Magic Thrift

J.P. Stern

  • Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist 1875-1911 by Richard Winston
    Constable, 325 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 09 460060 0

Richard and Clare Winston are well-known as the authors of elegant and accurate translations of some of Thomas Mann’s essays and correspondence, including The Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955. While annotating that selection, Richard Winston began assembling material for what he intended to be an extensive biography of the writer. It was to be the culmination of a lifetime’s respectful devotion, an act of homage to the work of the man who, more than any other, had represented the German cultural heritage in the age of Hitler. Only in American scholars does Thomas Mann inspire such feelings in unlimited measure.

Mrs Winston’s moving ‘Afterword’ recounts the making of this book: the quasi-Jamesian pilgrimages to Mann territory which her husband and she undertook in search of surviving friends and relations, of family documents and out-of-the-way publications. She recalls her husband’s valiant attempts to stem the tide of biographical and literary material which was constantly upsetting his compositional plans and intentions – an experience Thomas Mann himself was all too familiar with throughout his career. Richard Winston’s biography was never completed. He died in 1979, aged 60, of cancer of the lungs, the disease for which Thomas Mann, then ten years older, was successfully operated in 1946. All we have is this first volume, 1875 to 1911, from the childhood years in Lübeck, through Mann’s first years in Munich, his and his brother Heinrich’s travels in Italy, to the completion of Death in Venice. The obvious centre of the book is the writing and publication of Buddenbrooks (1901), the two-volume masterpiece by a little-known author of 26 whom not even the most patronising of reviewers could have called ‘a young man of promise’. Forty-three years of strenuous literary labour later, Thomas Mann, now in exile in California, was summoned to the deathbed of his friend, Franz Werfel, to hear Werfel express his delight and wonder at being in the presence of ‘the author of that immortal masterpiece’. ‘I wonder,’ Thomas Mann noted, ‘whether after all it is not this book, among all my works, which is destined to last.’

The present biographer has done his work conscientiously and well. His manner is leisurely but not, thank goodness, too leisurely. We receive just the right amount of background information and social history, a good deal of publishers’ gossip, tales of rejections and acceptances, and several slightly embarrassed hints at Thomas Mann’s homoerotic proclivities. There are a good many disclosures ofthe ‘modelled on ... ’, ‘based ... ’ and ‘was eventually to become... ’ kind: Winston pays due regard to the way each episode and encounter, each friendship and rivalry, each journey and visit, as well as each literary and philosophical diary entry or journalistic item, finds its way, relentlessly, into the fiction, is then critically recycled in a stream of autobiographical essays, articles and ‘reflections on the nature of the [literary] enterprise itself’, from which, laced with extracts which Mann copied from his own letters to family and friends, a new current of fiction is fed ... When Winston praises Buddenbrooks for anticipating Max Weber’s doctrine of mercantile thrift and the ‘protestant ethic of achievement’, the reader needs no further nudging to see the relevance of these observations to the novelist’s own literary thrift and business sense. In February 1904, Thomas was reproached by his brother Heinrich, who was struggling with minuscule sales and recalcitrant publishers, for marrying into a millionaire’s family, and a Jewish one at that. To which Thomas tactfully replied that he has already made more money than he knows what to do with, adding for good measure that ‘not a suggestion of Jewishness arises in connection with these people – one is aware of nothing but culture.’ Good old Leistungsethik never failed him, and in the last volume of the Joseph tetralogy the divinely approved ethic he glorified even ceased to be Protestant.

By no means all the exchanges recorded in this book are as crude as this one. On the ‘Jewish question’, for instance, a number of the schoolboy’s observations are quoted, which are not only entirely sensible and tolerant, but also clearly at odds with the views held in Northern German patrician society generally. Several changes of political allegiance are recorded: both brothers published for a short time in an ultra-nationalistic periodical and then, when that collapsed, switched to the radical-anarchist Simplicissimus. Winston wisely refuses to make too much of such manoeuvres. Whether the literary coterie to which a young writer on the make belonged was conservative or liberal, ‘deutsch-völkisch’ or ‘modern’ and cosmopolitan, in outlook was hardly a matter of great moment in the Munich of the 1900s. These were not yet the times when a successful novelist could expect to have his changes of front taken seriously by the public at large. The absurdity of literary men acting as volunteers in the service of serious politics begins in August 1914.

However, at this point the question arises: what is there, in this early life, that can be made much of? We read of changes of mood, from brief moments of elation to long days of gloom and depression; the theme ‘literature is death’ alternates with detailed hints on how to review your own short stories and novel and get your friends to put their names to the review; the artist/society dichotomy – the central theme of ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903) and several other stories – is blown into a semblance of life once more; and traces of the love-hate that bound Thomas to Heinrich are discovered everywhere, including several unlikely places. The question of Thomas Mann’s homosexuality is left open: at least, Winston writes that ‘the ease with which [Thomas Mann] introduced the theme into his writing, the candour with which he confessed his attachment to [two Munich friends], suggest that he himself felt firmly rooted in hetero-sexuality.’ Does it? Did Mann ever write ‘with ease’? Why then did he so often claim the opposite, making a virtue of difficulty?

