Darkness at the heart of Mann

Thomas Mann, by Ronald Hayman, Bloomsbury, pounds 25; Peter Parker is absorbed by the secret life of `the last great European man of letters'

In the final sentence of this long, over-detailed but largely absorbing biography, Ronald Hayman describes Thomas Mann as "the last great European man of letters". He died in 1955, and it is hard to think of a writer since who has had so solid an international reputation not only as a bestselling novelist but also as an all-purpose intellectual heavyweight. His life was punctuated by public readings of work in progress, lectures, monumental essays, testimonial dinners, and the bestowing of laurels and prizes. Until forced into exile by the Nazis, he lived a well- ordered life of some splendour in Munich with his wife and children - the epitome of bourgeois respectability.

The terrible personal cost of maintaining this public image is what provides Hayman with his principal theme. The real man, as he skilfully and persuasively demonstrates, is to be found in the books. "Thomas Mann's work," he tells us, "is full of self-portraiture, and none of his characters tells us more about him than Aschenbach."

The protagonist of Mann's beautifully compact tale - a superb miniature in an oeuvre not otherwise characterised by concision - comes to Venice in order to take a holiday from a life devoted to "rigid, cold and passionate duty". A similar impulse must have led Mann to write his diaries, in which he describes his obsessions with a succession of young men and boys similar to the story's Tadzio. It seems that none of these passions resulted in anything more physical than the occasional kiss, which is just as well since the original of Tadzio was a mere 10 years old and his successors included both Mann's son Klaus and his grandson Frido.

Sexual restraint may explain why Mann's erotic fixations maintained their power over him and became transfigured in his work. It has often been said, usually by alarmed critics, that Death in Venice is not a story about an old man's pursuit of a young boy; this is partly true, but there would have been no story at all had not the susceptible Mann become captivated by the beautiful Wladyslaw Moes, who years later vividly recalled the man "who'd been watching him wherever he went", and who remembered "an especially intent look when he and the man were together in the elevator" of the Hotel des Bains.

Although Mann incorporated innumerable details from his 1911 Venetian holiday into Death in Venice - including the mysterious gondolier and the ancient dandy, both of whom take on roles that are heavy with symbolism - he excludes his wife, who was with him at the time. (Aschenbach's wife is conveniently dead.)

In spite of a marriage lasting 50 years, and to all appearances characterised by devotion, Katia Mann was often as sidelined in her husband's life as she was in his fiction. He had married her virtually on the rebound from a four-year friendship with a painter called Paul Ehrenberg, a relationship Mann always considered the "central emotional experience" of his life. Ehrenberg was the same age as Mann and therefore held out possibilities very different from those of minors in sailor suits, but even had there been any suggestion that the two young men might live together, Mann would have been too aware of his reputation (established during this period with the publication of Buddenbrooks) to have risked it.

Despite being Jewish in a society that was already rife with anti-Semitism, the wealthy, cultured and attractive Katia Pringsheim was quite a catch. Hayman describes Mann's courtship of her as "assiduous" rather than emotionally committed, and it is possible he was physically more attracted to Katia's twin-brother. He was not, however, searching for a lover, but for a wife, and in as much as he and Katia enjoyed a companionable marriage and produced six children, they both fulfilled their slotted roles. Emotional and sexual fulfilment was another matter, however. "It can hardly be a question of actual impotence," Mann noted after a failure in the marital bed. What would happen if a young man were at my disposal?" The answer is probably: not much.

Mann's children deserve a book to themselves, and certainly more attention than they receive here. The most gifted were the two eldest, Erika and Klaus, both of whom were writers and homosexual, which makes their relationship with their father particularly interesting. Born almost exactly a year apart, Erika and Klaus were especially close and apparently pretended to be twins.

Erika became Mann's invaluable amanuensis, but Klaus's principal hold upon his father's attention was as a burgeoning 13-year-old, surprised one evening romping naked around his bedroom. A later glimpse of Klaus with his shirt off made Mann wonder whether he had lost all interest in heterosexuality, and this potent image surfaced many years later in the description of Joseph in Mann's biblical tetralogy of novels. Grown up, Klaus was of less interest to his father, who refused to interrupt a lecture tour when his unhappy son eventually committed suicide.

The complicated dynamics of Mann's relationships with his children remain rather sketchy but elsewhere Hayman's book is extremely thorough and, even when dealing with such potentially explosive matters as incest and pederasty, remains admirably level-headed and unjudgemental. What emerges clearly is that Mann's story is essentially a tragedy. But in spite of his pomposity, his chilliness, his ruthlessness and selfishness, he remains curiously sympathetic.

At the age of 75, Mann enjoyed a final, preposterous flirtation with a hotel waiter. "World fame means a great deal to me," he wrote, "but it is nothing in comparison with a smile from him, the look in his eyes." Naturally, it came to nothing, and Mann wrote his own epitaph: "It will probably be a relief - the return to work as substitute for happiness. That is how it must be. It is the condition (and the origin?) of all genius."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before