Good biographies often read like fiction. Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of the Nobel Prize winning German author has the advantage of giving scope to imagine Thomas Mann’s inner thoughts, and invent dialogues or scenes which may enhance our understanding of him. Tóibín’s evident research and knowledge of Mann’s work enable him to perceive the author as fairly and accurately as a pure biographer. The drawback is that the reader cannot be sure where truth ends and artistic licence begins, but does that matter if one gains a sense of the “essence” of a personality, together with a better grasp of a writer’s work?
Tóibín is ambitious in covering Mann’s life from sixteen-year old son of a wealthy Lübeck merchant in 1891, to old man approaching death in 1955, revisiting his birthplace after years of exile from Nazi Germany. Each starting with a different location and date, the eighteen chapters prevent the narrative from getting bogged down in detail but create a somewhat disjointed effect.
It can be hard to keep track of the complex, often troubled relationships within Mann’s large family, including several siblings, six children of his own with their various partners, plus some acquaintances. With an unexpectedly stiff style and often artificial dialogue, which I assume to be in intentional imitation of Mann’s own prose, the book did not at first live up to the expectations raised by Tóibín’s earlier novel about “The Master”, Henry James.
Unlike his opinionated, socialist older brother Heinrich and eldest son Klaus, Mann comes to perceive himself as cautious, wary, and wavering in his beliefs. Heinrich is enraged by Mann’s deceit as a boy in gaining his father’s approval by feigning interest in the running of his business. Throughout his adult life, Mann understandably tries to conceal his obsession with handsome boys, expressed in his novel “Death in Venice”. Fearing the destruction of his reputation, Mann agonises over the apparent loss of a suitcase containing compromising diary entries, which his son Golo has tried to smuggle out of Nazi Germany on his behalf.
Mann is portrayed as a self-contained introvert, observing those around him, including family members, with a clinical objectivity, using them as material for his stories with a ruthless insensitivity. Aware that his Jewish wife Katia is unusually close to her twin brother, Thomas transposes the legendary love between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde into a wealthy Berlin household, modelling the interloper who comes to marry Sieglinde on himself, “the dull man out of place in the glamorous Rosenberg family.” Although her father is furious on hearing the gossip about this, Katia is strangely unconcerned. Years later, she is more disturbed to realise that Mann has used their grandson Frido, whom he claims to love, as the model in his latest book, “Doctor Faustus”, for a child who is destined to die, because his uncle “could only damage those who came close to him”. The uncle in question is very obviously based on the real composer Schoenburg, inventor of the twelve-tone system, who is enraged by the suggestion that he might have made a pact with the devil like the ficticious composer Adrian Leverkühn.
I was surprised by Tóibín’s only brief reference to “Buddenbrooks”, the novel based on his own family’s decline, which made him a wealthy literary sensation from his mid-twenties. The inspiration for other novels is interesting: visiting Katia during her prolonged stay at a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis, gives Mann the idea for “The Magic Mountain”. He is fascinated by the X-ray images of his own body, “as it would be in the grave”, and is excited by the prospect of being the first novelist to describe an X-ray, “with all the eerie lights and uncanny sounds”.
Tóibín does not baulk at portraying Mann as quite unlikeable, although there is usually a reason for his more dubious actions. The unconscious single-mindedness of an artist is perhaps common and necessary for success. Mann’s initial reluctance to criticise Hitler is justified by his fear of putting his wife’s Jewish family at greater risk, less so by reluctance to see his books removed from German shelves. When fleeing Europe for the United States, he does not hesitate to try bribery or feign frailty to jump queues, his wealth giving him a sense of entitlement. Perhaps most troubling is the decision to continue his planned book tour of Germany despite news of his eldest son’s suicide. He does not attend the funeral, possibly trading on his distraught wife’s inability to cope with the idea of seeing her son’s coffin. Another son Michael reproaches him bitterly, “You are a great man. Your humanity is widely appreciated and applauded. It hardly bothers you most likely, that these feelings of adulation are not shared by any of your children”. Tóibín describes how Thomas hides and soon destroys the letter.
The book becomes more gripping as the exiled Mann has to reassess German society and culture after the horror of the Holocaust and to face accusations of being a Communist when he insists on visiting the East Germany in what has become a divided country. No longer welcome in the US, he feels obliged to leave the luxurious home built in California, but cannot face return to a devastated Germany where, at banquets during his book tour, he is aware of being “forced to shake still fleshy hands that not long ago were sticky with blood”.
One can appreciate this book without having read any of Mann’s work beforehand, although it may seem odd to do so. Although I feel ashamed to admit to failure in previous attempts to read “Buddenbrooks” and “The Magic Mountain” (which Mann jokes is so long he doubts anyone has actually read it ), Tóibín has stimulated my interest in Mann in the context of Germany at a calamitous phase in its history, and the details of his life will linger in my mind.