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."

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