Germs of a big idea

THOMAS MANN by Ronald Hayman, Bloomsbury pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
VISCONTI's film of Death in Venice ends with high camp; Dirk Bogarde dies lying in a deck-chair, his black hair-dye running down his face as he gazes at the beautiful boy on the beach. It could have been called Love on the Lido. Visconti thought he had tapped a guilty truth; Thomas Mann's novella was not just a high-flown hymn to unrequited love, it was all about gay desire.

By the time Thomas Mann died in 1955, a younger generation was ready to dismiss him as a starchy man of letters. But when the 20-year ban on his diaries expired in the mid-1970s, Mann's image as a kind of Teutonic Galsworthy was badly dented. Their eventual publication in 10 dense volumes revealed a Mann more uptight than upright; prone to bouts of nausea, his nerves jangled by homoerotic fantasies.

At the height of his success in the pre-war period, Mann appeared the perfect paterfamilias: he had fathered six children in a 50-year marriage. Yet diary entries, particularly towards the end of his life, are spiced with pungent remarks about snake-hipped boys and even elevator attendants ("Flirt mit dem Lift boy"). The final volume of his diaries was published last year, and three biographies have come out over the past 12 months. Naturally they all draw salaciously on those day-to-day confessions.

Even so, there is no actual evidence that Mann ever moved from homoeroticism to homosexuality. After reading Gore Vidal's novel The City and the Pillar, he demanded in his diary: "How can one sleep with a man?" Can we deduce from his diaries that Mann sublimated his sexual urges in his fiction? Ronald Hayman seems to think so. I am sceptical of this cod psychology: how can we know? But whatever Mann's true nature, few have written so alluringly about the enigma of human sexuality. Hans Castorp's doomed passion for Clavdia Chauchat in The Magic Mountain is charged with a sultry eroticism. (Aha, says Hayman, but the slinky Clavdia has a boyish figure.)

This is a professional but sometimes plodding biography; its dullness is in keeping with Mann's often soporific fiction. According to Hayman, Mann couldn't have written The Magic Mountain in the early 1920s without his romantic predilection for disease (X-rays of his wife's pulmonary consumption were of special interest). If life is a death-enchanted sanitorium, Mann's genius was to turn disease into a wider symbol of degenerate civilisation. There's the cholera epidemic in Death in Venice, or Hanno's terminal illness in Buddenbrooks. Only the bourgeois stolidity of pre-war Weimar Germany was germ-free; Nazism was a debased nature cure.

In January 1937, Goebbels decreed that any mention of Thomas Mann should be banned from German newspapers. The fact that Mann's wife Katia was the daughter of converted Jews did not endear the novelist to the regime either. Relayed via the BBC to listeners inside Germany, Mann's radio propaganda kept alive the spirit of patrician liberalism. As European Jewry was being exterminated, Mann published his biblical saga Joseph and his Brothers. To portray Jews as the founding fathers of our modern morality - at such a time - showed a rare German humanity. Unfortunately the Joseph opus is Mann's biggest bore; how many have got to the end of it?

Thomas Mann left Germany in 1933 shortly before Hitler became Chancellor and did not return until the war was over. Hayman portrays him as too aloof and self-obsessed to be a good father; apparently he did little to save his son Klaus from drug addiction and subsequent suicide.

For Mann had his own worries. Exiled in Los Angeles, he had rashly left his diaries behind in Hitler's Germany. If Goebbels had got hold of them, his reputation as a virtuous anti-Nazi emigre might have been ruined. As it was, Mann remained impotently detached from post-war Germany. His Nietzschean themes - nihilism, decadence, decay - appeared old-fashioned and too aristocratic for a nation reduced to rubble.

Back in his own country in the terrible period after the war, Mann must have felt he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His 1947 novel of devilish possession, Dr Faustus, makes only a veiled allusion to Auschwitz; perhaps the subject was too uncomfortable. Mann spent his last years in Switzerland, where he apparently became besotted with a Bavarian waiter. Not long ago, some German reporters tracked down this startled old boy in New York and turned him into a minor celebrity. Thomas Mann would have been appalled (even though he had immortalised Franz in his unfinished comic novel Felix Krull). Ronald Hayman has certainly pursued his difficult subject with diligence, but pedantically so.