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The Manns: Mirrors of History

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979
The Brothers Mann. By Nigel Hamilton. Yale. $16.95.

Nigel Hamilton convincingly argues that Thomas and Heinrich Mann had the most significant literary brotherhood of all time, for in their lives “German history was mirrored—and borne out—in all its agony. From outright mutual hostility in the First World War they became reconciled, stood with consistent courage for democracy in an age of rising fascism, and presided over the German émigré movement in exile.” Hamilton is very good on the relationship of the brothers—the binding theme of the book—as it moves from rivalry, jealousy, and ideological conflict to mature friendship and mutual respect.

After Heinrich’s death in 1950, Thomas assured a friend that “a chariness concerning the obscuring “grande ombra’ has marked my whole life since Buddenbrooks.” He portrayed his relations with his older brother in the deferential attitude of Klaus Heinrich toward the Grand Duke in Royal Highness. Heinrich Mann, the chairman of the Prussian Academy and “perhaps the most lucid and perceptive of all Hitler’s opponents among European intellectuals,” was the more influential public figure in Weimar Germany. But Thomas, who frequently visited America in the 1930’s, completely eclipsed his brother in the New World. While Heinrich moved from adulation to neglect and died impoverished and obscure, Thomas received many honorary doctorates from American universities, taught at Princeton as a visiting professor of literature, lectured in every major city in the United States, and was personally acquainted with President Roosevelt—whose New Deal policies influenced Joseph the Provider.

Though Alfred Kantorowicz and Peter de Mendelssohn have written the lives of the Mann brothers and of Thomas, Hamilton’s The Brothers Mann is the first English biography of either Thomas or Heinrich. This impressive book is entirely worthy of its immensely important subject. He has great breadth of learning and a thorough grasp of his complex material, and he writes in a clear and lively style, perhaps too frequently halted by thick chunks of quotation. Since Heinrich is not well known in English-speaking countries, Hamilton emphasizes and sometimes overrates his rather turgid novels.

Hamilton deliberately stresses the public aspects of Thomas and Heinrich and has few revelations about their less familiar private lives, of which Thomas gave brief glimpses in The Story of a Novel. Though Thomas’ son Michael once said that he never really knew his father, who was naturally formal and internationally famous and had little time to spend with his youngest child, one would like to know more about Thomas’ relations with his wife and children and the reasons for the suicide of his son Klaus. He does not describe how Erika Mann rescued the manuscript of the Joseph novels after her father’s house in Munich had been occupied by the Gestapo, nor even mention that Auden married her so that she could obtain a British passport. Thomas’ grandson Frido had a special place in his affections, and he used the cherished boy as a model for Nepo in Doctor Faustus, the only human being whom Adrian loved.

Hamilton could have described the splendid house, on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, where Thomas wrote that novel and which substantially contributed to his happiness in America. He also says nothing about the quality and effectiveness of Thomas’ public lecturing and teaching at Princeton (though his secretary James Meisel would have been illuminating about this); about his relations with American writers (Archibald MacLeish was Librarian of Congress when Thomas was Consultant in Germanic Literature); or about the nature of his friendship with people like Hermann Hesse, who shared his exile in Switzerland, and Agnes Meyer, whose husband published the Washington Post and who often exercised her influence on Mann’s behalf.

Though the background of the Mann family is familiar to readers of Buddenbrooks, Hamilton makes some interesting comparisons between the historical reality and the imaginative re-creation. Both brothers seemed failures in school and in business, to the great disappointment of their highly successful father, but completed major literary works while still in their twenties. Thomas, at the end of his life, said that his father’s example always stood behind him and he “always regretted that in his own lifetime I gave him such little hope that I would one day achieve anything in the world.” Though their father disapproved of writing as a career, their mother was more understanding and disobeyed the senator by encouraging their artistic ambitions. After her husband’s death, she paid for the publication of Heinrich’s first book and encouraged Thomas to leave his insurance firm and devote himself to writing.

In the late 1890’s Heinrich was living in Italy and publishing a novel almost every year. Thomas joined him in Palestrina, outside Rome, in 1897, when he began to write Buddenbrooks; and the brothers spent their days and nights together, excluding the rest of the world. Thomas was strangely detached from Italy, though it provided the setting of “Death in Venice,” “Mario and the Magician,” and parts of Doctor Faustus. It mainly provided “a contrast to his native land, a chance to “flee” Germans, to be alone. But it was the land in which Heinrich was “at home,” whose language Heinrich spoke, whose monuments and art Heinrich loved.”

Thomas returned to Munich in 1898, worked on the great satirical magazine Simplicissimus and formed a homosexual friendship with the young painter, Paul Ehrenberg, which Thomas soon dismissed as a mixture of “metaphysics, music and adolescent eroticism.” Hamilton does not really discuss the significance of Thomas’ first emotional relationship, which seems to be more than a grown-up version of the Tonio Kroger-Hans Hansen infatuation.

