Thomas Mann: Moralist & Critic

with special reference to Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain & Doktor Faust

Dr Robert Blackburn

Bath Spa University (retired)

21 June 2005

‘It is not art’s way to leave the stage with scornful laughter. She is bound up with the good. She is rooted in kindness, which is akin to wisdom, even closer akin to love. Playing a game of the profoundest seriousness, she symbolises man’s eternal striving after perfection.’

(Thomas Mann reading his own words in the epilogue to the commemorative programme Thomas Mann’s War broadcast on BBC Radio Four on 1 December 2005.)

This talk marked the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Mann’s death on 21 August 1955, aged 80. It was intended as an introduction to aspects of the three great novels in the title, but also as a discussion of Mann’s extraordinary career as a private citizen and celebrated author, who became a major spokesman of his age on public affairs during and especially after WWI. At the outset, in Gedanken im Kriege (Thoughts in Wartime) of 1914, Mann observed with typical frankness and insight that ‘ it is no easy task to be a German. This people… suffers under its own nature to the point of revulsion… There is something most deeply irrational about the German soul which, to the mind and judgement of other, more superficial peoples appears distorting, agitating, alien, indeed repellent and offensive.’ Having supported the German cause in 1914-18, as the voice of imperial conservatism (famously in the long, self-justifying Reflections of a Non-Political Man, 1918), Mann quickly became one of the main warning voices in Weimar Germany against the rise of the far right. There is no doubt that, despite the rapid drift towards fascism across Europe in the 1920s, Mann’s prestige as a writer of fictional prose greatly enhanced this unlooked-for new role. His fierce opposition to Hitler and the Nazis led to his voluntary exile and later effective banishment from Germany, firstly in Switzerland from 1933, and subsequently in the USA.

Mann was at Princeton when war broke out in Europe, and observed the catastrophe of Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941 from his new vantage point in democratic America, having now moved to California. Always a supporter and admirer of FD Roosevelt, Mann found himself broadcasting eloquently on behalf of the Allied cause, writing articles, and delivering public speeches, his spoken English improving as he went along. From his home in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, he became one of the leading Austro-German intellectuals in exile, in a diverse community, which included his brother Heinrich and Bertolt Brecht, and the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Ernst Krenek.

Sadly, but probably inevitably, Thomas Mann was caught

up in the anti-communist witch-hunts of the late 40s and early 50s. The change of mood directly affected him as a German exile, despite his fame, possibly even because of it. In a creative world dominated by a brilliant, pervasive and idiosyncratic use of irony, Mann found himself vilified by groups of extremists who saw him (and numerous others) as disqualified from trust by their very backgrounds. After his long and passionate opposition to fascism in Europe, Mann was rightly afraid that he would fall victim to the rising tide of ‘democratic’ neo-fascist intolerance sweeping America as an early feature of the Cold War and the new post-1945 world order.

In the summer of 1952, he and his wife Katia returned to Europe, to settle finally in Switzerland. Mann could not face the idea of living again in Germany after all that had happened. Indeed in 1947, they had visited Europe including Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Holland, but avoiding Germany. He did, however, revisit Germany in 1949 in connection with the bicentenary of Goethe (1749-1832), giving speeches in Frankfurt, Munich and Weimar. The GDR was founded on 12 October of that year, and McCarthyite hysteria soon began in the USA. On 21 May, his son Klaus, gifted but always unstable, took his own life, while his brother Heinrich died in California in March 1950, already one of the great literary heroes of Communist East Germany. In 1951, Mann resumed work on the light-hearted Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, begun decades earlier. It was destined never to be quite finished, but was published in 1954. After the move to Kilchberg on Lake Zürich, Mann’s health declined, and he died in the year of yet another literary anniversary, the 150th since the death of Schiller. The address on Schiller was Mann’s very last piece of work. All Mann’s six children, with one exception, were intellectually gifted. Their lives were profoundly and unavoidably affected by his presence, and the Mann family has since become the subject of many studies. In the 1920s, the Mann household had been described as ‘a veritable laboratory of domestic turmoil’. Katia, his remarkable, endlessly supportive wife, survived him by 25 years, dying in 1980 at the age of 97.

