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Thomas Mann As Diarist

ISSUE:  Summer 1984
Diaries: 1918—1939. By Thomas Mann. Harry N. Abrams. $29. 95.

As a genre, the diary is by its very nature rooted in paradox. The form pretends to absolute honesty, supposedly representing the author’s soul laid bare. One of its other conventions is that of privacy: the diarist’s words are in theory written for his eyes only, serving as a personal reminder of moral progress or perhaps a jog for the memory. But even the most casual diarist—the schoolgirl at camp or the college student on a European tour—knows that the diary may fall into another reader’s hands. This tacit knowledge induces a certain self-consciousness and self-projection in nearly every diarist. Few have ever been unaware of the reader over their shoulder. And the case is further complicated when the diarist in question happens to be a Tolstoy or a Thomas Mann—writers of international distinction whose every scrap is likely to find its way into cold type at some future date. Tolstoy, who felt a deep need to take his daily moral temperature, understood this perfectly and kept two diaries—one for himself (which he guessed might eventually be printed) and one for immediate public consumption. His wife, family, and disciples were allowed some access to the “public” diary, which reads much like the meditations of any great man from Confucius to Ghandi; the private diary records the author’s intense personal struggles with his demons. It is perhaps the best thing Tolstoy ever wrote, although no publisher has yet had the sense to bring the whole thing into print in English. Thomas Mann’s diary is another story.

This new selection from Mann’s diary is, as sheer bookmaking, an equisite work of art. It is large, beautifully printed and bound, and nicely translated by Richard and Clara Winston, who have been indefatigable in their devotion to Mann studies.(Richard Winston’s excellent biography of Mann’s early life was published posthumously in 1982.) Unlike Tolstoy, alas, whom Mann admired and emulated in many respects, Mann was no brilliant diarist. The severe pressure of language in the act of shaping reality that makes Death in Venice or The Magic Mountain real masterpieces is absent here. Mann seems to have written these diaries for his own, highly idiosyncratic reasons. The entries are shapeless, alternately high-minded and base, but nearly always interesting. The interest resides in their rare portrait of Mann’s daily life, the life of a respectable, well-off, fastidious, and neurotic novelist. Mann scribbled these entries each night before he went to bed, taking no care over the language, ignoring the possibility that we should some day be reading them.

While still a schoolboy in Lübeck, Mann began keeping a diary for confessional purposes. In 1895, he wrote to a friend: “By the way, I am keeping especially warm these days. You see, I am burning all my diaries! Why? Because they were a burden to me; in terms of space and in other ways as well. . . . You think that a pity? But where could I store them if, for example, I took a long trip? Or what if I died quite suddenly and peacefully in my sleep?” It had clearly become awkward for young Mann to have these intimate revelations lying around where the wrong eyes might chance upon them. If the later diaries bear any relation to their destroyed early counterparts, we can assume that his homosexual feelings were openly expressed. Mann was much less explicit in his fiction, although homoeroticism figures in many of his best works, such as Tonio Kroger and Death in Venice. In 1950, referring to his diaries, Mann would ask himself: “Why do I write all this? Only so that I can destroy it in time before I die? Or is it that the world knows all about me? I believe it knows more in any case—or at least its more perceptive people do—that it lets on to me.”

As many critics have suggested, including Peter de Mendelssohn (who edited these diaries in their complete German edition), the urge toward self-exposure lies at the heart of Mann’s creative enterprise. Tonio Kröger is deeply autobiographical, as is Buddenbrooks, Mann’s first major work. He was later more inclined to encode his self-revelations, projecting himself obliquely into the various residents of The Magic Mountain, into the tortured mind of Gustave von Aschenbach, into the haunted Adrian Leverkühn of Doctor Faustus. A good novelist will always, to some degree, participate on a deep psychic level in the life of his characters; the greater the novelist, the deeper the participation. Antithetical characters merely reflect the antithetical nature of all truly open imaginations. Mann particularly embraces each of his heroes, implicitly begging us to read him as an autobiographer. It comes as no surprise that he should be drawn to the private diary, the most self-revelatory of all modes.

Diary-writing supplied, for Mann, one of the primary satisfactions of fiction itself: the opportunity to trap time, and thus oneself-in-time, in the artful web of textuality. Reflecting on this process, Mann said as much explicitly (11 February 1934): “I love this process by which each passing day is captured, not only its impressions, but also, at least by suggestion, its intellectual direction and content as well.” Elsewhere, he referred to the “prayer-like communion in the diary.” This quasi-religious phrasing reveals the extent to which, for Mann, all writing was transubstantial—a coming forward to the altar railing, a willingness to participate in the mystery. Writing was Mann’s high calling, not his job, and even his diaries must be seen as part of his developing oeuvre.

