‘He has enormously increased the difficulties of being a novelist.’ Perhaps only a writer of very High Modernist tendencies would take this remark as a compliment, but Thomas Mann certainly did, and it wasn’t even addressed to him. He found it in Harry Levin’s little book on Joyce, which he read in 1944. He was also much drawn to another sentence in the same work: ‘The best writing of our contemporaries is not an act of creation, but an act of evocation, peculiarly saturated with reminiscences.’ Mann had assumed, he said, that, compared with Joyce’s experiments, his own writing could only look like loose dedication to tradition, but he was now encouraged to see resemblances rather than differences. If Joyce’s experimentalism necessarily engaged tradition, and Mann’s traditionalism was never untouched by parody, the writers’ projects could well meet. Around this time Mann attended a public reading given by his friend Bruno Frank. He liked the writing and the performance but was struck by the fact that Frank used seriously the ‘humanistic’ narrative style that he himself could use only ironically. ‘Stylistically,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘I now really know only parody. In this close to Joyce.’
Not that anyone much apart from Mann himself saw this at the time, or even later. He said in a letter that ‘someone here recently wrote’ of him that ‘under the cover of a conventional use of language, he has been perhaps as adventurous an innovator as Joyce,’ but chances are that the someone was Mann himself, adapting his own reading of Levin. ‘Here’ was America, and the time was a little later: 1948. Mann had been working, from 1943 to 1947, on his great novel Dr Faustus, a retelling of the familiar myth through Germany and music and disease, its narrative time synchronised with the developments of the European War. In 1949 Levin reviewed the American translation of the novel rather harshly and, in an even unkinder historical cut, changed the title and contents of the famous course he had been teaching at Harvard from ‘Proust, Joyce and Mann’ to ‘Proust, Joyce and Kafka’, probably one of the first signs of the fading of Mann’s reputation in relation to that of those other giants. Obviously he just hadn’t increased the difficulties enough.
It’s worth pausing over the thought of Mann as a Joyce in disguise, a Joyce masquerading as a Galsworthy, say. What would happen to a literary form like the novel if it was invisibly hollowed out rather than brilliantly exploded? Could there be a Modernism that looked like its opposite? There is a remarkable piece of dialogue on just this subject in Dr Faustus, although the ostensible topic is music.
Adrian Leverkühn, the German composer-hero of the novel, receives a visit from the Devil – whether he is an independent agent or a manifestation of Adrian’s illness would alter many things, but not the Devil’s energies or the force of his arguments – who tells him what he already knows: that the old conventions are done for. Adrian says: ‘One could know all that and still acknowledge freedom again beyond any criticism of them. One could raise the game to a yet higher power by playing with forms from which, as one knows, life has vanished.’ The Devil says: ‘I know, I know. Parody.’ And asks Adrian if he expects such cheap tricks to work for him. Adrian says no, angrily.
Adrian has answered too quickly, as if parody was always and only a trick, and the Devil has trapped him. If there are no other, more human and capacious modes of parody, then the alternatives are sterility or the endless repetition of old forms. Or – and this is the Devil’s offer to Adrian – a radical breakthrough, a new form of artificial, diabolical life, an art beyond parody and beyond humanity, gained in exchange for the composer’s soul. Adrian is lost because he is an extremist in a way that even Joyce wasn’t, and because he thinks irony is just another mode of despair. In an earlier conversation – not with the Devil – he has said that the artistic work as a ‘self-sufficient, objective and harmonious formation’ is an illusion, ‘something the bourgeoisie wishes still existed’. It would take ages to unpack this thought in detail, but it’s clear that Adrian is caught up in an artist’s version of Nietzsche’s death of God. The work of art was in one sense always an illusion, but it was one of culture’s great achievements, a grand illusion. Now – this is the familiar, problematic ‘now’ of modern anxiety – the same harmonious work has become a lie, a flat denial of a troubled social world rather than an enhancement or a transfiguration of it. Quite unwittingly Adrian is offering a sophisticated analogue of what T.S. Eliot had to say about Ulysses: that the novel as a form could no longer model its order on a world which had lost all sense of order. No wonder Mann was so taken by the connection.
