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Thomas Mann's Forgotten Son : THE PIOUS DANCE: The Adventure Story of a Young Man by Klaus Mann; translated by Laurence Senelick (PAJ: $15.95; 181 pp.)

September 13, 1987|Tom Clark | Clark is the author of "The Exile of Celine," a novel from Random House

Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann, was barely 19 when this slim novel first appeared in German in 1925. The younger Mann would one day become known for another novel written in exile a decade later, "Mephisto," which, after being banned for libel in Germany, became a cult classic film starring Klaus Maria Brandauer. With "Mephisto," Klaus Mann encapsulated the tragic corruption of his native country in the rise and fall of an ambitious actor who prostituted his talents for the Nazis. In "The Pious Dance," his first novel, he captured the spirit of a different era, one notable less for its cynicism than its confusion.

Mann's 18-year-old protagonist, Andreas Magnus, flees a provincial town for Berlin to escape the constrictions of his bourgeois family, the failure of his attempts at painting, and the "sweet temptation" of suicide. In the "merciless" city, he is befriended by a shopworn cabaret singer who recruits him as a partner in her act; attired in sailor suit and garish makeup, the would-be artist finds himself warbling suggestive lyrics in a dive appropriately dubbed "The Mud-hole." With libidinous, well-heeled nightclub patrons, dead-end cocaine addicts and impoverished teen-age hustlers as denizens, the underworld into which Andreas descends is a menacing forecast of "Goodbye to Berlin" (one can't help wondering if Isherwood had stumbled on Mann's novel).

In the second half of "The Pious Dance," Mann introduces romance into this squalid milieu, and the novel becomes a desperate love story as Andreas pursues his obsession with an attractive but amoral Nordic youth from Hamburg's Sankt Pauli red-light district to the frenzied bohemia of Paris' Montmartre. The love affair expands the scope of the story beyond Germany to an international Lost Generation of sensitive young artists and drifters. Far from home and awash with strange yearnings, Andreas seeks solace, transcendence and relief from the war's "great annihilation" in the literary illuminations of Knut Hamsun, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Stefan George and Paul Verlaine.

"The Pious Dance" is a valuable addition to the fragile legacy of this author's brief career--he took his life at 42--who remains understandably but unfairly overshadowed by that of his famous father. In this precocious first novel, Klaus Mann sifted from the turbulent undercurrents of his time a cast of interesting and believable characters who swim like exotic, brilliantly colored deep-sea creatures caught in the shimmering nets of his prose.

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