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.

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