I have loved Thomas Mann novels since first being are introduced to them, over thirty years ago, by Mr Tersch who I’ve talked about here. Although I’m not sure I understood them completely on a first reading. And given the passage of years I couldn’t have said I really remembered them accurately. Hence the decision to re-read some.
This was the first book one given me by Mr Tersch. A gentle introduction to the intellect and erudition of Thomas Mann. To my surprise it was written – or at least published – after his more famous Buddenbrooks which came out in 1902. This one was published in 1909. The cover of this Penguin Modern Classic encapsulates the essence of the story. It comes from the painting by Franz von Matsch, The Princes of the German Confederation Congratulating Franz Joseph On His Golden Jubilee here .
We are in a small duchy in middle Europe, pre unified Germany. We are in a milieu like these officers with their ribbons and medals, plumed hats, swords and smartly polished spurred boots. As it says on the blurb, this is a decaying stratified society presented in all its pomp and ceremony and silliness. While he ridicules the pretentious nature of all this tradition, Mann is almost paying homage to this past way of life.
We follow the life of the Royal Highness of the title, Klaus Heinrich – inauspicious birth, lonely childhood, aloof (apart from one shameful loss of dignity) adolescence, the proper conduct of ceremonial duties required of the second in line to the throne. He’s a beautiful character, gentle and observant of everything around him. He’s a very dutiful young prince; and accordingly esteemed by the people. It’s all gently observed; the ridiculous formal customs and hierarchies of high society, the obsequiousness of court officials, incompetence of government ministers leading the small country to economic disaster.
The cloistered upbringing of our little prince leaves him ignorant of the workings of the world and of his heart. The introduction of an American magnate come home to his roots brings some much needed modernity to the country. His beautiful daughter, Imma, whose description sounds like Mann’s Brazilian mother, forces Klaus Heinrich to attend to things that have been missed in his education. And Imma starts to appreciate the importance of tradition and ceremony.Court officials prove they are smarter than they appear. This novel never appears on lists of Mann’s masterpieces but it should. I loved it when I first read it and have now loved it all over again.
The Magic Mountain
I read The Magic Mountain next although this was the third Thomas Mann book Mr Tersch gave out. I was worried I might not have the stamina to get to it after Buddenbrooks. I really wanted to re-read this one because it made such an impression on me. It was published in 1924. I couldn’t really remember a lot about it apart from the setting in the tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains and the fact that its full of spirited debates between two characters vying for the soul of the naive Hans Castorp.
Once I started reading a lot came back to me. The lovely Hans, so prim and proper to start with but gradually leaning into the magic of the mountain and living a far deeper life than he first imagined. His antithesis, the upright cousin, the military man desperate to be cured and returned to his regiment, Joachim.
And the beautifully drawn Herr Settembrini intent on ensuring young Hans doesn’t get captured by the unreal life on the magic mountain but stays engaged in real life to the fullest. Despite his best efforts, we see how life in the sanatorium gradually draws Hans away from his ordained path in the world below. It starts with the discarding of a hat to lift when passing a woman and moves to a deep exploration of his inner life.
Effectively this novel is about what it means to be human. Hans gets to explore every aspect of life; a doomed but all encompassing love, the human body, science, medicine, psychology, the life of the mind, of emotions, of the transformative power of music. This time around I also followed better the sophisticated arguments between the lovely humanist Settembrini and the mystical Jesuit Naphta, in the presence of young Hans. Although I had completely forgotten how the ongoing argument between the two of them – essentially about what it means to live fully as a human – ended. Let me just say, it’s very dramatic. And satisfying.
In the event in a chapter that Thomas Mann describes as being at the heart of the novel, Hans, lost in a blizzard and contemplating the worst, young Hans opts for life over death; humanism over religion.
I’d forgotten the ending; how could I? I t is so beautiful. World War One intrudes on life in the mountains and our hero is forced back down to the lowlands, where we see him for the last time, moving forward in the mud and grime among fallen bodies, singing the words of Schubert’s Linden-tree, that he’d listened to in the mountains over and over: And loving words I’ve carven / Upon its branches fair – / Its waving branches whispered / A message in my ear.
The whole novel is a tour de force, I spent days immersed in the world of the sanatorium amongst the Alps where the proximity of death forces a focus on the meaning of life. I certainly got more out of this rereading than I did so many years ago.