It is never safe to say that any writer’s stature is impregnable. Yet despite many attacks on his achievements, attitudes and persona, Mann’s position as a great 20th century writer has held up well. His position as a special inheritor of the work of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner is now widely understood and appreciated, and his searching, often difficult explorations of the techniques and ranges of fiction have made him a writer impossible to ignore. This is the position in 2005 despite the attempts by some critics since his death to accuse Mann, variously, of coldness and superior distance, egocentricity and intellectual elitism, even a certain moral ambiguity, insufficient interest in society as a whole, and too great a preoccupation with the individual. These are harsh charges against a writer who stood out against evil and darkness in the world, and whose work has actually given such huge enjoyment to fiction readers internationally. Mann was, as Hans Wysling has said (in Difficulties with Thomas Mann, 1975) as concerned to reach a wide public as he was to cultivate intellectual refinement in his work. One finds hard to find fault with that. A large part of this wider public was increasingly to be found in the English-speaking world. Some have, to a large extent correctly seen him as an inevitable product of his time and class, as great writers commonly are. But Mann himself said clearly in 1936 that he saw himself as a mediator and representative, not as a martyr, a role he expressed through his many essays as well as through his larger fiction.

Thomas Mann began his career as the precocious author of often dark, heavily ironic short stories, before making his name, permanently, with a full-length novel, Buddenbrooks, published in two volumes in 1901. It sold a million copies in the first year, and was a steady seller in later times. Buddenbrooks chronicles the decline of a north German family of grain merchants from 1835 to 1877 in personal and general terms, drawing on Mann’s own family background in Lübeck, and charting a steady, relentless fall from success into despondent failure embodied in the original title Abwarts (Downwards). The brilliance of the finished novel shone all the more greatly because of the author’s youth; Mann was only 25 when he wrote it. When Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, five years after the appearance of The Magic Mountain, it was Buddenbrooks, which was particularly cited. It remains his most popular novel, not least because it is his most traditional, rooted in the techniques of 19th century realism, and influenced by Mann’s reading of the great French and Russian masters, especially Flaubert and Dostoevsky.

From a peak in the early to mid 1830s (the historical sequence is explicit in the narrative) the Buddenbrook family moves through a series of disasters and bad decisions to the point where, in 1877, the sole heir of Thomas Buddenbrook, little Hanno, a gifted musician utterly removed in spirit from the family business ethos, dies at only sixteen from typhoid fever. The moment in the novel when Hanno’s father, Senator Thomas Buddenbrook (plagued by problems for years, some of them physical) comes across a book in his summerhouse (unnamed, but clearly Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea) and has his world-view changed, is regarded as a main turning point in the story. Not long afterwards Thomas dies of a stroke in the street. But his confidence in tradition, optimism and the rewards of success have already been undermined, both by his own experiences and through his absorption of Schopenhauerian pessimism from the ‘accidentally’ discovered book. Beyond the male generation sequence, the life of Tony (Antonie) Buddenbrook and her two ill-advised marriages, both ending in divorce, forms a central and fascinating main narrative strand. Indeed, some have felt Tony Buddenbrook to be the main character. Her failure is seen, like that of her feckless brother Christian, to reflect the failure of the family as a whole.

Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) is a much more experimental work, equally large-scale, and developing the Swiss tubercular sanatorium background which appeared in the short story Tristan of 1903. As so often with Mann, what began as a short project took on much larger dimensions. He began it in 1913 as a novella intended to be of a similar length to Death in Venice (1912) but it extended itself through and beyond the war years, was inevitably coloured by them, and was not actually finished until September 1924, only eight weeks before publication. The germinal cell of this second big novel was the actual, real-life stay of Mann’s wife Katia for observation in the famous Davos sanatorium. Mann wanted to write a novel of ideas, which was also essentially a Bildungsroman or novel of personal education.

He decided to place at the centre of the third-person narrative a young (23) engineer, Hans Castorp from Hamburg, who comes to the sanatorium (the Berghaus) for a few weeks’ observation, but remains for seven years.

