No Fun

David Blackbourn

  • Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900-49 edited by Hans Wysling, translated by Don Reneau
    California, 444 pp, £40.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 520 07278 2

Twenty years ago Nigel Hamilton wrote a double biography of the literary Brothers Mann, giving equal billing to the celebrated Thomas and the neglected Heinrich. It was certainly time to look again at Heinrich, whose importance as a public and literary figure had been taken for granted by an earlier generation of writers. Gottfried Benn called him ‘one of my gods’; Lion Feuchtwanger thought him the greatest of the writers who had set out not only to depict the 20th century but to change it. Hamilton made a strong case that Heinrich Mann deserved to be remembered as more than just the author of the book on which The Blue Angel was based.

A generation on, however, German departments rarely teach Heinrich Mann and most of his books are hard to find. It brings us up short to be reminded that this was the man whose prose was described by brother Thomas in 1945 as ‘the language of the future, the idiom of the new world’. As for politics, Heinrich’s brand of Popular Front progressivism could hardly be more out of season, and Brecht’s favourable comparison of him to Victor Hugo will quicken few pulses. Historians of the Kaiser’s Germany still refer to the character Diederich Hessling from Heinrich’s novel, Der Untertan, but even this wonderful monster of arrogance to those below, and subservience to those above, seems to strike fewer chords today than in the Sixties or Seventies.

Meanwhile, the last twenty years have seen a surge of interest in Thomas Mann, fed by the publication of his extensive diaries, letters and notebooks. This material has opened up new avenues of exploration – of Mann’s homosexuality, of his literary business dealings, of the construction of the novels. The biographies have followed: seven blockbusters in the years 1994-96 alone, capped by Klaus Harpprecht’s 2256 pages. By presenting us with a Thomas Mann who is more complex, personally and politically, than we thought, these books have secured his position as the representative figure in German culture during the first half of the century. It has also further emphasised the asymmetrical standing of the two brothers. All the more reason to welcome the translation into English (even if it is often dreadful English) of the correspondence between a great writer and one who does not deserve his current oblivion. Thomas liked to think of himself as a seismograph of his times. On the evidence of their letters, the faulted relationship between the brothers provides an even better fix on the rumbles of war, Communism, Fascism and exile.

Heinrich was born in 1871, Thomas four years later. They were the oldest of five children in a Lübeck patrician family. Both of their sisters, the bohemian Carla and neither Heinrich nor Thomas was ever close to their much younger brother Viktor. Their own relationship was difficult. ‘Heinrich,’ Thomas said, ‘could be so hurtful’ – but Thomas learnt to repay him with interest. They grew up with much in common. Children of Imperial Germany, they belonged to a generation of bourgeois youth that felt stifled by contemporary materialism and moral codes. Heinrich was the open rebel, Thomas’s alienation more inward – a pattern that persisted. Both showed early artistic leanings and rejected the idea of going into the family business. They shared many enthusiasms (Hoffmann’s Tales, Nietzsche, Wagner), used similar motifs and characters in their early work, and lived together in Italy for two years during the 1890s. There was even talk of writing a collaborative work as the Goncourt brothers had done, although nothing came of it.

That is where the present volume opens, with each brother finding his own voice. We hear only one of those voices in the years up to the First World War, however, for Heinrich’s letters have not survived. His responses have to be inferred from what Thomas writes, supplemented by Heinrich’s correspondence with others cited in Hans Wysling’s excellent notes. In the earliest letters Thomas’s everyday concerns are worked up into comedy – his release from military service for flat feet, the visit to a dentist ‘known for his dash’. This sets the tone for what becomes a correspondence of complaint. Taxes, the weather, publishers, social obligations, holiday arrangements – all take their toll on well-being and work. Even by the neurasthenic standards of the age, young Thomas was a class act. Composing a letter is ‘torment’; sleepless nights are spent ‘moaning, vomiting and retching from intestinal nerve pains, suffering quite dreadfully’; his pursuit of Katja Pringsheim costs him ‘more than a little suffering’; all this from a young man whose has just become a huge literary success, thanks to Budden-brooks and Tonio Kröger, has ‘more money than I know what to do with’, and is about to become engaged to the accomplished daughter of a leading Munich family. The engagement (‘also no fun, as you can imagine’) is followed by a ‘tormentingly unproductive’ period after the marriage and the ‘distractions’ caused by ‘the birth of the child, the art trips etc’. I like that ‘etc’.