But where Joyce, according to Eliot, answered the disorder of modernity with his ‘mythical method’, and where Adrian Leverkühn broke through into new musical territory, Mann had, all along, even in his early writing, both given the bourgeoisie the work it wanted, and discreetly travestied that very work. And if we follow Mann’s argument rather than Eliot’s (or Adrian’s or the Devil’s) we might think that Joyce was engaged in a parallel enterprise: attacking the notion of the work through the work’s own virtues, and taking from the bourgeoisie the art it thought it still had. In this perspective many ambitious modern ventures – those of Proust, Woolf and Musil as well as Mann and Joyce – can be seen as inhabiting the ruins of a genre, reinventing life for a form ‘from which, as one knows, life has vanished’. Kafka is another story. The last great novel in the ruins is probably Perec’s aptly titled Life: A User’s Manual; and the elegant obituary for the genre is probably Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, where not even ruins remain, only the remembered pleasures of an artistic form. In this book an elderly editor who scarcely sees any readers any more is described as ‘a little man, shrunken and bent’, and the words themselves provoke a virtuoso performance of literary nostalgia. He is described in this way
not because he is more of a little man, more shrunken and bent than so many others, or because the words ‘little man, shrunken and bent’ are part of his way of expressing himself, but because he seems to have come from a world where they still – no: he seems to have emerged from a book where you still encounter – you’ve got it: he seems to have come from a world in which they still read books where you encounter ‘little men, shrunken and bent’.
This is ‘an act of evocation, peculiarly saturated with reminiscences’, to borrow Mann’s borrowing of Levin’s phrase, or perhaps even a parody of such an act.
Still, Mann is not usually thought of in this company, even by critics who greatly appreciate his irony, and Mann scholars worry especially about his reputation in America and the UK. ‘For English readers,’ Donald Prater writes in his biography of Mann, ‘the humour of which he was so proud is faint.’ Prater is discussing the four Joseph novels (1933, 1934, 1936, 1943), but as far as I know English-speaking readers have not found Buddenbrooks (1901) or The Magic Mountain (1924) too rollicking either. In his preface to the new Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, Ritchie Robertson says the novels ‘were often understood with dutiful awe as intellectual fiction of a high order, top-heavy with German philosophy and history’, and continues: ‘Over-attention to this aspect of Mann’s fiction often distracted readers, especially those reliant on imperfect translations, from the light and polished irony . . . and from the practically Dickensian humour governing the characterisation in the major novels.’ In the same volume there is a fierce essay by Timothy Buck on the insufficiencies of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations of Mann’s writing, and even of the recent versions of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain by John Woods. The failings are apparently mostly lexical and syntactical: ‘Knopf have once again employed a translator whose knowledge of German appears inadequate to the task, and who is capable of careless errors.’ Of course it’s good to get things right, but I’m afraid we’re all capable of careless errors at times. I have to say I find the language of both Lowe-Porter and Woods lucid and serviceable. If there are faults apart from the mistakes, it may be that she is a little too stuffy and he is a little too snappy. Woods has done a version of Dr Faustus, from which I quoted above, since the time of Buck’s writing.
But the question in relation to parody is in any case one of tone rather than accuracy, and Mann’s own remarks – ‘Germans, particularly literary Germans, have never seen me properly’ – suggest that even native speakers may have problems. It’s a matter, I think, of understanding why we are smiling when there doesn’t seem to be anything to smile about. As when Mann tells us that the structure of Dr Faustus is ‘comic’ because a frightened and bumbling narrator is struggling to cope with historical and psychological terror, or because, as Mann also puts it, the writer has chosen ‘to allow the demonic to pass through an exemplarily undemonic medium’. Or when a reporter from Time magazine asks him, in 1945, why he hasn’t fulfilled the prophecy he made some fifteen years earlier, and died at the age of 70, as his mother did. Mann says it’s a strange thing with the fulfilment of prophecies, they often confirm themselves allusively rather than literally. ‘Substitutions are available’ (‘Es gäbe da Substitute’). He is entirely serious in both cases, but ‘exemplarily undemonic’ and ‘substitutions’ hint at all kinds of complicated plays of ideas. How boring or blinkered or worthy or merely decent would you have to be not just to qualify as undemonic but to represent an exemplary case of the condition? There are no substitutions for dying, as Mann well knows. You can’t trade death for a migraine or a major operation or a bad car accident, and Mann is, among other things, mocking the very idea of prophecy while claiming it is still in business. To admit you didn’t die when you were supposed to is a way of saying you are glad to be alive, and of discreetly questioning the reporter’s tact – so discreetly he is not likely to notice.
