A hundred years after his birth, Thomas Mann is no longer the “institution” he was during his lifetime, but he remains one of the twentieth century’s major writers. It’s a fitting moment to reappraise the author who said that his purpose was to provide some “superior gaiety” to the world.
On January 1, 1949, the Saturday Review of Literature carried a nasty exchange of letters between Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann. The central figure in Doktor Faustus, Mann’s latest novel, was a composer who had discovered twelve-tone technique, and to Schoenberg this was “theft of intellectual property.” To placate him, Mann had added an explanatory “author’s note,” and now Schoenberg was responding in rage to its wording: Mann, he wrote, has added “a new crime to the first in the attempt to belittle me: he calls me ‘a (a!) contemporary composer and theoretician.’ Of course, in two or three decades, one will know which of the two was the other’s contemporary.”
Two or three decades later, the question of who was whose contemporary fascinates. The neglected and touchy composer’s prediction was strong stuff. He was, after all, taking on a man who had been celebrated in German-speaking countries for nearly fifty years and internationally about half as long, a Nobel Prize winner, and, as representative during the Hitler years of “the other Germany,” and author of the stirring, widely read open letter to the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of the University at Bonn, something of a political hero–to many, in short, the leading literary and cultural figure of the day. But in 1975, Mann’s centenary (and the year after Schoenberg’s), the figure of Schoenberg is larger and clearer than ever, while Mann’s has diminished to a degree few would have predicted or believed twenty-six years ago.
Then, Mann the Institution, the Public Monument, obscured the writer: it was almost impossible to see the literary work except in the glow of the aureole, and much of the fame belonged to the institution rather than to the author. But the institution is gone for twenty years now, and only the writer, more interesting but less glamorous, remains. Who was he?
The Lübeck household into which Paul Thomas Mann was born at noon on Sunday, June 6, 1875, was presided over by Senator Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann. “Nervous and with a capacity for suffering, but a man of self-control and success,” he was Lübeck at its most prosperous, patrician, and, to use a favorite Mann word, “representative.” Thomas was closer to his Chopin-playing. Schubert-singing mother, the beautiful Julia da SilvaBruhns, born on the edge of the Brazilian jungle to a Portuguese-Creole mother and a North German father. Thomas was the second of five children. Before him was Luis Heinrich, a distinguished novelist and essayist, and after, there came two sisters, Julia and Carla (both were suicides whose portraits are drawn in the persons of Ines and Clarissa Rodde in Doktor Faustus), and a brother, Viktor.
Thomas was a catastrophic student who had to repeat two grades. He was long inclined to wonder what his mercantile ancestors would have thought of their alien artistic progeny, but, coming to recognize his father as a “secret model,” he was the most orderly and businesslike of writers. “There is not nearly enough talk of money in our letters,” he remarks to his publisher in the course of a correspondence that teems with marks, kroner, francs, and dollars. He relished symmetry and signs of order in his life, for example, the arrival of his children in “three rhymed couplets,” girl-boy, boy-girl, girl-boy. On his desk and for his last thirty years it was the same desk, in Munich. Switzerland, Princeton, California, and Switzerland again—pens and pencils (he loved the tools of his trade), letteropener, magnifying glass, ashtray, were positioned according to an unvaried scheme. “His birth was disorderly; therefore, he passionately loved order, the inviolable, command and prohibition.” he begins the story of Moses, Tables of the Law. And what he wrote about most often at that desk was disorder’s invasion of order.
