Mann's desire and pursuit of the role

THOMAS MANN: Eros and Literature by Anthony Heilbut Macmillan pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
The writers portrayed in Thomas Mann's two most popular stories, Death In Venice's Gustav von Aschenbach, and the eponymous Tonio Kroger, are professionals who, in return for sacrificing intimacy and leading lives of "rigid, cold and passionate duty", are rewarded by wealth and fame.

Three biographies of Mann, of which Anthony Heilbut's is the last, have come out this year, because it has only just become possible, since Mann's diaries have been published in full, to understand how much of a self- portrait Kroger and Aschenbach represent. Although he was internationally renowned as a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, leading emigre anti-Nazi and model paterfamilias, whose marriage lasted more than 50 years and produced six children, Mann's diaries reveal that his attractions were, throughout his life, uniformly homoerotic. The roll-call of fair-haired and blue-eyed youths who caught his fancy stretches from boys in his class, by way of his eldest son, Klaus, to a waiter in a Zurich hotel which he stayed in when he was 75. Looking back, in 1934, on his friendship with the painter Paul Ehrenberg - "that central emotional experience at 25" - he wrote, "I have lived and loved. In my way, I have been human and paid the price ... I actually knew happiness, held in my arms someone I really longed for."

But the diaries show equally clearly that his way of being human meant keeping these feelings rigorously in check and denying them any physical outlet beyond an embrace or the occasional kiss. For him, renunciation was both an inspiration and the essential artistic prerequisite. His last attraction encapsulates them all. After a few weeks staring at his waiter in the Zurich hotel and rhapsodising in his diary about his eyes and teeth and the grace with which he serves salad, Mann concludes: "Perhaps it is already over and 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 origin?) of genius."

Mann always saw himself as the guardian of the high culture of Imperial Germany, in defence of which he was a fervent nationalist in the First World War, a public opponent, after much prompting by his children, of Hitler and sympathetic to the Stalinist East German regime - as opposed to McCarthyism - in the Fifties. Consequently, he was repeatedly criticised and disowned as "middlebrow" by both the left and right. But the real reason for their hostility, Anthony Heilbut asserts, lies not in Mann's conservative, cultural approach to political issues but in his sexuality. "Much like the Christian devotees of Wittgenstein when they learned of his homosexuality, those who admire Mann the humanist were stunned, if not demoralized, by evidence that Death in Venice was not simply a metaphor."

This is melodramatic stuff, understandable, perhaps, if Heilbut were seeking a different tone from that of Ronald Hayman's excellent and comprehensive biography. But Heilbut has his own agenda. "In an era cursed by AIDS, when millions of people must divert their desires for the body from the body, Mann's situation has become emblematic." Apparently he was also something of an activist, fighting battles which "seem ripped out of this morning's newspaper".

Mann's self-characterisation is the biggest objection to this view of him as essentially an "almost overwhelmed" gay man, rather than as a driven artist who felt that, to win the world's respect, he must be both a husband and a father. Although Mann asks his diary, after reading Gore Vidal's The City and The Pillar, "How can one sleep with a man?", Heilbut still cannot help getting into a hopelessly convoluted and unconvincing argument - based on "readings" - that aims to prove that Mann and Paul Ehrenberg actually slept together.

This, admittedly, is the only example of such desperate speculation. Instead Mann's writings, holding little interest for Heilbut as works of literature, are scanned for confessional and sublimated content, without any of Hayman's objectivity. Every relationship between men becomes potentially gay, every female character becomes Mann himself and every intellectual judgement has a sexual basis. Heilbut's writing frequently buckles under the strain of so much laborious assertion, lapsing into banalities: "At home, often while eating sandwiches, he read the giants of German poetry, thereby satisfying two hungers at one time."

Mann rarely considered how hard his artistic creed might be for those close to him. His young wife Katia, who had four children and two miscarriages in the first five years of their marriage and was regularly ill and depressed afterwards, said at the end of her life that she had never done what she wanted to. Two of his sons committed suicide and none of the children, apart from his favourite Elizabeth, felt they'd ever been close to him. Yet Heilbut is unfailingly supportive: "One can see him as enduring the worst of both worlds, suffering the burden of sexual renunciation while assuming the support of a wife and children."

It is ironic that such a partisan biography should make one sceptical about what was most precious to its subject - his art. As Heilbut tells it, Mann substituted fame for loneliness, and one cannot help feeling that Mann had his fair share of appreciation in his lifetime.