In Search of Humanity: Reading Thomas Mann

Ein Zweifler bin ich, wie ich hier sitze, nicht weil ich nichts glaubte, sondern weil ich alles für möglich halte 
(A doubter I am, as I sit here – not because I believed in nothing but because I consider anything possible).
               Joseph und seine Brüder, vol. 3, “Zum Herrn”.

Two years ago I embarked on a life's mission. Spread out over the next x-number of years, I decided to read my way through all 38 volumesincluding commentary volumes, of the Grosse Kommentierte Frankfurter Ausgabe (GKFA) of the complete works of Thomas Mann. Simply because no other writer gives me so much pleasure and so many insights, or is so close to how I look at the world. After each volume I wrote some short reflections on my personal Facebook page; below you can find those thoughts in an edited and slightly expanded version.
Looking at Mann’s oeuvre as a whole, I cannot help perceiving a grand life-long design of the kind you find only in the very greatest creative minds. Thomas Mann began right at home, with a novel (Buddenbrooks) about Lübeck and the German bourgeois milieu in which he had grown up. In Königliche Hoheit, the scope was somewhat broadened to a fictional duchy, symbolic not of Germany but of Mann’s personal “kingdom of the spirit.” Then in Der Zauberberg the scope was widened from Germany all the way to Europe as a whole, and its spiritual condition right before the disaster of World War I. So what could be next – the whole world? In fact what followed was an enormous four-volume novel (a counterpart to Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen?) about Humanity as such; and it seems significant that this time its mythical representatives and central heroes, the biblical figures Jacob and Joseph, were not Germans but Jews. Only having made his ultimate statement about die Menschlichkeit did Mann return to writing about Germany. His first step was to address yet another myth, that of Goethe (Lotte in Weimar). And after that he delved deep into the abyss of mourning about the German culture that he loved, and its spiritual suicide under Hitler and the Nazis (Doktor Faustus). Thus having made a movement full circle, but not wishing to end in despair, after the war Mann published a light-hearted yet serious epilogue to his oeuvre. Der Erwählte was a brilliant meditation on   guilt and redemption, again with human-more-than-human heroes who no longer reflected his own German Protestant roots but the universal aspirations of Catholic culture. So was it all deliberately planned like this? I rather think it was instinctive and not necessarily conscious – “wenn ich selbst es gedacht habe, so war es mehr und weniger als Denken” (if I thought this myself, it was more and less than thinking).

Volume 1: Buddenbrooks

I actually had not read Buddenbrooks before, strange as it may seem. Initially it was just a fantastic experience to get to know this family up close, most of all Tony Buddenbrook (who nevers seems to stop throwing her head backwards while simultaneously trying to put her chin on her breast... reminding me of Professor McGonagall). The novel is beautifully written, great literature, and the characters will remain part of my inner world forever - and yet... some part of me (spoiled no doubt by his later work) thought "well, this was Mann’s first full novel, it may have gotten him the Nobel prize because it was such a popular success, but perhaps it doesn't yet show us Thomas Mann at the full height of his powers."

Well, so I though at first. And there might even be some grain of truth to it in comparison with the very best of his later work. Yet, the characters began to grow on my mind in a strange way, and I ended up reading Buddenbrooks all over again. As I could have known, the experience confirmed what I already knew: if you have read a Thomas Mann novel just one single time, you have barely read it at all. Only at repeated reading does his work begin to reveal its secrets. The chacteristic Mannian irony that I thought was somewhat missing or at least less evident turned out to be omnipresent throughout the book – somehow I must have been so busy focusing on other aspects that I missed it. The personalities particularly of Tony, Thomas and Hanno became fully three-dimensional, and I began to notice various layers of meaning and significance that had partly or completely passed me by: for instance the nature of the process of “decadence” or “decline” in both the family and the wider cultural environment, the inner conflict of Thomas between his public role and the deeper longings of his soul (coming to the surface most clearly when he reads Schopenhauer’s masterpiece Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, which had been the strongest reading experience of Thomas Mann’s own youth), and Hanno as the family member who exemplifies the ambiguous Todestrieb that, paradoxically, is the motor of Mann’s inspiration as a writer. 
Was ist das? Tony asks at the very beginning – and in the final lines we find the statement Es ist so! I suspect that the initial question refers to the world in which Thomas Mann was born and raised, and the entire novel gave the answer: so this is how it was, this was the truth!

