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.’

‘The diaries,’ Ronald Hayman tells us, ‘reveal that there were no limits to Mann’s self-absorption ... He was never unconcerned with fame, fortune and perfection, but he was compulsive about confronting the reader with his own experience, though he seldom stepped into fiction without wearing a mask.’ ‘Confronting the reader with his own experience’ is a new way of describing what Mann did every morning in his study, but his compulsion is even worse than Hayman realises. In an interjection in her mother’s memoirs, Erika, the Manns’ eldest child, says that ‘there is a great deal of Thomas Mann in each of the figures in Buddenbrooks, especially in Thomas but also in Christian and also in Tony, and in all the figures more or less.’ He just could not stop.

‘Nothing mattered more to Thomas Mann than to win the world’s respect,’ Hayman writes, but in the mornings all Mann’s life, alone with whatever version of the self, or of his family, he was creating, a great deal mattered more, as the readers of his fictions, rather than of these biographies, will know.

Heilbut, on the other hand, loves Mann’s compulsions, his masks, his self-absorption. ‘Throughout his life,’ he writes, ‘there were periods when Mann seemed on the verge of a great confession. His abiding decorum prevented an overt disclosure, but he left his clues.’ He understands and is intrigued by the discrepancies between the public and private in Mann. He relishes the clues which Mann leaves, and he unearths a good number of new clues that escape the notice of both Hayman and Prater. Because his interest is almost exclusively in the sexuality and the work, there are crucial areas – Mann’s political development, for example, and the fate of his family – which are better dealt with, however ploddingly, in the two other books. Heilbut, on the other hand, writes a passionate defence of Mann’s attitude to Jewishness. Mann understood that the Jewish imagination was an essential presence in Germany. Thus he viewed the Holocaust not only as a tragedy for Jews, but for Germany as well.

As a novelist Mann was lucky that his father died when he was 16 and his mother was 40. The terms of the will were punitive. ‘The estate,’ Hayman writes, ‘would be controlled by executors, who were instructed to liquidate the company, to sell the ship and all the stock, as well as the house and the furniture within a year. It was almost as if the senator wanted to liquidate the family as well as the business.’ Julia Mann had no control over the capital, and was obliged to report on the children’s upbringing four times a year to a judge with the interesting name of August Leverkuhn. In none of his autobiographical writings and nowhere in his fiction did Thomas Mann refer to the will. But because of it, Julia Mann moved to Munich, a city ten times the size of Lübeck, and thus all of his childhood and his family heritage became history to Thomas Mann, something he could not have back, something which was gone without a trace. His mother had no objections to him and Heinrich becoming writers. And here was this world, his family’s rise and decline in Lübeck, with a ready-made ending, which could only be recreated in words. It was the fact that he was dealing with something so close to him, and at the same time so unrecoverable, that gave Buddenbrooks its extraordinary aura of confidence and completion.

The idea that he was not to become a Lübeck merchant, and the idea that Lübeck, like his father, was gone and would not come back, were rendered more powerful by the knowledge that he was not like his father or his brother: that he was homosexual. This knowledge came early to him; he used it in Tonio Kröger whose father, too, was a merchant and his mother ‘so absolutely different from other ladies in the town because father had brought her long ago from some place far down the map’. But in Tonio’s case, it was a passing phase.

Mann put most of his specific erotic obsessions into his fiction. At 14 he fell in love with a classmate called Armin Martens, an experience which he remembered sixty years later as ‘delicate, blissfully painful ... Something like this is not forgotten, even if seventy eventful years pass by.’ He made Martens into Hans Hansen in Tonio Kröger. A few years later a classmate Willri Timpe gave him the model for Pribislav Hippe, on whom the young Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain had a crush. When he was 25 he had what he called ‘that central experience of my heart’ with Paul Ehrenberg, a student painter and violinist at the Munich Art Academy who more than forty years later became Rudi Schwerdtfeger in Doctor Faustus.