He wrote in the most orderly way, each morning from nine until lunch (“. . . for the soup is on the table.” is the closing touch to the self-portrait, A Man and His Dog), with rare exceptions for illness and travel. His daily quota was a page, at most a page and a half of manuscript, worked out in his head, produced without drafts or sketches, and rarely wanting correction. He liked to wear a ring with a clear stone into which he might gaze. He wrote, in over fifty years of such mornings, eight novels, of which one, Joseph and His Brothers, is a tetralogy on the scale of War and Peace, though more discriminatingly composed, and of which only one, the sunny Royal Highness, is less than a masterpiece; thirty or so pieces of shorter fiction, from vignettes, which include the intensely felt Schiller portrait, A Weary Hour, to stories of substance and density, like Tonio Kröger, Death in Venice, Disorder and Early Sorrow, the tenderly wise watching of the path that adolescents tear through the lives of their elders and juniors, the terrifying political parable of Mario and the Magician (how beautifully he wrote about children), and The Black Swan, his last telling of the order-disorder story; and a couple of hundred essays of political and literary criticism, among them the book-length Reflections of a Non-Political Man, the scripts of fifty-five broadcasts to Germany during World War II, and considerable, searching studies of Goethe, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Wagner, Dostoevsky . . . He was also the courteous writer of thoughtful, witty letters, whose prose is as elegantly formed as that in his fiction and essays; the two thousand or so published ones are only a fragment. That, however, was something to do afternoons.
In old age. looking back at his life, he would wonderingly quote Hamlet: “Thou com‘st in such a questionable shape.” Lübeck was in his blood and in his writing to the end, yet he moved unimaginably far away, physically and in spirit. He saw himself as “born to be a representative rather than a rebel.” and to the young man whose first stories and reviews were beginning to appear in the middle 1890s, nothing could have seemed a less likely prospect than spending more than a third of his adult working life in exile. Tied as he was to them, he lived uneasily with Lübeck and Germany, and they with him. What it meant to be a German and what it was to be an artist, the story of his own split heritage at home, these were questions with which he wrestled all his life.
The hortatory, polemic, idealistic writer on politics of the day has rather paled, but his political development is interesting. As a young man, content as representative of the Empire. he had stood firmly on the Nationalist Right, and it was only in the early 1920s that he began the vigorous leftward swing that had him in trouble with the Nazis even before they came to power. He left when the 1000-Year Reich began, eventually to settle in the United States. He passionately admired FDR–Joseph the Provider is a New Dealer through and through–and he was happy to become an American citizen in 1944. One of the witnesses was the philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer, who, when asked on honor and conscience whether the candidate would be a desirable citizen, replied; “You bet!” (Afterwards, the Manns celebrated their new Americanness by going out with the Horkheimers for pancakes with maple syrup and coffee.) He was surprised and pleased by Truman’s 1948 victory, which he read as evidence that the spirit of Roosevelt was still alive, but that was only a momentary refreshment at a time when he noted with disgust that “peace” had been reduced to a dirty word, and when he himself was accused of a crime called “premature anti-Fascism.” His nerves were shattered by the capacity for hate that was so blatantly unmasked here, and in 1952, he and his wife left Pacific Palisades to return to Switzerland, taking up what he said was his “definitively last address.” Under the rubric “purpose of stay,” the permit from the Swiss immigration authorities read, “literary activity and the passing of life’s evening.”
“All criticism ought to be biographical. The biographical part is the truly humane element in criticism.” he said. His own criticism is more vital the closer he comes to treating the critical object as the subject of a short story. He did it most brilliantly of all when, in fact, he made Goethe the hero of an actual novel, Lotte in Weimar (translated, to his distress, as The Beloved Returns). He had long wanted to put Goethe at the focal point of an essay in fiction. What became Death in Venice had started out as the story of Goethe’s love, at seventy-four, for the nineteen-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow. With characteristic self-knowledge, he held off until, interrupting Joseph between the third and fourth volumes, he was at the summit of virtuosity and insight. What he then made—the picture built up in a series of conversations with persons on the edges of the poet’s life but moving ever nearer the center, and so leading to that bravura piece, the knowing, revealing interior monologue of Goethe himself-became his most miraculous exposition of another writer’s mind. Mann was delighted that at the Nuremberg trials the British prosecutor quoted from Lotte in Weimar certain of Goethe’s warnings concerning the German national character, in the belief that he was dealing with ipsissima verba.