Indeed, the most interesting of the speculations recorded by Richard Winston boast of the strenuousness with which Mann invariably hedges in all achievement, including that of personal happiness. In a letter to Heinrich: ‘ “Happiness” is a form of service – its opposite is incomparably more comfortable; and I stress that not because I assume that you are feeling anything like envy, but because I suspect that you may be regarding my new existence and personality with some contempt. Don’t. I have not made things easier for myself. Happiness, my happiness, is to a great extent experience [Erlebnis], movement, insight, torment; it is akin not so much to peace as to suffering.’ And again, in a letter to his bride, Katja Pringsheim (I quote from Nigel Hamilton’s The Brothers Mann, 1978, which in many ways complements the present book): ‘talent is not easy, is nothing playful; it is not an ability to perform without hesitation. At heart it is a necessity’ – that word, ‘Not’ (‘necessity’), has, for Thomas Mann, a Wagnerian urgency – ‘a critical awareness of the ideal, an insatiability which creates and intensifies the ability it requires, and does so at the cost of some torment. For the greatest, the most insatiable, their talent is their highest scourge.’ Here are the elements of that Welt-anschauung of achievement and deliverance through strenuousness which informs the lives of Thomas Mann’s heroes. This ideology is not overtaken by Mann’s famous irony; it is by virtue of the ideology that he will become the ‘representative’ writer of his time.

Most of this, however, belongs to a subsequent age. Mr Winston manfully resists the temptation to present the Fin-de-Siècle, and Thomas Mann’s part in it, in the light of later historical disasters. But though there is much to be said for this sober refusal to obtrude with the wisdom of hindsight, it is difficult to give one’s undivided attention to events whose implications and full meaning lie in a future personal achievement and historical ‘development’ that remain unrecorded. In view of the thoroughness (‘everything bar thesqueak ... ’) with which ‘the Magician’ himself has used these miscellanea of fact and mood in countless fictional and semi-fictional contexts, the question arises: what can a biographer and his reader make of this early period of the writer’s life? Thomas Mann’s other major biographer, Peter de Mendelssohn, tacitly assuming that the events in themselves were hardly of overwhelming interest, decided to go in for stylisation on a vast scale. The first (and so far the only) volume of his biography covers the period 1875 to 1918, is conceived at much more than twice the length of Richard Winston’s book, and is written unabashedly in one of its own subject’s narrative styles. Its matter in constant danger of being buried under its art, the volume is a loving parody of Thomas Mann at his most Polonian: parody, Thomas Mann observed, is homage and acknowledgement at their most affectionate. Even de Mendelssohn – playful, chiding, sententious, hortatory, ironical and plain prolix – in short, the Mann family’s official, not to say officious biographer – remains unilluminating in erotic matters, but in every other respect he tells all and more than all, including (for instance) the fact that Thomas Mann’s ‘Notebook number 4, mentioned more than once in previous sections, is a small pocketbook bound in dark-purple morocco leather with marbled end-papers, unlined, its format being7.5 by 11 centimetres, which, as a label proves, was bought in the stationery establishment of L. Schreibmayr in the Old Town of Munich; it contains 139 pages as well as an inserted loose sheet, having indubitably been started in the spring of 1901 in Florence,’ and more in the same vein, with the gusto of the indefatigable buttonholer and lover of expatiation, leaving the reader astonished that ‘L. Schreibmayr’ has passed without a word of punning comment.

Of course, Thomas Mann is to blame for a good deal of this. The bonfires in which he disposed of his letters and diaries at various times in his life never were of a Jamesian thoroughness: the possibility that this or that autobiographical trifle might come in handy, if not now then next time round, was not to be ignored. This thrift, too, was part of the literary producer’s Leistungsethik.

Literary biographies fulfil many functions. Some tell the reader what he is too lazy to look for in the text, others offer him textual or factual assistance which is by no means always useless; others again satisfy his desultory curiosity; old-fashioned ones show an abundant picture of a ‘life’ ensconced in its ‘times’, very up-to-date ones give the reader an insight into the creative process from which he is meant to infer that there’s really nothing to it; while others again are conceived as novels in their own right. Thomas Mann is a peculiar biographical subject precisely because his life is so abundantly documented – few novelists have been their own biographers to any comparable extent. The combined bombardment of blush-making diaries, painstaking biographers and flattering relatives has had the unhappy result of undoing the Magician’s magic by showing him to have been a little less cheerful, generous and perceptive, a little more self-concerned and self-seeking, a little more pompous and irascible, than we know him to be from the marvellous fictional edifices he built. Winston did his honest best to make him look attractive. He almost succeeds. Whether de Mendelssohn will, when his magnum opus is finished, remains to be seen.