Volume 2: Early Stories (1893-1912)

These twelve early stories are all about loss, disappointment, unattainable ideals, and dark impulses. They all end badly. All are beautifully written, but I found that only in Der kleine Herr Friedemann the spark of genius first breaks through all of a sudden. Then, with the brilliant novella Tonio Kröger, for the first time we see the protagonist overcoming his disgust with the bourgeois “normality” of common human beings. The writer – the man of Spirit (Geistwhose soul is secretly in league with the dark powers of nihilism, illness and death – admits his desperate although unrequited love for the health and happiness of simple human joy and life-affirmation. In Tristan – a tour de force in its combination of deep tragedy with farcical humour – a somewhat similar man of letters suffers a humiliating defeat. He is faced down by the healthiest baby of all healthy babies in world literature, named Klöterjahn, who gets his jubilant revenge for the Wagnerian love-death that the writer has egoistically inflicted on his mother. From there on, we see Thomas Mann continuing his life project of making friends with lifehenceforth other enemies of humanity in the name of Art fare no better under his pen (think for instance of the Stefan Georgian / Ludwig Klagesian apocalypticist of Beim Propheten”, or the Kridwiß circle in Doktor Faustus). Finally the cycle ends with Mann’s famous and truly breathtaking short novel Der Tod in Venedig, grounded in the profound Platonic connection (PhaedrusSymposium) between death and beauty, transcendence and truth, and hence in the deep moral ambiguity (Fragwürdigkeit) of literature situated in the midst of Life.
Does that sound too abstract? Perhaps, but I won’t explain. You must read it yourself.

Volume 3: Fiorenza etcetera

In the great Frankfurt edition of Thomas Mann’s complete works, this volume is quite slim – in fact the companion volume with introductions and commentaries has more than twice its length. It is devoted to genres that Thomas Mann had been trying out but in which, as it turned out, he did not truly excel: theatre, poetry, and even a film script. Most important by far is his drama Fiorenza (1905), and it came as a complete surprise for me that among its dramatic characters are two of my favourites: the great Renaissance philosophers Marsilio Ficino and his contemporary Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. However, the central protagonists are Lorenzo de’ Medici and Girolama Savonarola, who represent two poles of the inner conflict at the heart of Mann’s mind and soul. Lorenzo stands for the “pagan” perspective of life-affirming sensual beauty in Renaissance art, whereas Savonarola stands for its ascetic counterpart based on the spiritual superiority of the Word (Geist and literature) over Nature and the World. Is the deepest motivation of literature a barely conscious wish to transcend life itself and overcome the world of the senses? If so, does this mean that the writer is secretly on the side of death? But then doesn’t this ultimately make him an enemy of humanity at heart, even though he poses as its friend? Is beauty ultimately deadly, like the flame that consumes the moth? If the true writer pierces through the exterior surface of things and gains knowledge of the truth, is such knowledge really a blessing? Isn’t it rather a curse, for isn’t the price of knowledge just too high? Shouldn’t the innocence that comes with ignorance be preferred over the painful knowledge of the man who has freed himself from illusions, as suggested by the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyewsky’s great story (or if you want a contemporary parallel, the character of Cypher in The Matrix)? 

These existential questions are basic to Thomas Mann’s oeuvre as a whole. They reflect his life-long struggle to define the true heart of humanity (die Humanität), with all its deep moral and political implications, from Tristan and Death in Venice to Der Zauberberg and Doktor FaustusThe writer may not be a very nice person – think also of Felix Krull, discussed below – but then again, is it his job to be nice? Isn’t his job rather to tell the truth? In Fiorenza the battle is undecided. Critics have tried to decide whether Lorenzo or Savonarola represents Thomas Mann’s own perspectice, and Mann himself has admitted that the friar might ultimately be closest to him; but in the end, it seems to me, making an either/or choice means missing the whole point. Two souls were living in Mann’s breast, and precisely their incompatibility made them fit ingredients for transmutation into great art. “I love the fire” are Savonarola’s final words.

Volume 4: Royal Highness

This is the least known of Mann’s novels, and it is often seen as somewhat weaker. Yet ThomasMann himself has always defended it against hostile critics, calling it a crucial work in his oeuvre without which Der Zauberberg and Joseph und seine Brüder would have been unthinkable. Among the great things of the GKFA is that the commentary volumes provide extensive overviews of the critical reception history of each work; and I have to agree with Thomas Mann that as far this novel is concerned, many critics seem to have suffered from a peculiar lack of literary sensitivity, simple intelligence, ideological blindness, or some combination of all of thesenigliche Hoheit (Royal Highness) is a wonderful modern fairy tale, clearly driven by the experience of Mann’s own marriage with the daughter of a millionaire, Katia Pringsheim. 