Castorp is often portrayed by commentators as a totally ordinary, middle-of-the-road young man, anything but heroic or outstandingly gifted. Yet in fact he is thoughtful, sensitive, considerate, well-qualified in his field, and intellectually curious in a general way. He is seemingly of independent means, and is the catalyst for the many events and conversations of the novel. He is also the means by which two of the main characters, the liberal humanist Lodovico Settembrini and the dark-minded Jesuit-trained extremist fanatic Leo Naphta conduct their ferocious ideological arguments. Many aspects of Settembrini’s sane and generous-spirited outlook were based on Mann’s brother Heinrich, while some of the characteristics of Naphta were drawn from the Hungarian Marxist thinker György Lukács. Similarly, the mesmeric figure of Mynheer Peeperkorn, the Dutch entrepreneur who enters the novel for a time at a late stage, and deeply impresses Castorp, is extensively based on Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946), the most famous German playwright of his day. The unresolved erotic interest of the story is provided, with satiric intent, by the elusive yet magnetic Russian-born Frau Clavdia Chauchat. Hans Castorp’s cousin, the impressive, upright, military-minded Joachim Ziemssen is a tragic counterpoise to Hans’ own destiny.

Der Zauberberg was seen from the outset as an allegory of the old Europe on the verge of an explosive war, in which the certainties and patterns of the past would be destroyed forever. At the close, in a novel which sees almost all the surviving characters with too much time on their hands, too little real focus in their lives, Hans leaves the Berghaus to take up arms as a German soldier on the Western Front. On the final page, reader and author bid him farewell. ‘Your chances are not good’, says Mann. ‘The wicked dance in which you are caught up will last many a little sinful year yet, and we would not wager much that you will come out whole’. Appropriately the seemingly endless conversations and speculations of Der Zauberberg end on a question mark. ‘And out of this world-wide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round—will love some day rise up out of this too?’ (John E Woods’ translation, 1995)

The great novel Doktor Faustus, a complex, many-layered allegory about the destiny and headlong fall of modern Germany, was written by Mann between May 1943 and February 1947. It is a work jointly based on historical realism, modernist technique and myth. It is written in the present time (the mid 1940s), yet is also a biography and very personal memoir of a fictitious modernist composer, Adrian Leverkühn, covering the period from 1885 to 1940. The narrator is a retired schoolmaster classicist, Serenus Zeitblom (a name replete with wonderful ironies) who had been Leverkühn’s close friend from youth. But the novel also plunges back from the present-day, all too real crisis of a Fascist Germany facing overwhelming destruction and military defeat, to an era (that of the 16th century and Martin Luther, as well as of the magician Faust), which had seen the birth of many of the notions and characteristics of Germany’s later development and historical evolution. Mann had recently completed his great Joseph and his Brothers epic tetralogy, as well as a short novel, Lotte in Weimar, based on Goethe’s old age. In returning to an old sketch of 1905 on the Faust theme, he was showing for almost the last and certainly the greatest time how nothing in his literary workshop ever went entirely to waste.

If Buddenbrooks was semi-autobiographical, dealing with the period immediately before his own birth, Doktor Faustus was a grand summary of so much of his mature lifetime and painful personal experiences, as well as his lifelong preoccupation with the joys and emotional power of music. The suicides (in 1910 and 1927) of Mann’s sisters Carla and Julia were predominant among the tragedies he had endured, but in terms of his political development and humanistic re-education in the years after 1919, the detailed portrait of the (fictitious) Kridwiss circle, based on the many incipiently fascist-minded intellectuals he had known in the 1920s, is a most chilling and impressive achievement. Mann was writing this novel in his Californian home. He was half a world away from the horrors of the new World War, yet for that very reason needed to draw himself into it as a major of part of the narrative structure of Doktor Faustus. At the same time this was his opportunity to incorporate portraits of individuals he had known very closely such as his long-ago pre- Katia lover, the Munich painter Paul Ehrenberg, and also Hans Reisiger, the journalist and translator who was a friend of the Mann family as a whole, adored by them all. These men appear in the novel as, respectively, Rudi Schwerdtfeger and Rüdiger Schildknapp.