Thomas showed an admirable faith in his own work by refusing to make any cuts in Buddenbrooks and insisting that Samuel Fischer publish the entire book, despite its great length. The novel immediately established Thomas’ European reputation and sold extremely well. But it caused a furor in God-fearing Lübeck, where it was regarded as a cruel defamation, “a monstrous libel, an unpardonable caricature of the merchant virtues which had once brought fame and prosperity to the Baltic seaport.” Friedrich Mann, the model for the neurasthenic Uncle Christian, publicly complained that he had suffered considerable hardship from his nephew’s satiric portrait. But Thomas, defending the privilege of the artist, remained unregenerate and continued to use intimate details from the lives of his family and friends in his fiction. The suicides of his sisters, Carla and Julia, found their way into Doctor Faustus.

Soon after the success of his first novel Thomas met Katja Pringsheim, the astonishingly attractive daughter of one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Germany and the first woman to pass the university entrance examination in Bavaria. Thomas fell deeply in love with her, courted her assiduously, and described her to Heinrich as “indescribably rare and precious, a creation whose simple existence outweighs the cultural activities of fifteen writers or thirty painters.” Thomas’ mother disliked the “moneyed heartlessness” of the Pringsheims, which he satirized in “The Blood of the Walsungs,” a parody of Wagner-worship that he had to suppress because of its potentially anti-Semitic overtones. But Thomas and Katja married, had six children, and were devoted to each other for 50 years. She was an ideal wife: more beautiful than Frieda Lawrence or Zelda Fitzgerald, more loyal than Jessie Conrad or Nora Joyce—and more intelligent than any of them. Katja helped inspire more than one work, for Thomas used his love letters to her in Royal Highness, and her letters to him from a Swiss sanatorium in The Magic Mountain.

Just as Thomas, like Tonio Kroger, was mistakenly arrested when he returned to Lübeck, so many of the fundamental events of “Death in Venice” were based on actuality. As the ship steamed into Venice from Brioni in May 1911, a hideous but high-spirited old “queen” attracted the attention of a group of young travelers. The gondolier who carried them to the Hotel des Bains on the Lido had no license, and a wildly lovely Polish adolescent in a blue sailor suit sat beside them in the dining room. They tried to leave Venice but returned when a trunk went astray; were revolted by an obscene Neapolitan street-singer; and were warned by an agent at Cook’s to flee the city because of the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. As Thomas rather modestly reflected: “As inwardly, so outwardly, all the elements of the fable fell into the picture in the most singular way. They were all there. I had only to arrange them, when they showed at once and in the oddest way their capacity as elements of composition.”

When the Great War broke out, the “European” Heinrich and the “German” Thomas found themselves in profound and public opposition. Heinrich pessimistically attacked Germany’s disastrous role in the war while the misguided Thomas, who (like Felix Krull) had previously evaded military service, became the self-appointed spiritual spokesman for the “detested” nation. He spoke of a “great, deeply-honest, yes festive war of the people” and believed it could effect a moral rehabilitation: “the cleansing of the spirit, the complete overthrow of peacetime corruption, ‘service’ to a higher cause.” Heinrich mockingly remarked: “My brother enjoys the war, as he does everything, aesthetically.” As the quarrel became a cause c élèbre, the chances of a reconciliation diminished. When Thomas subjectively interpreted a sentence in Heinrich’s humane essay on Zola, his brother angrily asserted: “Stop relating my life and actions always to yourself; it has nothing to do with you, would be precisely the same if you did not exist.”

The literary result of this quarrel was Thomas’ titanic selfdefense Reflections of a Non-Political Man (1918), which he later repudiated and which has never been translated into English. The Reflections helped Thomas to exorcise reactionary ideas which would have made The Magic Mountain “ intolerably intellectually overloaded.” Many of these opinions were expressed by the cynical but clever Jesuit, Leo Naphta, who pursues his destructive ideology to the logical conclusion of suicide.

Thomas explained that the theme of his masterful novel “shows how there grows in the young hero, out of the experience of sickness, death and decay, the idea of man, the ‘sublime structure’ of original life, whose destiny then becomes a real concern of his simple heart.” When completing the book, Thomas felt the need of another major character who would symbolize this sublime life force, and he found his inspiration in Gerhart Hauptmann, to whom he read a chapter of his unfinished work. Like Peeperkorn, the playwright drank heavily, was very wealthy, lived like a king, and had an enchanting mistress. Hauptmann forgave the affectionate satire and generously praised Thomas’ intellectual and creative brilliance when he reviewed the novel in 1925.

Both brothers achieved enormous success when the flowering of Weimar culture—the Bauhaus, post-Expressionism, Brecht, Beckmann, Grosz, and Kollwitz—made Berlin the cultural center of Europe. The collected edition of Heinrieh’s novels sold more than 750,000 copies; and when Josef von Sternberg’s Blue Angel, based on his novel of 1905 and starring Marlene Dietrich, was released in 1930, he became famous with an entirely new cinematic audience, The Magic Mountain sold 50,000 in its first year of publication, and the cheap edition of Buddenbrooks had sales of more than a million copies after Thomas won the Nobel Prize in 1929.