In 1945, Mann wrote to Theodor W. Adorno: “It might be said that I have developed an inclination in old age to regard life as a cultural product, hence as a set of mythic clichés which I, in my calcified dignity, prefer to ‘independent invention.’ ” Indeed, The Magic Mountain was his last invented story. It was completed in 1924, the Bildungsroman to end all, set in a Swiss sanatorium just before the 1914 war—his “mystical aquarium,” he called it, suggesting also that it was the first book to present death as a comic figure. After that he retold tales: Joseph and His Brothers from the last thirty-nine chapters of Genesis; Lotte in Weimar from Goethe’s biographyL Doktor Faustus from the sixteenth-century Faust chapbook and (literally) uncounted other sources: The Holy Sinner from Hartmann von Aue’s twelfth-century poem about Pope Gregory the Great and his road from double incest to redemption; The Black Swan from life. Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man is an exception, but then it was the late completion of work abandoned in 1911 in deference to the suddenly urgent Death in Venice.
It pleased Mann to have his typist say about the installment of Joseph she had just returned, “So that’s how it really happened.” Exactly. Those fleshings-out of the given are breathtaking in their vividness of detail, their humor, their sovereign control of design, their dazzling, multilayered linguistic virtuosity, all playing into the vitality of the characters: extravagantly red-shagged, untrammeled, sentimental Esau; frail, playful, nearsighted, so lovely Rachel; the gallery of Joseph’s eleven brothers, from Reuben, built like a tower and with a voice thin as a reed, to compact Benjamin, with his glossy, otterlike helmet of black hair; stern, watchful, magnificent Tamar, bent on inserting herself and her sons into history; Huj and Tuj, the all but mummified, frightened, immensely stupid sibling parents of Potiphar; the superb Mut-emenet, Potiphar’s wife, turning from competent lady to fevered woman to moon-nun: Mai Sachme, jailer and frustrated romancier, the voice of calm and common sense, who, after observing how unwise it was of Joseph not to let the women in his employer’s house alone, goes on to say that “wisdom is one thing and life another”; Joseph himself, whom one can see as Felix Krull made loving and complex and set into serious, demanding circumstances, and who has to descend into the pit twice before he learns the dangers as well as the uses of his cleverness and charm and gift of the gab; and Jacob, whose grandly dignified, theatrical performance as patriarch is so delicately poised between the tragic and the comic. (Not least, Joseph can be read—“all criticism ought to be biographical"–as the quasi-comic translation of the ambivalent relationship of Thomas Mann to his brother Heinrich, which is in part the troubled, troubling story of the younger brother who was preferred.)
The book toward which Mann’s whole life tends is Doktor Faustus. It is the gathering place for all the themes that had occupied him—music, death, disease, disorder, life as “mythic cliché,” what it meant to be an artist, what it meant to be German. The writing of it drained him like no other work he had ever undertaken. in the middle of it, this dedicated smoker underwent surgery for lung cancer. Years after, he referred to Doktor Faustus as a Leyden jar which one could not touch without receiving an electric shock. It tells the story of a German composer, Adrian Leverkühn (1885-1940), who enters upon a pact with the devil: he may not love, and in return he is granted twenty-four years of extraordinary inspiration. Syphilis is the specific means of intensifying his spirit: it will also destroy him. The biography is written by Leverkühn’s lifelong friend, Dr. Serenus Zeitblom, humanist and teacher of classics, whose Thomas Mannian power of observation is masked in a great gentleness. His love of Adrian is Mann’s, too: while working on Faustus, Mann said repeatedly that he was smitten with cold Adrian as with none of his creatures ever before.
