Mann v. Mann

Colm Tóibín

  • House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles by Evelyn Juers
    Allen Lane, 400 pp, £25.00, May 2011, ISBN 978 1 84614 461 5

The imposing house on Stockton Street in Princeton where Thomas Mann lived between 1938 and 1941 is these days owned by the Catholic Church. The main room is large enough for a congregation to assemble, and now contains pews and an altar. At either end of this room there are two beautiful smaller rooms with walls of glass, one made for summer light and the other designed for the winter. Mann’s study, where he spent his mornings, is next door. There he kept his desk, the same desk he had taken from Munich to Küsnacht in Switzerland, where he lived between 1933 and 1938. ‘Thus I am determined,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘to continue my life and work with the greatest steadfastness just as before, unchanged by the events that injure me but cannot divert or humble me.’ Upstairs, there are two further floors, one for the main bedrooms and bathrooms, the other to house servants.

In his exile, Mann lived in a state of material comfort and spiritual unease. It was the first of these that his fellow exiled writers noticed more. Many of them, including his brother Heinrich, were impoverished. They had lost not only their homeland but their readers. By the time Thomas Mann’s books were banned in Germany in 1936, on the other hand, he had a large American audience, and was in demand to make speeches and give readings there. After he moved to Princeton he visited the president and stayed in the White House, and, being so reserved and guarded, so conservative and respectable, was mentioned as a possible president for Germany once the war was over.

In Los Angeles, where he moved in 1941 and lived until his return to Switzerland in 1952, Mann built a house on San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades. It had a large terrace on the first floor and open-plan living quarters. Once more, as in Princeton, Mann’s study was set apart, with a wall of books, and smaller windows. The corridor outside it had a separate staircase to the upper floor. In both his American houses, there was a sense of the study as a shadowy place, away from the opulent living quarters, mirroring the distinction between Mann the public figure – a family man, open and clear in his politics and in his ideals, full of moral probity and authority – and the aspects of him which were uncertain, insecure and secretive: he was a man who wrote in his diaries about homosexual desire, who needed pills to sleep and who was alert to the truth of his brother Heinrich’s statements that fame was seldom more than ‘a widespread misapprehension about our person’ and that ‘there was no genius outside business hours.’ He himself saw ‘public activity’ as ‘prone to take on a character of fantasy, dream and buffoonery’.

Thomas Mann was born in 1875, four years after Heinrich, in Lübeck, near Hamburg, where their father was a prosperous merchant and upstanding citizen. Their mother, Julia, was born in Brazil, the daughter of a German plantation owner and a Portuguese-Creole Brazilian. Their sisters, Lula and Carla, were born in 1877 and 1881, and their younger brother, Viktor, in 1890. A year after their father died at the age of 51 in 1891, Julia Mann moved the family to Munich. Both Heinrich and Thomas began writing in their teens. In 1895 and 1896 they spent time together in Rome and the nearby town of Palestrina. Both of them would write about Palestrina, Heinrich in his novel The Little Town, published in 1909, and Thomas in a section of Doctor Faustus. In 1944, as he worked on it, Thomas wrote to his brother:

The old times are being brought back to me again too, since I’ve moved my musician hero, who, like Nietzsche, suffers from a slowly progressive and highly stimulating paralysis, for a time to our Bernardini’s in Palestrina. A daring enterprise, since the definitive depiction of this little place is The Little Town! But for me it’s only a temporary setting.

While this letter may seem harmless in tone, it is an example of the lifelong rivalry between the brothers, which Thomas felt more keenly than Heinrich. It was a gentle way of twisting the knife, letting Heinrich know that his brother had not merely written the definitive novel about their family in Buddenbrooks, which had initially been planned as a joint venture, but now, when Heinrich was depending on him financially, was moving into the territory Heinrich had made his own in The Little Town and making his claim on that too.

As early as 1904 Thomas had made clear his loathing of his brother’s work. ‘Did you suppose that I liked his things?’ he wrote to a friend. ‘We almost came to blows over his last book. Yet the feeling that his artistic personality arouses in me is a far cry from contempt. It is more like hatred. His books are bad in such an extraordinary way as to provoke passionate antagonism.’ Thirteen years later he wrote to the same friend: ‘My brother problem is the real, in any case the most difficult, problem of my life.’ And in 1944, when he came across some praise for Heinrich’s work, he noted: ‘Can’t help thinking again about the glorification of my brother at my expense by the activist literary crowd that have settled here. Old torment risen from the dead.’

In his public statements and letters to strangers, however, Thomas could be more circumspect (and indeed was capable of effusive praise). In May 1955, three months before he died, he wrote to an Italian critic:

I was especially moved by your remark: ‘The figure of Heinrich Mann, obscured by the great shadow of his brother for such a long time, is today appearing more and more in its true light and greatness.’ May that be true! His status is officially very high in the Communist part of Germany; but with few exceptions … the West is silent about him. Even his beloved Italy and his still more beloved France show little receptivity to his life work.

At the age of 80, despite his effort to sound sorrowful at the decline in his brother’s reputation, Thomas Mann could not disguise a vague undertone of satisfaction. At the end of the letter he noted that ‘it was an indescribable shock to me, and seemed like a dream, when shortly before his death Heinrich dedicated one of his books to me with the words: “To my great brother, who wrote Doctor Faustus.”’ The term Heinrich had used was ‘Grosser Bruder’, which means both ‘big brother’ and ‘great brother’: the tables had been turned, and Thomas saw a need to let his correspondent know this. The turning of the tables had taken him a lifetime to achieve.

In Thomas Mann and His Family (1989), Marcel Reich-Ranicki wrote about the roots of the antagonism between the brothers: ‘The divergence in their sexual leanings contributed to the antagonism that has often been attributed preponderantly to political and historical factors … Unlike his brother, [Heinrich] did not suffer from his sexual leanings; he had no need to hide.’ Heinrich’s open and unquestioning heterosexuality seemed to make Thomas insecure: ‘he envied him for being able to live as he pleased.’

Thomas Mann lived with the sense that he came from an unusual family. He was often proud of this, but at other times he was aware of the cost of this strange legacy, which had nourished his work but damaged those around him. In March 1950, after Heinrich died, he wrote in his diary that his wife, Katia, had found ‘a pile of obscene drawings in the desk of the deceased. The nurse knew that he sketched every day – fat, naked women. Sex was a problem for all of us brothers and sisters, Lula, Carla, Heinrich and me.’ Death was a problem too. In July 1948, after his son Klaus attempted suicide, Mann wrote to Theodor Adorno: ‘The situation remains dangerous. My two sisters committed suicide’ – Carla in 1910, Lula in 1927 – ‘and Klaus has much of the elder sister in him.’ Klaus finally killed himself in 1949, as did his brother Michael in 1977.

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