In a key letter from the time of his engagement, Thomas writes that he regards happiness as serious, difficult and severe, something to which he has submitted himself. And what emerges even from the one-sided early correspondence is a study in contrasts – Thomas, ascetic, painstaking, a reluctant heterosexual (as the diaries now confirm) who married into the educated middle class; Heinrich, worldly, facile, an enthusiastic womaniser who married first an actress, then a barmaid. Aesthetic as well as temperamental differences governed their literary rivalry. Thomas devoured the Scandinavians, Heinrich’s first love was always French writing; one emphasised the psychological and wrote in an ironic register, the other was drawn to the social and wrote satirically.

There is open conflict as early as 1903, when Thomas informs his brother that The Hunt for Love is shrill, vulgar, artificial, sensationalist, crudely sexual, indiscriminate, flashy and international: in short, that Heinrich was being corrupted by ‘a greediness for effect’. (Heinrich will hardly have been mollified by Thomas’s complaint about how much he had suffered in writing the letter – or by the remark that he would have copied out a milder version but for an attack of writer’s cramp.) In Thomas’s view, Heinrich had succumbed to the French disease, in politics as well as literature, embracing liberalism and spouting about human rights (‘What is “freedom” anyway?’). Heinrich understandably viewed his younger brother as self-absorbed, priggish and politically naive. They continued to exchange work, gossip amiably about critics and send each other birthday greetings, but there is no mistaking the resentments that would lead to their wartime estrangement.

In a letter written just after war broke out, Thomas refers to it as a catastrophe, but by mid-September he is chiding Heinrich for his pessimism: ‘I think you are being most unfair about German culture.’ The following year, Thomas published a number of patriotic articles: nothing that had not been said by other German intellectuals, including many with strong liberal credentials, but abhorrent to an older brother who was sickened by the conflict and Germany’s part in it. Heinrich’s views were made public in the preface to a 1915 essay on Zola, a form of J’Accuse against imperialist war. It included a comment that Thomas was bound to take personally about those who were ‘destined to dry up early’, and it precipitated the rupture in their relations. While Heinrich watched his worst prophecies about the war come true, Thomas laboured for two years on a sprawling work – Reflections of a Non-Political Man – that was to answer his brother by itemising the apolitical genius of German culture.

There is a gap in their correspondence from 1915 to 1921, broken just once. Heinrich, moved by a more conciliatory article of Thomas’s that seemed to speak directly to him, attempts a reconciliation in December 1917. But Thomas refuses to budge. Heinrich’s response is a bitter condemnation of ‘this furious passion for your own ego’, a letter that he never sent. This is perhaps the most emotionally charged exchange in the volume, and it shows how both brothers played their part in casting what Thomas called the ‘fraternal constellation’ in world-historical terms. The two were finally reconciled in 1922, when Heinrich was seriously ill with peritonitis.

In the same year, Thomas embraced democracy in a speech ‘On the German Republic’, a symbolic moment in the process of distancing himself from apolitical conservatism. He continued to harbour private reservations about his brother’s work, but the two were now public allies. Both enjoyed huge success in the Twenties. Heinrich, even more prolific than before, was one of the premier writers of Weimar and talked about as a possible President of the Republic. Thomas, who still found writing an act of ‘perpetual hesitation’, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929 – for Budden-brooks, not for The Magic Mountain, which had appeared in 1924. There are relatively few letters from these years, when the two saw each other often.

It is no surprise that political events play an increasingly central role. In 1932, Heinrich writes: ‘I share your opinion that overt barbarism will be unable to prevail in this country.’ When it did, both brothers became exiles, Heinrich in the South of France, Thomas in Zürich, where he could remain within the ‘sphere of German culture’. Heinrich immediately became a leader of the anti-Nazi émigré writers; Thomas did not publicly denounce the regime until 1936. After that open break, however, it was he who became the intellectual leader of the emigrants. Once again, Heinrich the hare was overtaken in the end by Thomas the tortoise.

