certain of surviving’. Prater then adds in parenthesis: ‘The supreme egoism here is as remarkable as the blinkered application to his work.’ Mann is 64, his whole world has been destroyed. He has the reaction any normal writer might have during a crisis: he wants to get on with his work; and like everyone else, he is worried about what the war will mean for him. Prater seems to want him to join the Red Cross and spend his mornings helping old ladies across the street rather than working on Lotte in Weimar.

When Mann visits Germany after the war Prater decides that it is ‘indicative’ of his ‘true character ... that, with the exception of a brief report for the New York Times, nowhere, neither in his diary nor letters, did he record any reaction to the vast destruction of his country which he had seen everywhere he went ... In this apparent indifference was reflected once again the self-centredness dominant in his character.’

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