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Mann to Mann : Thomas Mann's 'furious passion for his own ego' : THOMAS MANN: A Biography, By Ronald Hayman (Scribner: $35; 672 pp.)

June 18, 1995|Mark Harman | Mark Harman, who is currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, recently completed a new translation of Kafka's novel "The Castle."

W.B. Yeats once said that an artist had to choose between the perfection of the life or the art. Thomas Mann clearly chose the latter. While his unswerving dedication to his art yielded towering novels such as "Buddenbrooks," "The Magic Mountain" and "Doctor Faustus," it also extracted a steep price from those around him. Before his marriage, he confided to a friend that he was "more than a little afraid of 'happiness.' " His doubts about this ability to achieve happiness in marriage partly reflect his unconsummated homosexual urges, which plagued him till the end of his life. As close readers of Mann have long suspected, the crush that Gustave Aschenbach develops for the beautiful youth Tadzio in "Death in Venice" was inspired by biographical experience. Mann's last such infatuation occurred in 1950, when at the age of 74 he fell for a young Bavarian waiter. "World fame means a great deal to me, but it is nothing in comparison with a smile from him."

The revelations about Mann's tormented sexuality contained in his unexpurgated diaries, which have been appearing in Germany in recent years, call for a reinterpretation of his fiction. Mann himself was keenly aware of the connection between his literary creativity and his repressed homosexuality. He even considered a work as seemingly asexual as his early "Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man," in which he vented his conservative, nationalist opinions, to be an expression of his sexual "inversion."

In this uneven biography, Ronald Hayman, who has written lives of figures ranging from Nietzsche to Sartre, often draws on those voluminous diaries. Unfortunately, his presentation of this new biographical material is somewhat misleading. Instead of disclosing from the outset that Mann's homoerotic relationships were essentially platonic, he appears to suggest, through the use of words such as lovers, that they were consummated. So it comes as a surprise to overhear Mann exclaim, in response to Gore Vidal's frankly gay novel, "The City and the Pillar:" "How can one sleep with a man?" There is no reason to think that Mann is being disingenuous here. The active pursuit of such desires was inconceivable to the writer who had carefully constructed a facade of upper-class respectability. There was never anything remotely bohemian about Mann, who even while in political exile in Pacific Palisades kept two butlers and a cook.

Yet for all the surface decorum, the Manns were a deeply troubled family, plagued by psychosomatic illnesses, suicide and drug addiction. Outwardly, Katia Mann was a dutiful mother to the six children as well as a loyal assistant to Thomas Mann, known to family members as the magician. However, despite her willingness to serve as handmaiden to her husband's genius, she candidly admits in her "Unwritten Memoirs" that "in my life I have never been able to do what I wanted to do." On hearing that her son Klaus had attempted suicide in Santa Monica, she responded: "If he wanted to kill himself, why couldn't he do it properly?" Her husband's response was equally chilling: Too busy to visit Klaus in the hospital, he chided him for wanting to hurt his mother. As Hayman points out, this intervention must have given Klaus the impression that his death wouldn't disturb his father all that much.

In his memoirs Klaus claimed that the "atavistic taboos and incestuous impulses of previous generations are still alive in us." There is some evidence in the diaries to suggest that Thomas Mann felt physically attracted to his own son, who became an active homosexual in later life. Once, on seeing him naked, he wrote: "Strong impression of his developing magnificent body. Strong emotion." However, he did not attend the performance of a play by his precocious 18-year-old son and only displayed perfunctory interest in his literary career. Klaus became a prolific, if uneven, writer, who is best remembered today for "Mephisto," a Faustian novel set in Nazi Germany. When he finally succeeded in killing himself in Cannes at the age of 43, neither parent attended the funeral.

Mann was one of those artists who stage-manage their own fame. In public, he portrayed himself as a staid burgher. This wasn't entirely an act. Born in Lubeck into the highly stratified society of imperial Germany, he never lost the starched formality characteristic of his class. Even in California, whenever he got together with his brother--and literary rival--Heinrich, they sat on opposite ends of the sofa, conversing, as Mann's secretary put it, like two college professors who have just been introduced.

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