Leverkühn’s pact and destruction, we come to see, run parallel with Germany’s, and the story is unfolded on many simultaneous planes of time— the years of Leverkühn’s life; the “real” time in which Zeitblom sets down his memoirs: the time of Mann’s writing (he and Zeitblom commence work on the same Sunday morning. May 23, 1943): the constant references back to the sixteenth century, to the Doctors Luther and Faust; and the intimation of the Hitler years ahead. It was music. Mann stressed early and always, that had taught him how to compose, how to control an intricate web of motifs, how to begin and end, how to develop a narrative whose every event and every allusion look back and ahead as well as exist in the present.
The Magic Mountain is all about the different speeds at which “the same” piece of time passes in the experience of different people (music, too. is “about” the passing of time). Joseph, with its interlocking stories, told, retold, anticipated, remembered, alluded to, seen from this angle and that, carries the play with time still further. Faustus is richer in fantasy and sheer bravura. The clarifying of these textures requires an extraordinary command of language, and, from the base of Zeitblom’s classical German, Mann stretches the linguistic horizons to encompass the poisonous political jargon of the 1920s and 1930s, to the language of Luther, to Middle High German, to French and English. As far back as Buddenbrooks, when he played wittily with fashionable French and the local Plattdeutsch, Mann was a superbly resourceful writer, though it was with Death in Venice that he attained transcendent virtuosity. “Where I am, there is Germany,” he said in America, and in exile the care of the German language became a special responsibility.
The novels written here–Lotte in Weimar, with its exquisitely gauged flavors; the final volume of Joseph, with its slyly chic Americanisms; Faustus; and The Holy Sinner, with its funny hybrids of Latin, French, German, and English–outdo one another in imagination and wit (though to some German reviewers, the polyglot brilliance of The Holy Sinner was “murder of the language”– Sprachverhunzung). This is a dimension almost completely lost to Anglo-American readers; in particular, a new, accurate, quick-eared translation of Doktor Faustus is desperately needed!
The issues of music and Germany fairly explode in this book, and the two are always linked in Mann’s mind: “To be a musician is already to be half a German.” He loved music passionately, and knew at least a narrow range of it intimately. It figures crucially in his fiction, always in a highly charged context, and from the beginning it is tied to corruption and peril. In “Germany and the Germans,” a lecture delivered at the Library of Congress in May, 1945, and written directly out of Doktor Faustus, as it were, he says: “Music is demonic territory ... it is hyper-Christian art with a minus-sign before it. It is the most calculated order and at the same time chaos-breeding anti-reason, rich in hortatory, incantatory gestures–the art that is both furthest from reality and the most impassioned, abstract, and mystic. If Faust is to be representative of the German soul, he would have to be musical; for the relationship of the Germans to the world is abstract and mystical, that is to say, musical. It is the relationship of a professor who has been inspired by the demonic–clumsy, and at the same time ruled by the arrogant conviction of being superior to the world in profundity.” And it is to rectify the saga’s “great mistake” of not associating Faust with music that he writes his version of the story.
Once more his thoughts go back to Lübeck, the Kaisersasehern of the novel, which, in both Doktor Faustus and “Germany and the Germans,” he described in terms he had first used in 1931 in an address on Heinrich Mann’s sixtieth birthday–as a place where one “walked deep in the Gothic Middle Ages . . . [where] something of the constitution of the human spirit of, say, the last decades of the 15th century clung to the atmosphere itself, the hysteria of the departing Middle Ages, something of a latent spiritual epidemic. It is an odd thing to say of a sober, modern, commercial city, but one could imagine that a Children’s Crusade, a St. Vitus’ Dance, some excitation over a miracle of the cross with mystic processions of the people, or something of the sort might break out here-in short, an antique, neurotic substratum could be sensed. . . .”This he associated with the spirit of Luther, which to him was the spirit of tumult and violence, one that led only too directly to the spirit of the 1920s and 1930s. (“I wouldn’t lack for ideas if I lived to be 120,” he wrote shortly before his death. “A pity about them,” he added. “Who else could do it?” The one most immediately at hand was a play, to be called Luther’s Wedding.)