The lonely prince of a small and badly impoverished duchy, condemned to an isolated existence of purely ceremonial “representation” that never allows him to show who he really is, falls in love with the equally isolated daughter of an American billionnaire; and as he marries her, he finds salvation not just for himself but for his kingdom as well. Of course the metaphor is rather obvious. Thomas Mann’s early stories and his first novel Buddenbrooks all end badly, but this one finishes like fairy tales do: they go on to live happily ever after. Critics who saw that as just a bit too shallow and predictable seem to have missed much of what is great about Königliche Hoheit, such as its sensitive analysis of extremely delicate inner states; the psychology of power and authority; the tension between political necessity and individual spontaneity; the subconscious resentment against whatever is “higher” (the urge to pull it down to one’s own level); the experience of loneliness pure and simple; the nature of friendship; and last but not least, the adventure of falling in love. And then of course there is always that glorious language – the most beautiful German ever written by anyone ever, as far as I’m concerned. What a writer!

Volume 5: The Magic Mountain

This was perhaps the fifth or sixth time I read Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. Although there are few novels I know so well, it’s the mark of supreme literature that the book managed to utterly surprise me all over again! Somehow, for some reason, never before did I experience the story so intensely and so vividly with all five senses; never before was I able to imagine the physical and emotional situations and interactions so concretely and in so much human and psychological detail; and I had to admit to myself, with some embarrassment, that many of this novel’s deeper emotional and intellectual subtleties had remained completely hidden to me and revealed themselves now for the very first time. It is also the first time that I read the novel not primarily as a metaphor of the intellectual, social, and political situation of Europe before World War I (with Settembrini and Naphta famously fighting over the soul of Hans Castorp, this Sorgenkind des Lebens who has to find his way between the alternatives of liberal humanitarian progressivism and its illiberal authoritarian and reactionary counterpart) but, first and foremost, as a great “hermetic-alchemical” love story about personal transformation through suffering and acceptance. 

The novel is even shaped like a mountain. The first part reaches its culmination exactly halfway, in the “Walpurgisnight” chapter, where Hans experiences his witches’ sabbath on top of the mountain with Clawdia Chauchat. After he has fallen under her spell forever, we move downward (while the flow of time keeps slowing downuntil Chauchat returns in the company of Mynheer Peeperkorn, culminating in the chapter where the three members of this love triangle seal their pact of mutual solidarity. Meanwhile Hans Castorp learns deep lessons about the relation between spirit and body, body and illness, illness and life, life and death, and death and love, culminating in an initiatic death and rebirth experience surrounded by literally deadly mountains of snow and ice. But his adventure of transmutation on the magic mountain, hermetically isolated from the course of history that carries on in the “flatland” below, ends when the alchemical vessel is shattered with a huge blow and Hans finds himself face to face with imminent physical death on the battlefield of the Great War. Only a little bit better prepared, perhaps, than he would otherwise have been.
There are many other great novelsand some of them were written by Thomas Mann too, but there is no other novel like this. It remains a unique phenomenon, and although I feel as though I have understood it more deeply than ever before, it’s very likely that many of its secrets still did not reveal themselves to me this time around. I’m not yet done with this book. Or perhaps the book is not yet done with me.

Volume 6: The Later Stories

Having finally completed his massive political essay Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen in 1918, Mann felt a deep need to escape mentally from the horrors of World War I, from polemics and public attacks, from politics, and from essay-writing as well. He must have been longing for peace and innocence, and so what did he write about now? His dog Bauschan and his newborn baby daughter Elisabeth! These delightful idylls are all about simple life and love, but their author would not be Thomas Mann if they had not also contained some deep reflections on the mystery of suffering, our complicity in causing it, and our helplessness to relieve it. 
Then, in 1930, Mario and the Magician: the rise of Italian fascism captured in a story about a stage hypnotist performing for the summer guests in a beach resort. It is really all about ruthless psychological manipulation and the exploitation of mob cruelty (spoiler: the dictator dies). In the slipstream of Joseph and his Brotherswe read two further exercises in what might be called its central theme, the humanization of myth through literature. One rather gruesome story is placed in India, and is all about the relation between mind and body and between eros and transcendence. The other is a remarkably funny re-telling of the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. 
And then finally, at the end of volume six, I had my very first experience of being just a tiny bit disappointed (dare I say bored?) by Thomas Mann. Thats a rare occurrence. Die Betrogenewas written towards the end of his life, and you can tell that Mann’s powers were waning. In fact the story was a struggle for him to finish, as he admitted that the main characters left even him a bit cold, and the dialogues between mother and daughter were frankly too unrealistic. No matter, even the greatest writer is entitled to his moment of weakness…
Volume 7-8: Joseph and his Brothers

