'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

16 October 2010

Thomas Mann

Novelist and Critic
``To be grateful for all life's blessings, . . . is the best condition for a happy life. A joke, a good meal, a fine spring day, a work of art, a human personality, a voice, a glance -- but this is not all. For there is another kind of gratitude . . . the feeling that makes us thankful for suffering, for the hard and heavy things of life, for the deepening of our natures which perhaps only suffering can bring.''

Thomas Mann was born to a merchant family in Lubeck, Germany.  His father inherited a large family firm and was twice Mayor of the city. He had five brothers and sisters. His brother Heinrich Mann also became a playwright and novelist. Heinrich's novel 'Professor Unrath' was turned into the legendary Josef von Sternberg film 'The Blue Angel' with Marlene Dietrich. Soon after his birth, Mann's father died and the family then moved to Munich.  At nineteen he  worked for a insurance firm as a clerk and  secretly wrote his first Novel 'Fallen'. He Went to Munich University to study art and literature and also worked  for a German journal called "Simplicissimus". After living in Rome for a year he devoted his talents to writing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and left Germany  in 1933 when Hitler rose to power. After five years in Switzerland he was encouraged by friends to move to  Princeton,  USA for two and a half years 1938-1941. He lectured in the University and  gave public lectures on Goethe, Wagner, and Freud as well as courses on the German romantic movement and the European novel.  He and Albert Einstein, who had been a friend in Germany, met frequently in each other's homes. Eventually  Mann moved to California, where he remained until 1953 when he returned to Zurich in Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1955.

Thomas Mann  was  one of the most important novelists of the early 20th century. His books often pointed to the clash between the extrovert life of the bourgeois and that of the intellectual and the artist. He believed that genius led to decay and a fascination with death, just as Ashenbach sought true beauty through austere intellectual labour he is described as hitting sterile 'rock bottom' and once he realises his futility, death consumes him.

Mann's erotic attraction to the male sex is revealed in much of his work. In 1911, Thomas Mann vacationed in Venice and became very attracted to a fourteen-year-old Polish boy Wladyslaw Moes whom he saw and this became the novella 'Death in Venice'. In Tonio Kröger (1903), the homoerotic feelings of the young Tonio has for his friend Hans Hansen is used as a metaphor for being an outsider to the normal bourgeois life, yearning to belong to the 'blond and blue-eyed, the brightly living, the happy, those worthy of love, the ordinary people.' His diaries and letters, along with several essays and prose works, show the author's erotic attraction to handsome young men. In an essay Mann had defended homosexual poet August von Platen, claiming that he channelled his sexual desires into his art but admits that Platen may have bestowed some sensual love on 'unworthy boys.'. He also spoke of an affinity with the homosexual poet Walt Whitman and the 'spiritual love of comrades'. and 'the queerly sympathetic response one feels upon touching with one's own hand the naked flesh of the body,' but Mann himself withdrew from writing about obvious encounters of the flesh. He had however formed strong male relationship's. One such was the 'passionate love' for Paul Ehrenburg (who was 23 and Mann was 25) from around 1899 to 1903 and reportedly the last with Klaus Heuser the son of a family acquaintance in 1927 when Heuser was sixteen and this lasted for a few years. He had admitted to kissing the boy and it was obvious to his family that he was regularly noticed spying on the boy out of the corner of his eye and even had him stay with him.  As usual many critics had denied this sexual attraction but publication of his diaries have now made such denials impossible
Thomas's daughter Erika (1905-1969) was an actress and author and married Gustaf Grundgens an actor/director. Her second marriage was to W.H.Auden, although they never lived together as she only wanted an foreign passport. Mann's son Klaus (1906-49) was also a novelist/playwright and outwardly gay. He and his sister had a very strong love for each other.  His novel 'Mephisto' 1936 was based on his sister's first husband's accommodation with the Nazis. This became a well known film in 1981. Klaus Mann's first novel 'The Pious Dance'  1925 describes the impoverished life of sexually ambiguous and lost youth in the gay underworld of the Weimar republic; an obvious  challenge to the image of homosexuality and  aestheticism as described in Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice'. He became a US citizen and committed suicide in 1949. Thomas Mann's second son Golo (1909-94)  became a historian teacher and writer.

Works include  
'Buddenbrooke' 1901,     'Death in Venice' 1912,    'Tristan' 1913,    'Tonio Kroger'    1914,    'Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man' 1916,  'The Magic Mountain' 1924,   'Children and Fools' 1928,   'Mario and the Magician' 1930,      'Joseph and his Brothers' 1934-44,       'Doctor Faustus' 1948,       'The Holy Sinner',   'The Black Swan' 1955,  'The Confessions of Felix Krull'  Published after his death.  

In my late teens I discovered Thomas Mann. Death in Venice, the movie, was released around this time and could have been the spark. However I soon read and re-read all of Mann’s novels. The Holy Sinner  and Confessions of Felix Krull being my favourites.
If anything should be made into a film or an opera, it is Thomas Mann's 'The Holy Sinner'   Roughly it is his epic story of arch-sinfulness ending in triumph. A brother and sister of noble birth sleep together one evening. She has a child and enters a convent while he goes off to the crusades and is killed. The child is abandoned and then brought up in a monastery. He then sets off to prove his nobility, rescues a woman against invaders and sleeps with her - His Mother. Now he goes off to do penance on a rock. After some visions in Rome the Cardinals set off discover this hairy shape on the rock and he now becomes Pope.  Eventually mother sets off to Rome to seek forgiveness for her exceptional sins. And hence the climactic greeting  - "Father, husband and son!"

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