But this adulation was soon replaced by persecution and exile. Heinrich, who had spent many years in Italy and France, warning his blind countrymen of the impending disaster, was not as seriously affected as Thomas, who felt that his rejection by a Germany that had once honored him was the greatest insult of his life. Thomas’ Nobel stature had spared his books from conflagration, and he cautiously withheld his criticism of the Nazi regime during his first years of European exile so that the first volume of Joseph would be published and his German readership safeguarded. The appearance of the book in 1933 provoked violent attacks from fellow emigres and impelled him to take a political stand. As Hamilton remarks: “The urge to be involved— to cast aside questions of Nobel dignity or literary reputation—was a sign of courage: and without that courage, that pride, could Thomas have ever survived the years of physical and spiritual deprivation in exile, the envy and sniping that would dog him until death?”

When Thomas attacked Hitler, he lost his house, his possessions, his books, his publisher, and his fortune, and was cut off from his children and friends. Yet he never ceased to work on the Joseph tetralogy. When he was deprived of citizenship in 1936, he said it was almost like receiving the Nobel Prize; and when his honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn was rescinded, he replied with a moving open letter that Hamilton rightly calls “a landmark in twentieth-century European cultural history.” Thomas soon became the leader of the German exiles, the “Hindenburg of the emigration.”

Their opposition to the Nazi regime healed the breach between the brothers, and one friend wryly remarked that they now read ceremonial speeches to each other when their birthdays were publicly celebrated every ten years. While Thomas moved to Princeton in 1938, Heinrich found his life in danger when the Germans invaded France. After an unsuccessful courtship of one woman and unhappy marriage to another, Heinrich married his mistress, a Berlin barmaid, in 1939. Later that year they illegally crossed the Pyrenees on foot with Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz and Alma Werfel, and Golo Mann, Thomas’ second son. As they sailed out of Lisbon on a Greek ship and the image of Europe faded, Heinrich felt, “A lost lover was not more beautiful.” His years in America were disastrous, for he was overwhelmed by poverty and his wife’s madness, which ended in her suicide. Though “her affairs with other men, her drunkenness and insensitivity to etiquette were bound to outrage Thomas’ household, to Heinrich they were merely quintessential womanhood.” There must have been some emotional scenes when Heinrich brought his crazy, plebian wife to meet his brother’s distinguished guests.

After the war, Thomas was viciously attacked by several obscure writers who had remained in Germany and claimed they had been part of a resisting “inner emigration,” but had actually supported Hitler. Thomas’ hatred of Nazism, they insisted, was in fact a hatred of Germany. Even distinguished anti-Nazi authors, like Erik Erikson and Alexander Doblin, joined the attack. Thomas defended himself honorably, but the slander hurt him and his reputation unjustly suffered. A far more serious assault was made, at the height of the Cold War in 1951, by American journalists who denounced Thomas for “Communist-front activities.” Thomas honestly replied that the “irrational and blind hatred of Communism represents a danger to America far more terrible than native Communism.” But he was disgusted by the poisoned atmosphere, which shattered his creative mood, and spent the last three years of his life in Zurich.

Hamilton writes that The Black Swan, the last work written in America, was “a harsh indictment of Nature’s treacherous deceit,” a cruel story that upset many of Thomas’ admirers. But the admittedly weak novel is far more interesting when read as an ironic parody of his lifelong infatuation with disease and death, a rather cynical reflection on his recent struggle against lung cancer and the suicide of his eldest son Klaus.

The conflict between art and life is one of the major themes in the work of Thomas who, lamenting his emotionally impoverished existence, stated that for many “important years, I regarded myself as nothing, humanly, and wished to be considered only as an artist,” and felt that his will was inadequate to face “the constant threat of exhaustion, my scruples, tiredness, doubts, a sensitivity and weakness that lay me open to every attack and leave me prostrate.” Yet this biography reveals an essentially harmonious man who successfully fused art and “life,” had a long and fruitful marriage, possessed the intelligence to recognize the errors of his early political opinions and the courage to change them, adapted to an exile which cost him nearly all his German readers, became the leading spokesman for the anti-Nazi writers, had a triumphant career in the United States, worked selflessly for the benefit of European émigrés, bravely opposed the anti-Communist hysteria in America, and, despite political upheavals and endless distractions, remained dedicated to his literary vocation. After the extraordinary achievement of Buddenbrooks, the early stories and The Magic Mountain, he completed the Joseph tetralogy, while in his seventies wrote Doctor Faustus, perhaps his greatest and certainly his most complex work, and in his last years took up the manuscript of Felix Krull, which he had set aside 40 years earlier, and finished the witty, satirical novel with the same zest and gaiety that had provided the initial impulse. No modern writer can match his impressive combination of profound intelligence, superb style, significant themes, political commitment, and a half-century of creative genius.


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