The not so magic mountain

July 14, 1995

David Walker reports on new criticism of Thomas Mann

Here, in Britain, literary iconoclasm is a kind of sport, not quite as lucrative as amateur rugby but appealing, it seems, to many readers. Margaret Drabble has just done for Angus Wilson and it will be a miracle if some young Turk is not already tracking the clayey imprints of her feet. We have never taken novelists that seriously; that they were sexually repressed or closet racists does not unduly injure the national sense of self or of cultural good order.

Might other cultures be less robust? Much of Germany's mindscape this century is deserted. How few and far between are the oases to which contemporary Germans can still turn for refreshment in the company of uncompromised anti- Nazis. But now the literary biographical fashion is taking hold there, too, what will happen when even the few tall palms are felled?

In his study of Thomas Mann, Klaus Harpprecht has taken up the axe with gusto. For here Thomas Mann the good German, Johann Wolfgang von Mann, as one chapter mockingly styles him, is unmasked. The ironist becomes a steely disciplinarian. The allegorist who in his novels used music, illness, and fraud as giant metaphors for his era is revealed as a con-artist. Anti-Nazi and exile, yes, but also a nationalist who in playing with the idea of a Germany bewitched by Hitler exonerates himself and a generation of intellectuals for their wilful refusal to engage with modernity, especially its democratic politics.

Here is the Thomas Mann who would never come to terms with his sexuality, who more than once encountered reproductions in real life of the beautiful boy who ravished Gustav von Aschenbach's eye on the Venice Lido, who once had to be reprimanded by his daughter in an Alpine inn for too obviously slavering over a young waiter.

In an interview in the late 1930s the exile coined his greatest epigram: "Wo ich bin, ist Deutschland" - where I am, that's Germany. But what was this incarnation, asks Harpprecht, who sandwiches the anti-Nazi between the Wilhelmine authoritarian and the cold war neutralist and says none of them was ever a democrat?

Mann's first world war essay, "Reflections of an Unpolitical Man", did indeed reflect a Mann who was, as the Americans say, out of it. Mann had spent a few months in barracks before being bundled out for general military incompetence, yet here he was with his Wartime Thoughts saying all of Germany's virtue and beauty was showing through in the conflict.

That might be excused as wartime rhetoric as friends and the sons of friends trundled to the front. No, the real complaint for Harpprecht is that Mann was a cop-out. Mann said his Faustian allegory was of music, art and culture; Harpprecht says it is an exercise in excuse. He offers the Germans an alibi in portraying them as in compact with the devil, "signed in blood". How could they - the people - be responsible when a succubus had fastened on the national mind? The novelist presents himself as the nation's conscience but this will not wash, says Harpprecht the iconoclast. Thomas Mann, too, has blood on his hands.

Thomas Mann Eine Biographie by Klaus Harpprecht, Rowohlt.

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