Even the boy in Death in Venice was based on a real boy. Katia Mann remembered being on holiday in Venice with Thomas and Heinrich in the spring of 1911.

All the details of the story, beginning with the man at the cemetery, are taken from actual experience ... In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often ... I still remember that my uncle, Privy Counsellor Friedberg, a famous professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged: ‘What a story! And a married man with a family!’

One wonders what Privy Counsellor Friedberg would have made of Mann’s letter to Erika and Klaus, his two eldest children, both gay themselves, written in 1927, when they were in their early twenties. He had fallen in love with the 17-year-old Klaus Heuser – ‘I call him Du and he consented to my embracing him on my breast’ – and asks his son Klaus, who had met the boy, ‘to voluntarily withdraw and not to invade my circle. I am already old and famous, and why should you be the only ones who constantly sin ... The secret and almost silent adventures in life are the finest.’ In 1942 he remembered his relationship with Heuser: ‘Well, I have lived and loved. Black eyes filled with tears over me. Lips which I kissed.’

His last love was perhaps the most poignant and obsessive, and it, too, made its way into his fiction. Observed by both Katia and Erika, he fell in love with Franz Westermeier, a Bavarian waiter, when he was 75. Heilbut writes that he told Katia that he could not sleep with longing for the boy, although he gives no source for this. In his diary Mann wrote: ‘World fame is worthless enough for me, but how little it weighs against one smile from him, his glance, the gentleness of his voice ... He has been taken into the gallery which no literary history will report, and which reaches back to Klaus H., Paul, Willri, Armin ... Fell asleep in thoughts of the darling.’ He contrived to talk to the waiter about his prospects. Katia and Erika arranged a further meeting for him before they left Switzerland. In a section of Felix Krull which Mann wrote the following year he portrayed himself very precisely as hotel guest Lord Kilmarnock (Lord Strathbogie in other editions) who wished to employ the personal services of the waiter Felix Krull. Krull turned him down. Mann let no experience go to waste: being in love with Klaus Heuser was the inspiration for his essay on Kleist; gazing on Westermeier inspired him to write his essay on Michelangelo.

Once Buddenbrooks had appeared and Mann had married, his family took on the bearings of a German royal family, becoming the conscience of Germany. Erika and Klaus sought out other members of European literary royalty, befriending Frank Wedekind’s daughter Pamela, Erika later marrying Auden and falling in love with Strindberg’s daughter Kerstin and the conductor Bruno Walter, Elisabeth flirting with Hermann Broch, Michael befriending the son of Hermann Hesse. The divisions within Germany during the First World War were reflected in the disagreements between Thomas and Heinrich. Thomas, Katia wrote, ‘for a time believed in the legends of the ill will of other nations towards Germany, of its encirclement, and of its downfall and destruction’. She insisted that Mann wrote Reflections of a Non-Political Man, the book which took up the years 1915 to 1918, interrupting the composition of The Magic Mountain, as a reply to an attack on him by Heinrich who ‘was so oriented towards the West’. As he wrote the book, Katia said, ‘Thomas Mann gradually freed himself from the ideas which had held sway over him.’ The fact that he had been a German nationalist gave him a strange insight into what happened in Germany between the wars, and the fact that he had abandoned his nationalism, over many mornings in his study, and many evenings arguing with Katia, who along with her mother had turned against the war effort, made him stand even further outside the world he inhabited, and, indeed, outside the self he had known.