He wrote them unself-consciously, but he knew his future readers would see them. Although he scrawled “Of no literary value” on the boxes that hid them, rigorously denying his family and friends all access to their contents during his lifetime and 20 years thereafter. Mann did stipulate in his will that, after the two decades elapsed, anyone who wished could read them. He believed, in fact, that all of his pre-1933 diaries had been destroyed. In May of 1945, he set fire to all notebooks referring to his Munich days. Quite by chance, he forgot having once set aside a sequence of entries written between 1918 and 1921 for use in the composition of Doctor Faustus. This fascinating early sequence, written in Munich, shows Mann working hard on The Magic Mountain and trying to act like a respectable burgher-of-letters and paterfamilias. As in other entries, Mann mixes trivial, highly personal details of hygiene and health with rather lofty remarks about his own novel or about art in general. Mann typically begins a diary entry with references to how well or badly he slept the night before, whether or not he had sex with Katia, his wife, and whether or not he moved his bowels before breakfast. He will write it down if he takes a walk to see someone, and, if the person is prominent, he will give their full name and title. He often talks about his reading or world affairs, though he shows no particular sensitivity to the horrid aftermath of the war in Germany. His best remarks concern The Magic Mountain, as in the entry for 20 April 1919: “After an interruption of four years I have begun to work on The Magic Mountain again, i.e. I resumed a new foreword to the first chapter and mean to expand it by adding the figure of Grandfather Castorp in a section called “Of the Christening Basin.” Since revisions are needed in many places, will probably recopy the present text onto the good paper I have become accustomed to from the manuscript of Betrachtungen. The new foreword announces the time theme, which was not done before. Moreover the new chapter is enriched by the addition of the motif of the christening basin as a symbol of history and death. The vessel has already been used in the Gesang vom Kindchen, and thus it has autobiographical and unifying significance.” One has to marvel at Mann’s self-conscious artistry, his ability to use symbols explicitly without destroying their natural power. His novels were feats of calculation as well as of imagination. One cannot help smirking at times, too, over Mann’s pompous gestures, such as the reference to fancy writing paper. The early diaries reveal a man desperate to inflate himself, to assure himself of his own importance. He endlessly seeks (and usually receives) the adulation of others. When inspiration falters, he gathers a group of friends and reads them the latest installment of The Magic Mountain; they in turn applaud him, and he is able to return to his desk shorn up by their praise. Within certain limits, anything that assists a writer in the completion of the task at hand is worth it. Mann needed this adulation, and he needed to be seen as a pillar of respectability. His lavish residence in Munich at 1 Poschingerstrasse, where he lived from 1914 until 1933, meant a great deal to him, and the diaries constantly refer to this house, its upkeep, furnishings, and so on.

That Mann so prized his status in Munich society makes the post-1933 diaries—which record the first phase of Mann’s permanent exile from his homeland—all the more poignant. While on vacation in Switzerland in 1933, Mann’s son wired him that it would be dangerous for him to return home. Hitler had tightened his grip on the country, and Mann was no Nazi sympathizer. He called Nazism, on March 17, 1933, “the worst form of bolshevism translated into German terms, distinguished from the Russian variety by the absence of any ideas.” In these diaries we see Mann painfully expelled from the Writer’s League in Munich; we see him taking a variety of tranquilizers, suffering anxiety attacks, but always standing up for the humanist ideals that inform his fiction. Mann’s ability to retain some kind of perspective at even the worst moments is impressive, as in the following entry from 23 June 1933:

In the quiet of the evening I thought about my life, its pain and difficulty from early on as well as its favors, thanks to certain lucky aspects of my character. But I believe that ultimately I shall become quite tired of them, and not only of them but also, in contrast to the metaphysical hopes and longings of my youth, of life in general. Enough, enough! When one finally says that, one does not mean one’s own “individuation,” but rather the whole thing—out of the probably accurate perception that not much ever changes. The meaning of the phrase “weary of life” is not personal, it is all-encompassing.

What sustained Mann throughout the 30’s was, of course, his writing. His relentless dedication to the work at hand—the Joseph novels, The Beloved Returns, essays on various cultural and artistic topics, Lotte in Weimar—remains dazzling. He did not wait for inspiration to strike. At the worst moments of his depression over the exile, over his loss of the world that previously sustained him, Mann never fails to get down to writing. He no sooner completes the final draft of one novel before another emerges, first as notes, then as chapters in a painful evolution. The novelist’s identity and sanity were deeply bound up with the creative art. This emerges clearly in a brief entry for 9 August 1939. Mann’s Zurich residence, his home for the past six years, is being packed up. He is going to America, where he will remain until his death. On a wall outside the house, he watches the movers transport furniture to a van, then looks up to the windows of his study, “where the third volume of Joseph, the letter to the dean, the larger part of The Beloved Returns originated.” Not surprisingly, he is deeply moved, “shaken with memories of that life, the sadness and pain. . . .” The real life, for Mann, was the imagined life, though he had come to understand a writer’s very real responsibilities to the society he lives in. In America, Mann became the representative free German, a model of the liberal European intellectual and artist. He grew ever closer in philosophical stance to that of his brother, Heinrich, whose liberalism had once seemed to him remote and alien. One only regrets that the present selection from the diaries ends on the eve of 31 December 1939 and hopes that the rest is yet to come.


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