Buddenbrooks is the second Thomas Mann novel to which Mr Tersch introduced me. It was Mann’s first novel was started when he was 22 and finished when he was 25 – which is astonishing. It was published in 1901. I had absolutely no recall of any of the characters or incidents in the book! Not even during the course of re-reading it. This, along with The Magic Mountain, are the primary reason Thomas Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929. It’s the story of an age, of the Germany of Mann’s youth.
Being his first novel it is fairly biographical. His own family ran a grain merchant business which was liquidated when the patriarch died. And whilst the city in which it is set is never named it is widely regarded as being based on Lübick where Mann grew up. He was accused of parodying real people in his characters to which he replied he was able to use anything in the service of his art. Again the cover is very apt. It comes from a painting by Edvard Munch of the four Linder children, one of whom has been excised. You can see the full painting here. The three young children of the Buddenbrooks family are introduced in the early stages of the book and we follow them as they grow old. The whole family is sympathetically drawn. Father, Johanne III who’s called Jean, mother Antionette. The older brother, Thomas, is the dutiful son following in his father‘s footsteps, carrying out the appointed path expected of him which is to ensure the success of the family firm. Only towards the end of his life does he nearly succumb to an existential crisis brought on by reading an extract from Schopenhauer ‘s the Will And Representation.
The girl Antonie, called Tony, is a spoiled young minx, proud of her family and her position in the world. She also falls into line with family expectations, giving up the unsuitable young man with whom she’s fallen in love and marrying the banker pressed on her by her parents. I was pleased that her father rescued her when the banker’s perfidy from day one was disclosed. Later she enters into another disastrous liaison, encouraged this time her brother. Despite her pride and silliness you sympathise with her resilience in a society where women have very few options. The third son, Christian, is the most tragic. Of an artistic and emotionally unstable character, he doesn’t fit in at all with family expectations and is basically excluded from their society.
We finally come to the last of the Buddenbrooks, Thomas’ son Johann, known as Hanno. He’s as unlike his father as it is possible to be and the scenes of father and son are painfully observed. We experience Hanno’s isolation and humiliation at school – he is more interested in music than arithmetic. No likely successor to the business is he. After the description of the school day we come to a clinical exposition of the progress of the disease tuberculosis. It’s no surprise that in the closing pages we are told the boy Hanno has died. This is a famous chapter ; Mann lifted the whole piece directly from an encyclopedia. And so it comes to pass that the famous family firm of Buddenbrooks is finally liquidated and the women survivors are left to live out their lives alone.
It is all very vividly portrayed – social relations, family hierarchies, class division, business practices and the economic situation, the governance of the town, politics and religious belief. I was deeply involved in this family’s survival and distressed when it all came to an end. Wonderfully rich characters, a whole society vividly described. I found it incredibly moving and loved every minute of it.
I came to this one much later than the others. On my own, without guidance from Mr Tersch. I’m not so keen on this cover. Its from Lovis Corinth’s Selbstbildnis mit Skelett. Chosen I suspect because of the skeleton, which is indeed in Adrian Leverkühn’s study. But Leverkühn is meant to be handsome with fair hair which is definitely not reflected in the picture. I read this first without any knowledge at all about the composer on whom it was (or was not) based, Arnold Schoenberg. It is a fascinating study of artistic endeavour and the creative process. There is a lot of interpretation of well known music, for example Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which I read and quite liked without understanding very deeply. As with the contentious chapter about the twelve tone method or system; a necessary part of the story but you don’t have to know exactly what it means! Or at least I didn’t. I got the general picture. It was new and revolutionary. It is portrayed as Leverkün’s invention which got Mann into a lot of trouble which is recounted in The Doctor Faustus Dossier, described below.
Leverkühn’s story is being told by his friend Zeitbloom who is presented as an ordinary person, a history teacher. He, the narrator, is very sympathetically drawn. He is writing his sad story while the Second World War rages around him. And the story he is narrating takes place in the nineteen twenties during and after the First World War. Giving rise to lots of meditation on the futility of war, and the circumstances that have led to the second conflagration. Zeitbloom is quietly opposed to the regime and is estranged from his two sons who are both in the army. Mann was writing this in the mid nineteen forties, in exile in Los Angeles. The structure of the novel gives him the opportunity to express his horror at what was being done to German culture – destroyed forever. These are amongst the most moving sections of the novel. We follow Leverkühn and Zeitbloom through their early childhood, school days and university studies. There are lectures, hiking holidays in the country during which students debate the big issues, family holidays. Theology, history, music are the big themes.