Mann was a master of this genre, in private life as in his fiction. A propos du Docteur Faustusbrings together the set of letters and articles which represent the controversy between Mann and Schoenberg about the intellectual ownership of the 12-tone system – both were living in California at the time (1948-51). Mann thought that everyone knew the system was Schoenberg’s, and so didn’t mention him in the book: partly because a fictional composer can’t invent a real person’s work, and partly because Leverkühn is deeply embedded in a historical context quite unlike Schoenberg’s (although not unlike Nietzsche’s), to say nothing of his making a pact with the Devil. Schoenberg had a fantasy of a future in which he himself would have disappeared from human recollection, and everyone would think Mann was the inventor of the 12-tone system. With apparent graciousness and some highly disciplined irritation, Mann agreed to put a note in all future editions of the novel, in all languages, which begins, in Woods’s translation: ‘It does not seem superfluous to inform the reader that the method of composition presented in Chapter XXII, known as the 12-tone or row technique, is in truth the intellectual property of a contemporary composer and theoretician, Arnold Schoenberg.’ The opening of the sentence almost certainly means just what it so carefully doesn’t say: it does not seem superfluous to say this, but of course it is, and only a man who was having his arm twisted would say it. But Schoenberg was furious at the phrase ‘a contemporary’, taking it in the sense of his worst fears (‘an expression a historian might use to speak of an artist who was not able to survive his own period’), and the controversy went on and on. It’s pretty clear that Schoenberg was very thin-skinned in this matter, not to say paranoid, and that he hadn’t read the novel; and that Mann behaved with impeccable correctness throughout. But correctness doesn’t exclude a touch of quiet malice. What would it have cost him to say ‘the contemporary composer and theoretician, Arnold Schoenberg’, or just ‘Arnold Schoenberg’?
But we need a fuller literary instance of the tone I’m trying to evoke. Why do we smile, what sly hints are being given, when we read, at the beginning of The Magic Mountain, that ‘not every story happens to everybody’? We’re still working on this when, in the next paragraph, Mann explains that his story is very old but that, paradoxically, its great age has nothing to do with time. He means the story is set before the Great War, ‘in the beginning of which so much began that has scarcely left off beginning’ (Lowe-Porter), ‘with whose beginning so many things began whose beginnings, it seems, have not yet ceased’ (Woods). We are peering into the story from this side of a huge divide, a form of time that feels like space. This is not a disadvantage for the story, Mann says, ‘for stories have to be over’ – literally ‘past’: vergangen – ‘and the more over they are the better, we might say, for their quality as stories and for the storyteller, the whispering conjuror of the imperfect tense’ (my translation). Neither Woods (‘past tenses’) nor Lowe-Porter (‘times gone by’) is interested in the imperfect, which may seem fussy but is very exact, and part of the irony. Just think of how much may be going on here, and how subtle and far-reaching the invitations seem to readerly thought. Is there something invidious about the distinctiveness of stories, do we each get the stories we deserve – or perhaps the stories we cannot possibly deserve? What do we gain or lose by retaining the idea of age but abandoning the idea of time? By turning time into space? What sort of things began with the Great War, and what does it mean not to have ceased beginning? What happens after such long, or maybe permanent starts? Are there no middles and ends? And – this is a repetition of the question about age and time – how are we to think about degrees of pastness? Are we liberated or frustrated by distance? Is the whispering conjuror of the imperfect a humble historian or a sheer fabulist? And most subtle of all, hovering over the whole miniature essay, is a question about history and consciousness. Did the Great War really change everything, or is that just one more myth we can’t get out of? Our smile, if we have one, is an expression of our uncertainty. Maybe these questions are not even there. Who are we going to ask? Certainly not the Magician, as his children called Thomas Mann. It may be that parody is not entirely the right term for what is happening here, even if it is the term Mann used, but the effect certainly is the one he was thinking of in his response to Levin’s book. The old-fashioned storyteller is undermining the old-fashioned story as surely as any unconventional or even crazed narrator in Conrad, Joyce, Grass or Nabokov. There is a further complication in the fact that Mann could and frequently did write with unmitigated solemnity, so that the deadpan became just a dead pan. I don’t know whether it helps to remember that his favourite comedian was Jack Benny.