He was more at ease with Katia’s family than with his own: his two sisters and his mother became more and more eccentric and difficult; he would wait until the Forties to portray Carla and Julia, who was known as Lula, and his mother in Doctor Faustus as Ines and Clarissa Rodd and their mother, the Frau Senator. ‘In Munich’, Katia said of her mother-in-law, she ‘was still quite full of joie de vivre. She entertained a circle of various gentlemen ... and these gentlemen were always undecided as to whether they should court the daughters or the mother.’ Carla wanted to become an actress, but in 1910 she decided to leave the stage and marry. ‘But a previous suitor arrived,’ Heilbut writes, ‘and threatened to reveal her sordid past if she didn’t comply with his wishes. Although she surrendered, he proceeded to inform her fiancé. She chose to turn this melodrama into a tragedy by taking cyanide.’ Seventeen years later, Lula, who had been unhappily married and was now widowed and poor, hanged herself. Golo reported that his father ‘was deeply shaken, not because the death of his sister, long since become an embarrassment, was a loss, but because, as I heard him tell my mother, it was like lightning striking very near him.’

There was always a sense with Mann, in his diaries, his letters and his fiction, that he was an observer at his own life, that he had learned very early to stand back as each thing happened, pretend that it was happening to someone else and then store the material for later use. He used his mother’s life and his sisters’ suicide and his friendship with Paul Ehrenberg ruthlessly in Doctor Faustus. Even his own ostensible coldness he puts to use in his novels: Leverkuhn’s inability to love in Doctor Faustus is perhaps the most moving image in all Mann’s work. In his old age he adored his grandson Frido, the son of his only heterosexual son, Michael. He based Echo, the beautiful child, Leverkuhn’s nephew, on Frido, and Echo’s ‘horrific death’, Heilbut writes, ‘far more brutally drawn out than Hanno Buddenbrook’s ... stunned Mann’s family, already shocked by the detailed re-enactment of his sister Carla’s suicide’.

His wife and their six children became his audience: all of them wrote about him, vividly remembering his reading to them from recently completed work. They appear hardly at all in his fiction, yet in each of their life-stories, there are moments and periods which are straight out of Mann’s dark imagination, his broodings on sex and death, the German character and individual weakness. He professed to love only two of his children – Erika and Elisabeth. With the others he showed a mild irritation. ‘We had once loved our father almost as tenderly as our mother, but that changed during the war,’ Golo wrote in his memoirs (the war was the First World War). ‘He could still project an aura of kindness, but for the most part we experienced only silence, sternness, nervousness, or anger.’ Yet they remained under his harsh, aloof and intimidating shadow all their lives. Michael, a few years before his father died, used to dream about wrestling with him. Both Golo and Michael used to make notes for possible topics of conversation if they were dining with their father. When Klaus was in his early teens his father found him naked. ‘Strong impression of his developing, magnificent body. Strong emotion,’ he wrote in his diary. (Klaus, in turn, recorded that he dreamed about his father’s ‘secret homosexual life’.) Mann was aware that he was an impossible model for Klaus. In the years after Klaus’s suicide in 1949 Erika became more dependent on her parents and they on her. (When in 1926 she married the actor Gustav Grundgens, the original for her brother’s novel Mephisto, her grandmother, Katia’s mother, wrote that it was ‘one of those queer modern unions where it would take the Holy Ghost itself to grant me the joys of being a great-grandmother’.) Elisabeth, who was mentioned with such tenderness by Mann in his letters and diaries, married an academic her father’s age, lived in Chicago and Italy, became an expert on the law of the sea. She is still alive. Monica, in a television interview in 1984, remarked that she could not recall ever having had a talk with her father. She did not read the diaries; ‘perhaps just as well, in view of his generally disparaging remarks about her,’ Donald Prater writes. In 1940, her ship was torpedoed crossing the Atlantic, and she watched her husband drown before her eyes. When she arrived in New York, her parents sent Erika to deal with her: they did not want to be disturbed. Michael, the youngest, became a violist and later a professor of German literature. He committed suicide in 1976, having edited some of his father’s diaries, which Mann instructed should be opened and published twenty years after his death.