Finally Leverkühn settles on music as a career and his struggles commence. He’s always been drawn to the diabolical and now it goes to another level. The whole set up of the faustian bargain is convincingly portrayed; our narrator able to give a first hand account based on Leverkühn’s record. The devil is quite a character. The pivotal dialogue when it finally comes, whilst obviously unbelievable, is compelling nonetheless. From there we know what’s coming. His musical triumphs are described at length. His milieu and their relationships and activities around which the composer darts in and out. There are love marriages, love affairs, scandals, blackmail leading to suicide, an engagement that impels a murder. High society in Weimar Germany. Our hero has foresworn love, and in any event is unskilled in courtship, so a romance comes to naught; at the woman’s behest.
Later he’s asked to mind his sister’s child, Nepomuk , called Echo, while she takes a cure at a sanitarium (!) The boy is beautifully described, fair haried, blue-eyed, sweet natured, gently, obedient. Angelic. Apparently based on Mann’s grandchild. And of course he is taken; that is, he dies of meningitis in a gruelling chapter. Thereafter Leverkühn assembles all and sundry and confesses to his deal with the devil. After which he collapses into a zombie like state – Nietzsche-like – to be taken home and cared for by his mother until his death. What a saga this book is. The whole of German literary and musical cultural history contained within its pages. It does make you mourn the catastrophe that the Nazis wrought on that tradition. As Zeitbloom says the war is lost; but that means more than a lost campaign, it means in very truth that we are lost: our character, our cause, our hope, our history, it is all up with Germany, it will all be up with her. She is marked down for collapse, economic, political, moral, spiritual, in short all-embracing, unparalleled, final collapse. An outcome that he (and surely Thomas Mann) wants and will welcome out of hatred for the outrageous contempt of reason, the vicious violation of the truth the cheap, filthy backstairs mythology, the criminal degradation and confusion of standards; the abuse, corruption, and blackmail of all that was good, genuine, trusting, and trustworthy in our old Germany.
The Doctor Faustus Dossier
I can’t quite remember how I came to know about this. I think perhaps, it was a recommendation from Amazon, based on my purchases. Either that or via some Twitter exchange. Who knows. I’m extremely pleased I had it in my iPad to read immediately after finishing the Doctor Faustus novel. It was only published in 2018.
It’s a compilation of material from before and after the publication of the book. Extracts from Thomas Mann’s diaries and letters from him to lots of people. Very interesting regarding the process of writing the novel. Especially his letters to Theodor Adorno.
Then there are letters from Arnold Schoenberg to various people both before publication of the book which are friendly and respectful to Thomas Mann, not so afterwards.
Then there are letters from Theodor Adorno and various other people as well as various newspaper articles and letters. An introduction by Adrian Daub gives the background to the controversy.
All of the people involved were living in Los Angeles; having taken flight from Germany when the Nazis came to power. Thomas Mann was writing his novel. He occasionally saw Schoenberg at social functions and talked to him about composition but didn’t talk to him deeply about the novel. They were neighbourly but not close. Mann asked Theodor Adorno to assist him with the musical texts and descriptions used in the book.
When the novel was published Mann gave a copy to Schoenberg inscribed with the words For Arnold Schoenberg, the real one, with best wishes.
Schoenberg never read the novel because he had failing eyesight but was told of its contents by friends. He took great umbrage at Mann’s depicting the twelve tone method as created by his fictional character Leverkühn. Schoenberg believed this method, which he had created, was a critical feature of his whole musical philosophy. Mann’s view was that everybody knew that Schoenberg had created the method and it was ridiculous to think anyone would believe a fictional character had done so.
I loved reading the extracts from Thomas Mann’s diaries. They’re interesting about the creative process. I think Schoenberg was mad! He was certainly very insecure and ended up alienating even those who were originally sympathetic. This book is for the afficiandos – but worth getting hold of if you read the novel.