Adrian Leverkühn the fictitious composer whose year of birth, 1885, happens to coincide with that of one of the greatest modernist composers, Alban Berg, is also presented as a creative musician deeply interested in the new techniques of ‘serial’ or twelve-note composition developed by Berg’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was Mann’s almost exact contemporary, and (as we have seen) his neighbour in Los Angeles. When Doktor Faustus was published, Mann had to include a retraction, admitting that Leverkühn’s mature techniques were largely derived from

Schoenberg’s own, but denying any link at all on a personal level between Leverkühn and the real-life and rather angry Austrian –Jewish composer. One can see very well why Schoenberg was so annoyed. The fictitious Leverkühn becomes the Faust figure, a man whose training in theology precedes his vocation as a composer, but who trades with the Devil that he shall be creatively inspired across twenty-four years. In return, he is prepared to sacrifice the appearance of any form of love in his life, to become emotionally cold. Naturally, each time he tries to go against this, disaster follows.

The presence of Serenus Zeitblom (analogous to, but not of course identical with the role of Castorp in Der Zauberberg) has fascinated critics and readers. Zeitblom’s ponderous and rather pedestrian manner might deter some, but are just what Mann needs to set against the intensity and single-mindedness of his composer friend.

Remembering always that the narrative viewpoint is that of an older man, still mourning the death of his old friend, we return again to the novel’s ‘real-time’ frame in the later years of the war, and to Zeitblom’s essential decency, humanity and loyalty. Much to the fore is the ‘montage’ technique, whereby parts of the novel were assembled from miscellaneous sources such as magazine or encyclopaedia articles, and absorbed fragmentarily into the whole. Adrian’s career as a modernist composer is wonderfully presented through a succession of fictitious but entirely plausible works, designed to reflect the stages of his life, and described in rich detail. Only a writer with Mann’s profound structural and textural awareness of music could even have attempted this, let alone brought it off. The character of Leverkühn, finally, is based on Friedrich Nietzsche, in whose writings Mann had been saturated all his life. The pattern if creativity, coldness, sexual failure, madness and premature death are there for all to see. Thus the name of Nietzsche, a dominant intellectual influence on German culture during the period, is never mentioned in the text. We can also see that the madness and paralysis of Adrian (and Nietzsche) are identified with that of Germany as a whole in the 1919-1945 period.

More has been written about Doktor Faustus than about any other 20th century novel. The sheer volume of commentary befits the key nature of the work, and the density of its symbolism and allegorical interpretation. Here it is necessary to mention that the only available English translation is that by Mann’s appointed translator Helen T Lowe-Porter. She had actually been chosen by Alfred A Knopf, Mann’s publisher in America, and endorsed by Martin Secker, but was not Mann’s original first choice. Her proclaimed ambition was to render all Mann’s works into English, and thus to circulate them throughout the English-speaking world. For all her dedication to the task, however, critical voices have been raised about the weaknesses of her versions overall, Fortunately, new versions of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain by John E Woods now exist, to set alongside the fine new translations of Death in Venice and other stories by the English Germanist David Luke. Helen Lowe-Porter’s work (she translated the essays as well as the fiction) guaranteed Mann a wide readership, but at a considerable cost in accuracy and completeness. Eventually Doktor Faustus will be done again, by a translator who adheres strictly to the original German text, and does not iron out or ignore the many difficulties of tone and language with which this astonishing work is laden. Mann’s own Genesis of a Novel (1949), his account of the writing and reading process behind Doktor Faustus, constantly repays re-reading. Also indispensable is Gunilla Bergsten’s Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus: the Sources & Structure of the Novel (CUP, 1969)

Robert E Blackburn


Three substantial English biographies of Mann head the list of recent studies in this area:

Prater, Donald. Thomas Mann: a Life (OUP, 1995);

Hayman, Ronald. Thomas Mann: a Biography ( Bloomsbury, 1995);

Heilbut, Anthony. Thomas Mann: Eros & Literature (Macmillan, 1996). Heilbut is the most stimulating and brilliantly written, but arguably overemphasises Mann’s homosexuality; indeed, it is the dominant theme of the book. Prater’s is the most balanced & generally reliable. Hayman’s has many good things in it, but is poorly written.

Other important studies of Mann in English are:

Reed, TJ. Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition (OUP, 1974, 2nd ed. 1996).

Swales, Martin. Thomas Mann: an Introduction (Heinemann, 1980).

Heller, Erich. The Ironic German: a Study of Thomas Mann (CUP, 1981, originally Secker & Warburg, 1958).

Winston, Richard. Thomas Mann: The Making of the Artist, 1875-1911(Constable, 1982).

Robertson, Ritchie (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann (CUP, 2002).