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
News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • 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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss