Using the intimate diaries (whose publication was completed in 1995), Anthony Heilbut's wonderfully lively book reveals Thomas Mann as an intensely, obsessively sexual being, driven throughout his life by a passion for young men which was a secret to all but those with ears to hear and eyes to read. What Mann called his "erotic irony" renders not the detachment of the 19th-century flneur, but the seeking, wary glance of the gay cruise. Heilbut deliberately uses the anachronistic term every few pages: this is no mere linguistic tick, but the deliberate suggestion of a secret history of unchanging gay sensibility. To those interested in this theme, the book will be irresistible.
For those involved with Mann's life and work - which are, after all, the ostensible subjects - there are, however, serious problems. The first is very basic: Heilbut's evidence actually suggests that Mann was (to use the modern term which might be an interesting rendition of one of the leitmotivs in Tonio Kroger) stray rather than gay. His argument that Mann had at least one adult affair (with Paul Ehrenberg) which was "physically complete" is unconvincing: it effectively hangs on our willingness to allow that Mann's deeds before the Great War may be deduced from his notes concerning his literary representations in Doctor Faustus.
This dubious attempt shows up that Heilbut is not so much seeking to prove that life and work are one, as simply assuming that this is the case. Early on, he sets out his basic claim for the effect of rereading Mann in the light of his diaries: "After Death in Venice he became identified with the notion that sex and disease are coterminous . . . he became (seen as) a prophet of renunciation . . . but the diaries reveal the story to be less definitive." Which "story"? Mann's or Aschenbach's? Heilbut's apparent willingness to conflate the two a priori does not augur well for the rigour of what is to come.
And, sadly, the details, too, regularly make one reach for one's pinch of salt. Franz Kafka admired Mann's work (especially Tonio Kroger) but to call him Mann's "acolyte" is quite absurd. The torturee in Kafka's In The Penal Colony is wrongly described as "the jail guard"; in another chapter, he is (though now correctly "the prisoner") even more wrongly said to "choose his fate". Such ill-thought-out asides (one might call this the Colin Wilson syndrome) inevitably make the informed reader wary. Worse, they also blur the picture of Mann himself: we are told that Mann "quotes his favourite authority, himself", but later we learn that "Mann's need for authority usually requires some high-powered quotations": which version of Mann's psychology does Heilbut believe?
History is another weak point. We are entertained with the spectacle of Heinrich Mann's supposedly farcical flight "from the workers he had previously defended" in Munich, 1919; but it is clear later that Heilbut knows it was not "working-class Tories" but the murderous Freikorps whom Heinrich (quite rationally) wished to evade. And his attack on H. T. Lowe-Porter for "losing Mann's specific allusion to Nazi propaganda" in the essay "Von deutscher Republik" rebounds straight into his face: Lowe-Porter presumably rendered Reich as "kingdom" precisely to avoid this misunderstanding, since there was nothing specifically Nazi about the term drittes Reich in 1922.
Heilbut's editors may not be responsible for these faults, but they should have restrained the irritating profusion of flashes-forward in the early stages (although the resultant sense of teleology is perhaps part and parcel of Heilbut's sexual-essentialistic approach); they should have stopped him from ending paragraphs on cryptic nonsequiturs that force us to go back to see if we have missed something; and they should absolutely have forbidden the extraordinary and repeated technique of paraphrasing in the first person when quoting at length from the letters between Heinrich and Thomas. (Or is this just the result of an incredibly lax editorial attitude to quotation marks? One simply cannot tell without consulting the originals in detail - and since one should not have to do this, I refuse to.) Sometimes Mrs Malaprop herself heaves into sight: we get "taxonomy" for "taxidermy", gems like "an argument of feminist proportions", and different conventions for the title of a story used in the same line.
All this would be mere quibbling if Heilbut's approach delivered the radical re-reading of Mann which he claims. But while his grand narrative of Mann's work - the conscious flirting and erotic play of the created self as a reaction to exclusion from "normality" - is indeed a fruitful way to read the works, it is hardly new. T. J. Reed wrote, long before the diaries were revealed, that "underlying all Mann's work is a tension between withdrawal and involvement . . . He presents art itself, his own art, as a withdrawal from the normal processes of life". Heilbut says his approach enables us to see Mann as a "a great erotic writer", but it would be an obtuse reader indeed who had not noticed eroticism, very often homoeroticism, as an important part of many of Mann's writings. In the statement "Mann flirted with anti-rationalism", Reed would stress the antirationalism, Heilbut the flirting. There can be little doubt which stress illuminates the stories more usefully.
Heilbut wants to see Mann (and hence, his fictional characters and his very technique) as a man who "cruised" because he dared not come out, rather than because his attitude to his passions was essentially ambiguous. He is not above rather selective quotation: while he cites certain of Reed's glosses on the work-notes to Death in Venice with approval, he does not tell us of the section which is central to Reed's interpretation, where Mann himself clearly proposes that the homosexual infatuation is the effect, not the cause, of Aschenbach's modus vivendi. Both quote Mann's poem concerning the development (or retreat?) of the story from "drunken song" to "ethical fable", but Heilbut appears to imply that the poem itself blames the "cold hand of convention" for the change, which is certainly not the case. And when quoting the account of Tonio Kroger's young adulthood, Heilbut omits the vital punch-line which shows that Tonio's self-division is not just a matter of social pressures having forbidden the expression of his passion: Tonio did indeed embrace real carnality - "and suffered inexpressibly thereby".
Heilbut's book is an entertaining and often fascinating attempt to recover a human Thomas Mann from his own reputation. His sassy descriptions are great fun: in The Magic Mountain "Joachim evokes an era of teary-eyed Oliver Norths, killing machines awash in sentiment. It is clear that Mann and Castorp adore him". But one also cannot help feeling that the reduction of Mann's favourite word, sehnsucht, to a synonym for unenacted homosexual desire is a utopian simplification of this writer's emotional life and work.
James Hawes is a novelist on sabbatical from the department of German, University of Wales, Swansea.
Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature
Author - Anthony Heilbut
ISBN - 0 333 65659 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £25.00
Pages - 638