Mann was born in Lübeck in 1875, into a well-off merchant family. His father died when he was 16, the business was liquidated and the children were left with substantial independent means, which Thomas later enhanced though his marriage to the wealthy Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a Jewish professor of mathematics. Meanwhile, having finished high school in Lübeck, Thomas Mann moved to Munich to join his mother, and lived there until his exile began in 1933. He returned to Germany only to visit, and died in Zürich in 1955. Katia lived for nearly 25 years more, surviving three of their six children. ‘As long as people remember me,’ Mann said, ‘she will be remembered.’ The word for ‘remember’ here is the rather old-fashioned gedenken, which combines memory and thought, suggesting an intimate, active life in the mind, as when we are invited to ‘think on these things’.
Mann had great literary success with Buddenbrooks, which sold a million copies in a year, and from then on he was a noted man of letters in Germany – even when he wasn’t in Germany. After a romantic and conservative imperialist early phase, he became a partisan of the Weimar Republic, and was quick to condemn the Nazis and to defend the Jews – not quite as quick to sever all ties with the German mainstream and to assume the leadership of the emigration. He did sever those ties, though, by 1936, and he never again believed in the country he had loved so long and so hard. Visiting Bayreuth in 1949, he looked through the guest book and found what he knew he would find: ‘They are all there, of course – the whole devil’s brood together, Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Göring, all, all!’ Friends of German opera, who probably still had more friends in Germany than they ought to have. Hermann Kurzke, quoting this sentence, says Mann ‘all too often . . . got a glimpse of the Fascist grimace beneath the festive veneer’. After the war he became suspect in the USA and in West Germany, because he refused to attack East Germany, and because his old-fashioned democratic principles made him look like a Communist. He finally found the political air of 1950s America unbreathable. ‘I am unspeakably tired of this country,’ he wrote. America had become a place where he and his family and friends were being pestered by the FBI because of their ‘premature anti-Fascism’. Needless to say, for all his distress, Mann was amused by the term, which sounds as if it might have been invented by a character in Brecht. He moved to Switzerland in 1952.
I wrote earlier of Mann’s fading reputation, but this remark needs qualifying in several ways. First, most literary historians will not hesitate to see him as a major modern German author – a major modern European author. Second there were always, from the start, detractors and unbelievers, like Nabokov, who thought Mann’s fiction was not fiction at all, just a dramatised set of clunky sermons. Third, the fading effect, noticeable in newspapers and magazines, in university courses, academic conferences, casual conversations – no one talks about Mann the way they now talk about Proust and once talked about Joyce, as the author they know they ought to have read – is flatly contradicted by the marked interest in Mann by publishing houses all over the place. There have been the new translations I have mentioned (1993, 1995, 1997), and no fewer than five biographies since 1995 – four of them (by Klaus Harpprecht, Ronald Hayman, Anthony Heilbut, Donald Prater) published in that single year. The German version of Kurzke’s book appeared in 1999. Six volumes of Mann’s essays were published between 1993 and 1997, and the ten-volume edition of the diaries was completed in 1995.
The diaries are at the heart of much of this continuing interest, even when perhaps not obviously so, because of their dogged frankness about Mann’s yearning and unpractised homosexuality. In 1944-45 he burned most of his pre-1933 diaries, and he thought, a little later, of burning the rest. ‘Why do I write all this?’ he wrote. ‘To destroy it in good time before my death? Or do I wish the world to know me?’ In the event he didn’t destroy the post-1933 diaries, only gave instructions that they were not to be opened until twenty years after he died. What was there to know?