Music and all the burdens it carried for Mann moved into the foreground in Doktor Faustus, and a lifetime of perplexity and anguish is poured into this book. At a key point just before the central and harrowing chapter that transmits Leverkühn’s conversation with the devil–Zeitblom says of “difficult" Adrian: “There are people with whom it is difficult to live, but whom it is impossible to leave.” It tells, in utmost compression, the whole story of Mann’s spiritual life.
A last word about the “how.” In his Royal Highness, Prince Klaus Heinrich learns that in his profession he requires a certain quota of “relevant information, to be acquired from occasion to occasion and used at the right moment and in appropriate form.” Mann is describing part of the exercise of his profession, and he became expert in such aspects of theology, medicine, music. Egyptology (the Hungarian mythologist, Karl Kerényi, told him he was better at that than all the professionals), or whatever else he needed in order to say the proper things “at the right moment and in appropriate form.” Readers were dazzled by his erudition, but he explained that he forgot everything as soon as he no longer needed it (as, no doubt, Klaus Heinrich did too), and that it was, in any event, primarily a question of selecting the right details.
Applying to Adorno for technical help on Doktor Faustus, he writes: “It could be said, cautiously and cum grano satis, that something may give the impression of being right, may sound right, without being altogether so . . . what I need [for the description of Leverkühn’s cantata on Dürer’s Apocellipsis cum figuris] are a few significant, suggestive specific details (I can manage with only a few) which will give the reader a plausible, even convincing picture.” For this “satanically religious, demonically devout [work], at once stringently disciplined and criminally loose.” he imagines “abandoning bar divisions and the regular ordering of pitches ... a capella choruses which must be sung in untempered tuning . . . etc. But it’s easy to say ‘etc.’” What brings his writing so to life is his sense of how to fill out that “etc.” His books abound in eager learners, and every one of them has something of their inventor in him.
On Mann’s last birthday, his children gave him a tourmaline ring. When he took it to the shop for an adjustment of size, he astonished the jeweller by musing, “Think of all it contains—some chlorite, for instance, and . . .” As his daughter Erika puts it. “He wanted to possess the jewel absolutely.” But doesn’t the scene also take us back to The Magic Mountain, to Hans Castorp at the deathbed of his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen? “He let the tears run down his cheeks . . . those clear drops, flowing every hour of our day all over the world in such bitter abundance that we have poetically named the vale of our youth after them; that alkaline, salty gland-secretion which the nervous shock of penetrating pain, physical or mental pain, presses from our system. He knew that they also contained a certain amount of mucin and albumen.”
Mann disliked to be seen as the purveyor of deep philosophies (rightly he suspected the tone ot H.T. Lowe-Porter’s translations of contributing to his reputation as a “heavy” author). He saw himself as a storyteller first though not as the first storyteller of his time: that place, he felt, belonged to Joseph Conrad—and, except in Doktor Fuustus, as an essentially comic artist whose task it was to put a little “superior gaiety” into the world. He might have said with his Pope Gregory that he did his work to “prepare an entertainment for God.” And here for a moment we come back to Schoenberg, who wrote that there was nothing for which he longed “more intensely . . . than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky–for heaven’s sake: a bit better, but really, that’s all. Or if anything more, then that people should know my tunes and whistle them.” In Mann, it is the depth and breadth of background that makes the stories so compelling, and the excellence of the stories that makes it possible for him so to stretch our minds and sensibilities.
He said near the end of his life that he thought his stories–he was thinking particularly of Joseph just then–would not be told again. And when his oldest intimate, death, came to him in August, 1955—unrecognized by him, as Erika tells it in her lovely memoir. The Last Year–something left this earth, a coming together of wit, curiosity, aural hedonism. religiosity, and epic spirit, that, in our lifetime, we shall not see again.