It took a long time before I was ready for this novel. Years ago I started it, but didn’t finish – somehow I got stuck or got lost in the scene where Joseph overhears the conversation between Potiphar’s parents, so I put the book away. For me as for so many other readers, Thomas Mann remained primarily the author of The Magic Mountain and Doktor Faustus. Why write about biblical figures if you can write about the modern world?
But then in the summer of 2018 I took the book with me on vacation through Germany. This time I really allowed myself the time for my mind to adapt to the slow but majestic rhythm of those long and wonderful sentences, beginning with the opening words: Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit. Sollte man ihn nicht unergründlich nennen? (Deep is the Well of the Past. Shouldn’t we call it unfathomable?) – perhaps the ultimate statement of how I experience history and historicity, as a numen, a coincidentia oppositorum of contingency and human meaning. Now I realize that this was Thomas Mann’s perspective too.

About a book like this, one should be either very expansive or very short, so for now I’ll have to stay with the latter. Since that summer of 2018, Joseph und seine Brüder stands lonely at the very top of my list of “best novels ever.” I know nothing like it. As suggested in the introduction to this overview, I see it as Mann’s ultimate story about humanity, die Menschlichkeit – a mythical account of perhaps even greater ultimate concern than his great works about supremely important historical topics such as World War I and the fate of Europe’s soul (Der Zauberberg) and World War II and the suicidal devil’s pact of German culture (Doktor Faustus). This story about Jacob and his beloved Rahel, Joseph and his troublesome brothers, their wives and their families, the archetypal encounter between Israel and Egypt, the One God of Jacob and Akhnaton against the many gods of Egyptian tradition, deep mourning and despair as well as unhoped-for deliverance, exile and return, providential mystery and wild adventure, and so much more – all of this, woven into one incredible complex composition that never loses its coherence, becomes Mann’s ultimate statement about what it means to be human. Hence the painful contrast with the story that came right after, about Andrian Leverkühn and what it means to be inhuman. If Wagner wrote his Ring des Nibelungen in four parts, grounded in German mythology and admired by Hitler, Mann responded with his own four-part tetralogy grounded in the foundational myth of the same people that Hitler sought to destroy. The parallels and contrasts are deep and troubling. Mann admired Wagner and saw music as the deepest language through which the soul could express itself directly; but over against its dark and primal powers stood literature, the medium of the spirit (Geist) with its promise of redemption through the Word (Logos). If any book will ever convince us that such redemption is possible, then this is it.

Volume 9: Lotte in Weimar

It took me quite some time to finish Lotte – or rather, I finished it twice. I will hardly have been the first Thomas Mann reader to experience some trouble getting through this novel, which feels somehow different from all the others and may be less immediately appealing. Have reached the end, I was not satisfied. I did not really know what to make of the novel, but my admiration for Mann was much too great for me to assume that the failure lay with him. So I started again, making good use of the introductions & commentaries in the GKFA. Lo and behold: the novel did begin to open up to me, and now  I am sure that some day I will return to it again. One thing that makes the book difficult to appreciate for contemporary readers is that it responds to a phenomenon which is rather hard for us to imagine today: the pre-World War II "Goethe cult" in Germany and its appropriation by the Nazis, who were trying to claim Goethe for themselves and present him as the supreme semi-divine "Aryan Genius" who represented the superiority of German culture. Thomas Mann (who famously spoke the words "where I am, there is Germany one year before Lotte got published) felt a need to come to terms with Goethe, his main competitor for the position of the most representative literary writer of German culture.