Well, to put it too concisely, that the passion of Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice – and not just in Mann’s novella but also in Visconti’s spectacular gay film – was far closer to the writer’s secret life than most people had imagined. T.J. Reed says in the Cambridge Companion that ‘any observant reader of the works’ would have guessed what the diaries revealed, but this is being a trifle optimistic about Mann’s readers, even the observant ones. Still, it is true, as Andrew Weber suggests in the same volume, that homosexuality in Mann’s work has a ‘sheer recursive persistence’ which ‘gives it the structure and substance of real passion’. And this oblique passion, endlessly suffered and never indulged, is what we find in the life as in the fiction. Aschenbach died of it, but Mann lived on it. His daughter Erika told him, according to Kurzke, that ‘all his love stories belonged to the realm of the forbidden and the deadly,’ and Mann agreed happily. He himself wrote of ‘the howling triumph of the suppressed world of desire’ as his great subject, and we need to see that the suppression of desire (in the life) is the price of its triumph (in the fiction). We could add that even in the fiction desire usually triumphs in death, and that when a character almost successfully excludes himself from the world of desire, as Adrian Leverkühn does in Dr Faustus, he does it through a pact with the Devil, and it doesn’t stop people dying around him and because of him.
Kurzke, whose biography is very lively and intelligent, and who is above all anxious not to seem pompous and dutiful, gets a little breezy on this subject. Mann renounces ‘sympathy with the abyss’: a phrase from Death in Venice that Kurzke says ‘one can translate freely as sympathy with homosexuality’. Mann writes of ‘mind’ and ‘life’, and Kurzke comments: ‘We will callously translate “mind” with “Thomas Mann” and “life” with “blond boys”, knowing that that is not exhaustive.’ Indeed not, even as regards the colour of the hair. Kurzke allows himself a lot of logical slack: he knows and keeps saying that Mann’s fiction is not disguised autobiography, except in some extraordinarily dilated sense, but unashamedly goes on treating it as if it were a reliable documentary source – but he is also very funny. ‘Use only as directed’ is his comment on Mann’s cultivation of his own erotic neurosis. And the sentence plausibly translated as ‘Flunking liberates you’ conceals a wonderfully tasteless joke. The German is ‘Sitzenbleiben macht frei.’ Repeating a year in high school, literally staying seated, is integrated into the sardonic slogan of Auschwitz.
And Kurzke gives us all the materials for a far less reductive reading of Mann’s lifelong interest in young men. ‘Thomas Mann did not lead a double life,’ Kurzke says, and quotes him as saying: ‘I would never have wanted to go to bed even with the Belvedere Apollo.’ Mann did not lead a physical double life. He distinguished rigorously – schizophrenically, we may feel – between sexuality and eroticism, where the first was all practice and the second all dream. His dreams didn’t exclude intense loyalty to his wife, and moments of genuine shared sensuality, but he didn’t dream of her. He dreamed of what he couldn’t have, those young male faces and bodies, a few fleeting kisses, themselves perhaps chiefly the work of fantasy. ‘What is fidelity?’ he wrote.
It is love without seeing, victory over a hated forgetting. We meet a face that we love, and after gazing at it for a while, during which our feeling is reinforced, we are parted from it again. Forgetting is sure, the pain of separation is only the pain about sure forgetting . . . What remains for us is nothing but the certainty that each new meeting of our being with this phenomenon of life will certainly renew our passions, will let us again, or actually still let us, love it.
Mann is telling us that the deepest, most life-justifying experience of a person might be a scarcely reciprocated gaze, or at least the intense and intricate feelings that come with the gaze. He writes in his diary for 1950 of his ‘pathological enthusiasm’ for a young waiter in Zürich, but he also speaks of his ‘delusive and yet passionately asserted enthusiasm for the charm of manly youth – incomparable, surpassed by nothing in the world – my happiness and misery long since inexpressible, enthusiastic and mute – not “promesse de bonheur” but only renunciation and indeed one not definable, a wishful impossible wish’. In the German the words ‘incomparable, surpassed by nothing in the world’, are in italics. Let’s not rush to feel sorry for this now elderly Aschenbach or want him to be liberated into action. Not every story happens to everybody. Some temperaments don’t need happiness or even its promise but the certainty of renunciation: that is, happiness and misery all in one, a real passion and a real willingness to give it up, to live only with its flickering, unavailing returns, and the memories it scarcely leaves.
