Friday, March 27, 2009

Mann on Mann

Golo Mann, a German historian and writer, was born 100 years ago today. He is considered by some to be the most brilliant and intellectual of Thomas Mann’s six children, and, of the six, to have come closest to shedding some light on why two of them committed suicide and why three of them were homosexual. With regard to the latter family trait, Golo draws on a story about his father’s diaries.

Thomas Mann, the great German author, lived from 1875 until 1955. Born in Lubeck, his family moved to Munich when he was still a child, and where he then stayed until forced into exile by the Nazis. When only 26, he found huge success with the epic novel Buddenbrooks. It tells of the downfall of a wealthy mercantile family of Lübeck, similar to his own, over the course of several generations. Two novellas - Tristan and Tonio Kröger - followed in 1903. Mann’s other famous works include Felix Krull (1911), Death in Venice (1912) and The Magic Mountain (1924)

He married Katia Pringsheim, daughter of a secular Jewish mathematician, in 1905, and they had six children. The three eldest - Erika, Klaus and Golo - were all homosexual. Two girls and a boy followed - Monika, Elisabeth and Michael. All but Elisabeth - who was said to be the most loved - went into print with memories or reflections about their father; and Jeffrey Meyers has written an excellent article about them for The Virginia Quarterly Review. He says the memoirs ‘are torn between veneration and rivalry, between a desire to emphasize their father’s greatness and reveal his human failings, to bask in his reflected glory and to tell the story of their own development’.

But today is the centenary of Mann’s third child - Golo Mann - who was born on 27 March 1909. He studied with Karl Jaspers, a psychiatrist and philosopher at Heidelberg university. Like the rest of the family, he went into exile as Hitler’s power was rising, and taught history for a short while in France, before escaping to the US. There he joined the army and returned to Europe to make radio propaganda in London and Luxembourg. After the war he went back to Germany, and became a respected historian, authoring A History of Germany Since 1789. In an article for the BBC, Brian Walden (an influential British broadcaster) called it ‘a very great book’. Golo Mann, he said, may have written ‘the best of all popular history books’.

According to Jeffrey Meyers, it was Golo who got closest of any of Mann’s children to uncovering in print why they felt crippled, even crushed by their father’s overwhelming presence. He calls Golo ‘the most brilliant and intellectual of the children’ and suggests that his book, Reminiscences and Reflections, ‘pries open the vault containing the family secrets and gives a more realistic, probing, and convincing picture of Thomas’. Golo was partly able to do this, he says, because his book was not published until 30 years had passed since Thomas’ death, and six years since Katia’s, and because of a changed cultural climate.

‘Not until Golo’s frank, perceptive memoir of 1986,’ Meyer says, ‘do we begin to understand why the three oldest children were homosexual, and why Klaus and Michael committed suicide.’ Golo lists a number of earlier suicides on both sides of the family, and concludes that there was a genetic predisposition to dealing with depression in this way. And then, on the subject of homosexuality, Meyer tells this anecdote taken from Golo’s book:

‘After Thomas had gone into exile, he asked Golo to pack his diaries in a suitcase and send them to Lugano, then added: ‘I am counting on you to be discreet and not read any of these things!’ . . . Golo naively handed the suitcase over to their chauffeur, who offered to take it to the train station but gave it instead to the Nazi authorities. Fearing the worst, Thomas exclaimed that the Nazis would publish excerpts in their newspaper: ‘They will ruin everything, they will ruin me. My life will never be right again.’ In the end, Thomas’ lawyer managed to recover the diaries, which were published from 1977 to 1995. When Golo, who ‘had never really been able to part’ from his mother, finally read the dangerous diaries, he learned that the homosexual attraction and longing described in Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice, in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, were based on Thomas’ secret feelings, and he, Erika and Klaus. . . had much more in common with their father than they had ever realized.’

In fact, Thomas Mann was a committed diarist. The Virginia Quarterly Review (which seems to have an affinity for Mann) has another excellent article, freely available online, entitled Thomas Mann as Diarist (by Jay Parini). And The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, which is partly viewable on Googlebooks, has an essay on Mann as Diarist by T. J. Reed. Here is a paragraph from that essay with details about Thomas Mann’s diaries.

‘Although Mann appears to have kept a diary all his adult life, only parts survive. In 1896 he burnt the records he had made up to then, only to begin again at once; and in 1944-5 he burnt nearly all the pre-1933 diaries. In 1950 again, he wondered whether to burn what he had written since 1933. The issue was his homosexuality, the secret of which he had guarded by previous burnings but had then then gone on writing about, often in nostalgic reference back to feelings of earlier days. Should he now dispose of this evidence too, or should he make it the means of belatedly coming out? He finally decided against destruction, and in 1952 packaged and sealed his notebooks down to the preceding year, inscribing the cover, in English: ‘Daily notes 1933-1951 without literary value and not to be opened before twenty years after my death’. Erika, his daughter, sealed the last few notebooks in 1955.’

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