Erika and Klaus were more impulsive and emotional than their father, enfants terribles at the age when their father was an éminence grise; they were also more secure in their homosexuality than their father ever was; and their relationship with Germany was much lighter than his had been. It was easier for them to oppose Hitler, and to break with Germany when the time came. Erika worked in an anti-Fascist cabaret; Klaus ran an émigré magazine. They both felt, certainly from 1933 and to some extent before, that clear opposition was the only honourable response to Hitler. They were impatient and angry with their father’s hesitation. He was loath to lose his readers and his reputation in Germany: he wanted to remain if he could a central figure in German public life and did not relish the idea of exile. Like many people in their sixties he was not brave.

Viewed in retrospect, his silence went on far too long. His children had warned him not to return to Munich in March 1933; they retrieved what they could from the house. He did not return to Germany, but was careful not to denounce the regime. Thus Mann’s works were not included in the ceremonial burning of ‘un-German’ books on 10 May 1933, while those of his brother Heinrich were. In October Mann dissociated himself from Klaus’s émigré magazine Die Sammlung because of its strident editorial line against the Nazis. Not until January 1936 did he publicly attack the Nazis. ‘I am finally saving my soul with it,’ he wrote, ‘and unveiling my deep conviction that nothing good for Germany or the world can come from the present German regime.’ The Nazis responded by removing his German citizenship and taking away his honorary degree from Bonn University. From now until his death, he would represent what was for him the real Germany; he would be like Goethe in The Beloved Returns: ‘They think they are Germany, but it is I who am Germany, and if it were to be exterminated root and branch, it would endure in me.’

From 1939 until 1952 the Manns lived in the United States, where his reputation as a novelist was high, and as a spokesman for the German émigrés he became increasingly important. He was entertained at the White House. He built a beautiful house in California, close to other German émigrés – Schönberg, Bruno Walter, Adorno and his brother Heinrich. He began Doctor Faustus in California in 1943. Once more he dealt with a world which he could not have back, just as, in Munich, he had written about Lübeck in the last years of the 19th century. Once more he used everything he knew, he emptied himself out: his family, Germany between the wars, the tension between the genius and the humanist in his own temperament, his lifelong devotion to German classical music, the war, Goethe, Nietzsche, his love for Paul Ehrenberg, his adored grandson Frido. He used Schönberg’s music, much to Schönberg’s chagrin – a chagrin which was stirred up, Katia believed, by Alma Mahler; he used everything that Adorno could tell him about music. (He got a great deal wrong, as Schönberg was not slow to point out.) He put large numbers of friends and acquaintances into the book, including Annette Kolb, who became Jeanette Scheurl with her ‘elegant sheep’s face’ in the novel. She never spoke to Mann again. ‘He took only what he needed and didn’t want more,’ Katia wrote. ‘He once said as a joke that he didn’t know any more about a subject than appeared in his work so he shouldn’t be quizzed or examined beyond that.’

People mattered less and less as he grew older. In the United States he was befriended and greatly assisted by Agnes B. Meyer, mother of Katharine Graham, wife of the owner of the Washington Post. Mann flattered Meyer in the many letters he wrote to her and had his revenge in his diaries. ‘That stupid and tyrannical old bag irritates me,’ he wrote, referring to her as ‘the decidedly hysterical woman in Washington’. Hayman describes a typical correspondence between them:

In her next letter, Agnes Meyer reminded him not to miss a talk she was going to give on the radio. Dutifully, he tuned in and wrote to compliment her. But she soon wrote again to complain that he’d never thanked her for the birthday present she’d sent him – a pair of jade cuff-links. He wrote back saying he couldn’t have failed to thank her. Perhaps his letter had got lost in the post. But he punctured her pretence of incredulity that he could treat her so badly when the gift had been valuable enough for a man to live on for a year. This, he said, he could hardly believe. After all, jade was only a semi-precious stone, and he’d seen long jade necklaces which must have cost a fortune if two stones could be so valuable. But he wrote again on Christmas Eve to say how grateful he was for everything she’d done to help him.

