“A curious feature distinguished Thomas Mann’s writing career: He lived like a literary man. Many of his fellow icons in the 20th century developed legends that tended to upstage their work: Marcel Proust’s cork-lined room, James Joyce’s rebel exile or the public virilities of Ernest Hemingway. By contrast, Mann’s private life seemed to be almost boringly bookish.”
So begins biographer Frederic Morton’s (“The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait” and “A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-1889″) Los Angeles Times review of Hermann Kurzke’s “Thomas Mann: Life As a Work of Art” teasingly entitled “The Dark Side of the Laureate.”
And what was this “dark side”? Morton lets us know in due course.
“‘Buddenbrooks,’ published when he was 25, proved the precocity of a lavish gift. By that time he had already moved from his native Lubeck to Schwabing, Munich’s Greenwich Village. But he was never a young bohemian. No absinthe, no avant-garde pranks in bordellos. The scion of a distinguished clan, he married in 1905, at 30, the heiress of a cultural dynasty. It was a very proper, lifelong union that produced six children. Decade after decade, Mann appeared to combine harmoniously, diligently, serenely, the role of paterfamilias with that of grandee of letters. He traveled en famille as he held his lectures, signed his books and accepted — with decorous humility — his Nobel Prize and his honorary doctorates, his tributes and Festschriften.
True, something a bit awry always stirred through the cuff-linked, homburg-hatted texture of the Mann oeuvre; some fly buzzed in the haute-bourgeois ointment. Some aesthetic abnormality would inflict on burgher health an iridescent infection, much as an impurity in an otherwise sound oyster produces the shimmer of a pearl. But only the shimmer connected the pearls of Mann’s fiction to the author himself, not the flaw that produced it.”
Note the descriptive choices: Abnomality. Infection. Impurity. Flaw.
“This picture changed after Mann died in 1955. Many of his letters were published, including the candid correspondence with his author-brother Heinrich and an even more candid diary. And then a rather different Thomas Mann emerged. When he wrote, his very soul broke into a sweat during the daily travail from the top of the page to the bottom. No matter how acclaimed the end product, the crucible of creation often stressed him into exhaustion, dyspepsia, self-doubt.
In private he was bisexual, tentatively drawn to some women, dangerously entranced by many youths.”
“Tentative” vs.”Dangerous.” And what was “dangerous” ? Same-sex attraction itself of course. And “dangerous” to whom? The Heterosexual Dictatorship.
“Everywhere, from the confusions of his Lubeck adolescence to the Nobelist court he held in America, to his final apotheosis after his return to Europe, some sweet peril was whispering. Some seductive bane waylaid him — a painter in Munich, a California tennis player, a waiter in Zurich. Everywhere he found himself in Venice, with death glimmering through the beauty of a forbidden boy.”
WOOF! Imagine that — the author of The Transposed Heads put in “sweet peril” by HOT MAN-TO-MAN ACTION!
“Many Mann readers remained unaware of these revelations.”
How many? Two?
“His biographers, at least those I’m familiar with, were largely content to record them, with due astonishment.”
Like Claude Rains in Casablanca.
“Hermann Kurzke’s account in “Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art” is different. Its centerpiece is Mann’s dark side, and for more than 500 pages, the book tracks the labyrinthine ways in which that darkness nourished genius.”
Yes there’s nothing like a waiter or a tennis player when you’re looking for nourishment !
“Kurzke documents how Thomas’ queasy envy of his heterosexual brother tints his portrayal of Schiller’s feelings about Goethe in the story “A Harsh Hour.” And how the pain of young Mann’s yearnings for the painter Paul Ehrenberg still pulses 40 years later through the desire of one character (Ines Institoris) for another (Rudi Schwerdtfeger) in “Doctor Faustus.” And how the novel “Royal Highness” brings on stage an epaulet-wearing autobiographical disguise in the shape of Prince Klaus Heinrich, who conceals his crippled arm, reflecting Mann’s qualms about the hidden corruption of the artists. And how in the “Joseph” tetralogy, the protagonist’s two wives, Rachel and Leah, enact the author’s complex relationship with his spouse Katja. And in the tetralogy again how the chaste Joseph (rejecting Potiphar’s wife) is the continent-though-tempted Thomas Mann on the one hand and, on the other, ‘ … a handsome boy whom Thomas Mann loves and whom, in telling his story, Mann keeps before him for years, daily anew and with tender sympathy.’”