As I hope the above quotation illustrates, the translator Leslie Willson has worked wonders with some very difficult passages. There are other splendid successes, such as the rendering of the apparently untranslatable Urkram as ‘primal odds and ends’, and Kurzke’s own energy undoubtedly comes across. It is all the stranger, therefore, that the book should have so many truly bizarre linguistic moments. A phrase like ‘His heart was strait’ is perhaps poetic in its way, and it is a literal version of ‘Sein Herz war eng’ – I suppose a more idiomatic version would talk of a ‘constricted’ heart. I didn’t too much mind the many mere awkwardnesses: ‘He is an unbeliever on the search’; ‘It was not a matter for me about “wisdom”’; ‘Grautoff had behaved colossally bad.’ But what do we do with the following weird switches? ‘In a way that was different from what Dostoevsky thought’ becomes ‘In a way different, as Dostoevsky believed’. ‘I heard him called Oswald’ becomes ‘I heard him mention Oswald’. A violin concerto that appears in Dr Faustus is translated once as a violin concerto, and twice as a violin concert. Twice Willson inserts the idea of ‘daring’ into a modal verb that doesn’t have any such suggestion. Mann writes of his sister after her suicide that she ‘ought not to have separated herself from us’. And when his son Klaus kills himself, Mann writes that he ‘ought not to have done it to them’ – that is, to Katia and Erika. This is stuffy enough each time, but Mann didn’t commit the ultimate pompousness of saying the two dead persons ‘shouldn’t have dared’ to do what they did. There is much, much more of this kind, but I’ll note further only that although Willson translates Entbehrung as ‘renunciation’ in the passage I quoted above, at another moment he renders it as ‘deprivation’, as if the difference didn’t matter. Literally the word doesn’t quite mean either; it means ‘missing’ or ‘going without’. But ‘renunciation’ is closer to the important meaning. Mann wasn’t deprived of what he wished for. He courted his impossible wishes, and he gave them up. He simultaneously gazed on and went without what most of us would call life. He enormously increased the difficulties of being in love and these are not unrelated to the difficulties of being a novelist.
In his last book, The Dear Purchase (1995), J.P. Stern magisterially explores the ubiquitous theme of difficulty in modern German literature, carefully explicating the lures and dangers of an ‘idea of salvation through extraordinary effort’, and I wouldn’t have thought of this particular connection between Mann’s novels and his refused consummations if I hadn’t read that book. Stern makes it clear that all the major German writers of the 20th century – and also, I would add, at the risk of diluting the specificity of the thesis, a number of writers who were not German – were drawn to the idea of a difficulty that redeems, as were the ideologues and supporters of National Socialism, so we need to understand how an often admirable notion could also be, in Stern’s words, ‘open to horrifying abuse’. The abuses could be subtle, too. The dear purchase of Stern’s title is a modern variant on an old Christian trope: that of the apparently costly redemption of mankind which in the end turns out to have required only the true and exact price. Modern redemptions always cost more than we can afford, and we may think of the attractions of difficulty as including, among other things, the possibility of being forgiven for buying all the wrong things because we paid far too much for them. We have only to put the matter this way to see how desperate the claim can be.
At the end of Dr Faustus, just before his final collapse – the effect of untreated syphilis and/or the moment when the Devil comes for his soul – Adrian Leverkühn offers a single thought, not in excuse of his life or his madness or his music, but in defence of his peculiar notion of honour. He says: ‘I sought out what was hard and gave myself to drudgery,’ and ‘perchance it will be reckoned to me and put to my account that I have been so diligent and complished all with pertinacity.’ This is Woods’s translat-ion, an effective attempt to catch the pastiche of Luther’s speech that Adrian is crazily enacting at this point, and there is a clear echo of Goethe’s Faust, where the sinning hero is saved through his perpetual striving. But Adrian is damned, not saved, and striving is not the same as seeking out what is hard. Adrian is suggesting, perhaps without fully believing it, that difficulty itself is a value beyond good and evil. Mann may or may not have thought this himself, but he certainly felt that the pursuit of difficulty renewed the passions, and he knew that for him it was inseparable from ‘this phenomenon of life’.