After the war he had no desire to return to Germany. ‘In Germany,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘there are two, three or perhaps four people I would like to see again. The others all make me shudder.’ He returned in 1949, as his popularity in America was waning, partly because he refused to have anything to do with anti-Communism and the Cold War. Katia went with him, but Erika refused to go. When he told her that Klaus would not have been so uncompromising, she answered: ‘That’s why he killed himself, which is what I now won’t do. That’s some consolation but not much.’ He insisted on speaking in East Germany as well as the West.

I know no zones. My visit is for Germany itself, Germany as a whole, and not an occupied territory. Who ought to guarantee and represent the unity of Germany if not an independent writer whose true home, as I have said, is the language, which is free and untouched by occupation?

In the early Fifties Mann settled in Switzerland, where he died in 1955 at the age of 80.

Heilbut ’s book establishes Mann’s homosexuality as central to his work, and there is nothing in either Prater or Hayman which suggests that this wasn’t so. All three agree that Germany and German culture were also vital for him. But Katia’s Unwritten Memories offers insights into Mann’s work which are richer and more complex than anything in these three biographies. Mann’s three best novels are Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. In all three, there is an extraordinary, almost obsessive sense of place, and of the characters’ lives and habits. These are not simply the characters and places the author has known and loved: there is an intensity in the way they are described which makes you feel that Mann was conjuring up material from a very deep source. Katia spent a great deal of 1912 and 1913 in various sanatoria. ‘Well,’ she wrote,

he visited me in Davos, and his arrival was indeed similar to Hans Castorp’s. He, too, got off the train in Davos-Dorf, and I met him down there, just as Castorp’s cousin Ziemssen did. We went up to the sanatorium, and there we talked incessantly, like the cousins – I pointed out to him the various types whom I had already described, and he then incorporated them in the novel, merely changing their names.

The emotion in The Magic Mountain comes, then, from his relationship to Katia; the work put into the detail, into the relationship between the two cousins, all comes from her, rather than from his homosexuality, or his attitude to Germany. (In her memoir, incidentally, Katia confirms that the character of Naphta in The Magic Mountain was based on Georg Lukács.)

Similarly, in Doctor Faustus, Pfeiffering, the place where Leverkuhn becomes a recluse, which is dealt with so lovingly and in such careful detail, and the family who looked after him, the Schweigestills, are all based on moments in the life of Thomas Mann’s mother Julia. ‘From Augsburg,’ Katia writes, ‘my mother-in-law moved to the country, to Polling, where people by the name of Schweighardt lived (my husband more or less glamorised them under the name of Schweigestill in Doctor Faustus). There she lived only for her children and her memories.’

It is an idea that has occurred to none of his biographers that when he dreamed of Leverkuhn’s monastic quarters, and the Platonic Germany all around him, Mann was using, perhaps more powerfully because unconsciously, the place where he visited his mother in the summer of 1903. He transforms himself into the visitor Zeitbloom, who would narrate the story of Leverkuhn, and his description of the whole aura of the place uses, or becomes, his emotion around the life and death of his mother. ‘Of course I may be mistaken,’ Zeitbloom, who believes that this landscape had reminded Leverkuhn of his childhood, says in Doctor Faustus. ‘Pond and hill, the gigantic old tree in the courtyard – an elm, as a matter of fact – with its round green bench, and still other details might have attracted him at his first glance; it may be no dream was needed to open his eyes. That he said nothing is of course no proof at all.’

As well as these three books a new biography has appeared in Germany and some new diaries; perhaps enough has been written about Mann’s life to do the rest of us for a lifetime. Katia was happy that her letters to him from the sanatoria did not survive. ‘There were many particulars in the letters, which have all been lost. It would be grist for the Germanists’ mills to compare those letters with The Magic Mountain, but they can’t do that now, and it doesn’t make any difference either. The Germanists do far too much comparing as it is.’