Scaling the mountain

Thomas Mann
October 26, 1995

Thomas Mann's novels have rarely been bestsellers in England. A contemporary of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, he remained a stranger to the English fiction reading public. He appeared stilted, pedantic and excessively self-conscious to English ears. His comedy lacked spontaneity, his tragedy was frequently undermined by what seemed to English readers a somewhat pompous exhibition of scholarly learning. His greatest novels were indeed burdened by scholarship to such an extent that, for instance, a thorough appreciation of The Magic Mountain (1924) would take for granted a detailed knowledge of medicine and the treatment of tuberculosis, while in order to respond adequately to the four volumes of Joseph and his Brothers (1933-43) the reader had to undertake a close study of the history of myths with special reference to Egyptian archaeology. Lastly, his tragic story Doctor Faustus (1947) took for granted the reader's familiarity with musicological theories which Mann inherited from Adorno, including Schonberg's 12-tone system. These were indeed stories that made extraordinary demands upon the reader's erudition and hardly corresponded to what the English reader expected of a novel. Though it was a time of experimentation in the writing of fiction, and novelists were aware of the effects of unconscious motivations on the novelist's art, the "heart of darkness" was not scholarship, but the mind and soul of man.

Thus it is hardly by chance that the first biography of Thomas Mann in English should appear 40 years after his death. The story of his life and work has been for the last half-century a growing industry in Germany. Occasionally studies of individual works have also appeared in England but no complete biography. Mann's fame as a writer and public speaker, honoured by the Nobel prize and innumerable other academic distinctions was liable to intimidate the "common reader" in England. Mann seemed to belong to a different age from ours, a literary outsider who felt at home in the past and remained a stranger, throughout his life, among his contemporaries. Donald Prater's biography is, thus, most welcome. For the first time the English reader who is unfamiliar with German is provided with the story of the life of a writer of genius, by far the greatest of his generation, whose humanist message continues to evoke a responsive echo in the minds of countless readers in Germany and beyond.

This is not and was not meant to be a critical biography. We are given the history of Thomas Mann's life, both private and public, his lifelong preoccupation with music, the events that shaped his response to contemporary politics and, finally, his growing awareness of the apocalyptic disintegration of western culture which characterised so many of his novels and inspired his numerous public speeches against Hitler's Germany during his exile in the United States. It is also the story of his family, his six children, his wife Katia without whose support he would not have achieved his eminence. And it is the story of his vulnerability as a human being, his homoerotic inclination which he kept secret and of which this biography tells us much. What is missing from this book of more than 550 pages is an attempt to evaluate his work.

D. H. Lawrence reacted to Mann's work in a characteristic manner. He wrote in the Blue Review in July 1913: "(Mann) has never found an outlet for himself, save his art. He has never given himself to anything but his art."

Prater's biography confirms the fundamental truth of this insight. Mann, throughout his life, was aware of a split between appearance and reality in his life and work and of the need to appear in public as being in full control of his conscious self, never surrendering to sudden impulses: a man without the moods and passions that might interfere with the impression he made either in his novels or when he appeared in public, wearing an actor's mask. By the time he was an old man, this disguise had become his second nature. The inner division is consistently emphasised in Prater's biography.

Thus, the author stresses Mann's inability to establish intimate relationships with others, his being an outsider among his contemporaries, unwilling to reveal any emotional conflicts in private or in public, incapable of showing any feelings, even towards children. Prater quotes his son Klaus referring to his father's "icy impassivity". He frequently refers to Mann's self-centredness, his "cold-bloodedness", his utter egoism. Already, at the age of 19, Mann sees himself in terms of his "favourite characters" - Hamlet, Tristan, Faust and Mephisto, Parsifal - all of them solitary figures searching for meaning either through knowledge, through love or through musical transcendence. This preference for spiritual loneliness finds its most significant expression in such figures as Tonio Kroger, Aschenback and Adrian Leverkuhn. This is also why Mann's love stories, according to his sons Klaus, belonged to the realm of the forbidden and of death. Reading Prater's biography one almost feels as if the artist's fate, according to Mann, is a kind of curse that can only be redeemed through the creation of art.

Prater repeatedly quotes Mann on the part that irony plays in his work. According to him, it "need not mean just coldness of heart, but a kind of intellectual breeding, discipline, bearing, artistic dignity". This was indeed the way that Mann bridged the contradiction between appearance and reality, between the comic and the tragic, the conscious and the unconscious. The use of irony was his way of expressing the absurdity inherent in the human condition and, ultimately, the paradox of the novelist's task of attempting to depict what Prater calls the "contradictory totality" of all human life.

This is a timely biography of a writer who, even in translation, has a message to deliver which involves the English reader no less than the German. It is explicitly meant for the "common reader" rather than the literary critic. Prater also expresses the hope that "the distance we enjoy now, 40 years after his death, will have proved of advantage in taking a new look at some aspects of this protean character, a man easier to admire than love".

Alex Aronson is emeritus professor of English, University of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Thomas Mann: A Life

Author - Donald Prater
ISBN - 0 19 815861 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 554

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