From the beginning, Thomas rages privately against the Third Reich. Germany is ‘that wretched sinkhole’; Hitler is ‘the scoundrel’ or ‘the pig’. Both brothers speculate endlessly about the collapse of the ‘rogue regime’, seizing on every scrap of evidence that National Socialism was losing popular support or facing economic crisis. On the evidence of their correspondence between 1933 and 1945, the longest section of this book, they were undoubtedly wrong about many things, allowing themselves to be carried away by wishful thinking, but both could be sharp observers. Heinrich recognised early that Hitler was gaining credit from foreign observers, who saw him as a resolute anti-Communist, and there is a wonderful description of baffled Anglo-Saxons, lacking any real sense of the regime, ‘who feel around until their fingers bump into some obvious detail’. From Thomas we have a nicely ironical description of the Nazis stink-bombing a Viennese production of Tristan conducted by the émigré Bruno Walter, which left Isolde vomiting during the intermission: ‘Now at least I know exactly what Nazism smells like: sweaty feet raised to a higher power.’ Heinrich has the edge when it comes to discussing National Socialism historically – in the context of Bonapartism, for example, one of the more valuable Marxist contributions to our understanding of Fascism. But Thomas, who had to overcome more of his own feelings to reach the same political position, sees more clearly that the German people were not simply the victims of Fascism. By 1939, he is referring with painful self-knowledge to ‘Brother Hitler’.

Both found the alchemist’s touch in these dark years. Thomas’s Joseph tetralogy appeared between 1933 and 1943, Lottie in Weimar in 1939. As the war turned in 1943, he began writing Doctor Faustus. The two volumes of Heinrich’s Henri Quatre, considered by most critics to be his best work, appeared in 1935 and 1938. Yet their correspondence provides constant reminders of what it meant to live the life of an exile – money worries, the new complications of publishing, frequent changes of address, revocation of citizenship, charges of betrayal by those who stayed. Heinrich believed his life to be at risk, which made him reluctant to visit Thomas in Zürich, thinking he might be the victim of a kidnap attempt. Nor was it just the brothers whose lives were affected. Heinrich’s first wife, Maria Kanova, died after five years in a concentration camp; his daughter, Goschi, was stranded in Prague after contracting a disastrous marriage; his second wife, Nelly Kröger, eventually succeeded in her third suicide attempt. Thomas’s son, Klaus, took his own life after the war. Not all these tragedies were a direct outcome of exile and war: it was clearly not easy at the best of times to be a member of the Mann family. Belonging to the first family of anti-Fascism made it that much harder.

The two brothers spent most of the war in the USA. Thomas, despite occasional disdain for the ‘naive eagerness’ of America, was much more at home there – a crowning irony, given his First World War diatribe against the shallow, materialistic ‘civilisation’ of the Entente powers. He had first visited the country in 1934, reporting enthusiastically on Roosevelt, La Guardia and New York City (‘the only true metropolis in the world’). The following year he collected an honorary degree at Harvard and met FDR. By 1938, when he and Katja decided to move there permanently, he had extensive contacts and an offer to teach at Princeton. Heinrich, who crossed the Atlantic reluctantly in 1940, never really found his feet in the New World. By 1941, the two were reunited in Hollywood. The later letters show how much the balance of their relationship had shifted. Thomas was famous and financially secure, Heinrich an unemployed screenwriter who could not find a publisher and depended on hand-outs from his younger brother.

Politically, they were as close in the last years as they had ever been. ‘I don’t believe in any victory that’s not brought about by the outbreak of revolutions in Europe, which would sweep away the reactionary leaders’ – this sounds like Heinrich, but is in fact Thomas, writing to him in 1942. In 1945 both cherish hopes very characteristic of that progressive postwar moment. Both became disenchanted. The struggling Heinrich was about to return – with some misgivings – to a leading cultural position in the newly-created German Democratic Republic when he died, in March 1950. Thomas found himself branded a Communist ‘dupe’, attacked in Time magazine and Congress for fellow-travelling. In 1952, three years before his death, he returned with Katja to Europe.

On Heinrich’s 70th birthday in 1941, Thomas had welcomed his brother to America: ‘When the homeland becomes foreign, the foreign becomes the homeland. Most profoundly foreign to us today is Germany, that savage, reckless, and disintegrated country of our heritage and language.’ Four years later, returning the birthday honours, Heinrich quoted Thomas’s well-known remark upon arrival in the US – ‘Where I am, there is German culture’. The claim could be made of both men. The arc of their lives, from Lübeck on the Trave to exile, from enmity to partnership, had a representative quality – right to the end. Heinrich died as a Czech citizen in the US, Thomas as an American citizen in Switzerland.