Yep. Looks like Kitty Kelly’s a piker compared to Kurzke.
“Many such insights backlight the Mann canon with an acumen as impressive as the scholarship buttressing it. This biography is a feast for literary critics. The book, however, starves some curiosities that it stimulates. I wish, for example, that Kurzke had fleshed out the domestic theater of the Manns. How did this marriage remain so miraculously functional?”
Like many other marriages of course. Think of Leonard Bernstein. And that’s not to mention thoroughly “New York Marriages” (as they’re traditionally called) of Cole and Linda Porter, Paul and Jane Bowles, Carl Van Vechten and Fania Marinoff, Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg. Nothing really new here — save for Morton’s protestation of astonishment coupled with “moral” glee.
“Mann’s children are slighted. There’s little about the contradiction they were privy to: in public, their father’s august image; at home, certain idiosyncrasies, like his erotic impulses, barely suppressed, toward his son Klaus.”
who was, of course, gay. As was Mann’s daughter Erika — who W.H. Auden was only too delighted to marry the better to save her from the Nazis.
“And the book’s subjective focus limits its treatment of Mann’s interactions with the world at large. I’d like to have learned more of the twists and turns of Mann’s metamorphosis from German nationalist in World War I to fanatic foe of Adolf Hitler in World War II.”
Well you can’t have everything. Though Morton is tempted, as so many of his ilk are, to see “homosexuality” as everything Still he does manage to revert to his professional duties for a graph:
“This American edition of Kurzke’s work also falls short on another level. It bristles with omissions: no general index, no bibliography, not even source indications. Often the context offers no clue whether a quoted passage is from a letter, diary entry or autobiographical publication, and Leslie Willson’s translation from the German keeps lapsing into a thick accent, aping the German sentence structure. The translator misunderstands a number of idioms. “Politisieren,” as used by Kurzke, means to “discuss politics,” not “to politicize”; “plastisch” means “vivid,” not “plastic”; “blau-augig” means “naive,” not “blue-eyed.” The list is annoyingly long.”
Doesn’t sound promising.
“But the book’s chief lack derives from its great virtue. With brilliantly erudite perspicacity, Kurzke opens before us the chasm running through Mann’s life; Mann felt that his artist’s alienation, his creative decadence were separated from the mainstream’s wholesome middle-class robustness.”
Again: Chasm. Decadence. vs. Robustness.
“Why, then, did this same middle class laurel him as its preeminent poet?”
Could it be that Mann’s Art encompassed any number themes and ideas, same-sex attraction being only one? Could it be that “wholesome” middle-class life isn’t as “robust” as Morton imagines?
“Was it because Mann, in mining his flaw for his art, expressed the pathology endemic to Western culture?”
Is Morton saying that all of Western culture is (gasp! clutch the pearls!) secretly gay ?
“Kurzke has the equipment to engage the question. I wish he had done so here.”
Well frankly that’s your job Mr. Morton. (Cue Lalo Schfrin) Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to demonstate that “homosexuality” is central to the “pathology” of Western culture. You’ve certainly got your work cut out for you, sir. There’s Shakespeare and Marlowe, Hawthorne and Melville, Proust and James, Wilde and Gide, and then onwards to Ronald Firbank, Gertrude Stein, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Denton Welch, Noel Coward, Tennesee Williams, Frank O’Hara, Pier Paolo Pasolini, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gore Vidal, Samuel R. Delany – and Oh I’m just getting started!
Cancel all you appointments for the next three years and get cracking, sir! The Western canon is depending on you.
However, unlike Mission Impossible, this message won’t self-destruct in 30 seconds.