Mann’s respect for Goethe was very great, and his knowledge of his work impressive, but Lotte in Weimar is a deliberate attempt (like the Joseph tetralogy) "den Mythos den Fascistischen Dunkelmännern aus den Händen zu nehmen und ihn ins Humane 'umzufunktionieren'" – to wrest Myth out of the hands of the fascist obscurantists and humanize it. That is exactly what happens in this Goethe novel. Charlotte Kestner is the real-life model of the young woman, also named Lotte, with whom Werther fell in love in Goethe's famous first novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – the archetypal story of unrequited passion that was known to every German school child. She is now over sixty years old and returns to Weimar to visit her family. She hopes to use the opportunity of visiting her one-time admirer, now an old man and an international celebrity of mythical dimensions. Most of the novel consists of very long conversations that all circle imaginatively around The Great Man, who himself does not appear until the seventh chapter, a very long monologue intérieur that gives us the uncensored Goethe from within.” Then in chapter eight, when Charlotte is finally introduced to him, we get to see Goethe from without: the old and stiff celebrity who brilliantly plays his social role but never for a moment leaves room for even a moment of intimacy, to Charlotte's deep disappointment. Only in the final chapter do Charlotte and Goethe get to talk the way she had been hoping – but it happens in a dreamlike vision that straddles the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead. 
Re-reading the novel, it became clear to me that these final two chapters in particular are masterpieces; and again I realized that like all the great novels that Mann has written, Lotte too needs to be read at least twice. The extremely detailed commentaries helped me realize that while this novel may be less appealing for general readers less familiar with Goethe, it is in fact a tour de force in which Mann plays on a whole series of registers, revealing many levels of meaning where at first one seems to see just one. The basic problem of myth versus reality was very well known to Mann himself. The writer creates works of the imagination, and if these are works of genius that have great appeal, then one effect is that the writer himself takes on mythical dimensions that conflict with the much more humbling realities of himself as just another human being. For instance, the chapter that gives us Goethe's inner life – the writer’s workshop behind the surface of the public oeuvre – does a very thorough job of demystification. The Nazis and other readers eager to heroicize Goethe will have been properly horrified to see that the Great Man wakes up with an erection caused by the dream of a mythological painting, and is congratulating himself in his solitude on the fact that at his age he can still do it.” That passage is of course mostly humorous; but reading it in our present moment (as we see too many great artists, along with their entire oeuvre, "canceled" or "de-platformed" for no other reason than the fact that they are flawed human beings like the rest of us) it all adds up to a salutary reminder of our common humanity: no matter how annoying and unsympathetic a person may be in actual life, that doesn't mean he cannot also be an utterly brilliant and profound thinker, speaker, and writer who deserves our admiration for his work. Lotte succeeds in the subtle balancing act of demythologizing Goethe while preserving his greatness – a thoroughly humanistic enterprise that obviously reflects back on how Thomas Mann would like to see himself as well. Our inner world may not be politically correct, but it is the honest truth, and it is ours. By contrast, the pleasant and acceptable person we like to present to the world may be just a lie and a deception through which we sell ourselves to others. If one puts it like this, one sees how deeply this pattern runs through the whole of Mann’s oeuvre, from Thomas Buddenbrook through Goethe all the way to Felix Krull.

Volume 10: Doctor Faustus

Again, one reading proved not enough. So I started right over again, this time paying close attention to the extremely detailed commentaries in the GKFA – including an appendix with all the poems that are put to music in the novel, and which proved extremely illuminating to understand whats going on behind its surface. I think this was the fourth time in my life I read Doktor Faustus, and only this time do I think I was able to really connect to the strange character of Adrian Leverkühn, the German composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural demonic inspiration. Again, the book leaves me utterly stunned about the depth and complexity of Thomas Mann’s thinking and writing. It plays simultaneously on more registers of significance than I can keep track of. 

From the movie Mefisto, based on Klauss Mann's novel
Having fled from the Nazis to America, Mann famously said “where I am, there is Germany,” and basic to this novel is the parallellism between German culture as a whole, Leverkühn as its fictional representative, and Mann himself as the real-life double of both. I know of no comparable case of a writer practicing such deep and honest introspection with respect to his very own sources of creative inspiration, under the pressure of having to compare them to something as frightening and demonic as the Nazi horrors. Only against this background is it possible to really understand Mann’s development from his initial political conservatism (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen) to his eventual embrace of liberal humanism and democracy. This gradual process of transformation led from intellectual aestheticism and cultural elitism towards an ever deeper concentration on the values of common humanity, die Menschlichkeit – a concern that had moved towards the  foreground in Der Zauberberg and culminated in his great four-volume series Joseph and his Brothers. Very significantly, it was not in the German but in the Jewish context that Mann found his most potent models of humanity; but it is only in Doktor Faustus that one feels the full extent of the emotional pain, violent conflict and deep mourning that was involved for Mann in having to face up to and analyze the pathological potential of the German culture that he himself embodied and loved. In this sense, this novel may be the most impressive example of literary psychoanalysis (in the original sense of soul-searching) that I have ever come across.

Volume 11: The Holy Sinner

Having emerged from the deep darkness of Doctor Faustus, I  wasted no time and continued right away with Der Erwählte (The Elected, but known in English as The Holy Sinner). I had never read it before. This small novel is based upon the medieval legend of the great pope St. Gregory as originally told by Hartmann von Aue. Thomas Mann already included a short version of it in Doktor Faustus too, where the composer Adrian Leverkühn puts it to music, but clearly Mann felt that the story deserved more.
Again, what a delight!
 As already indicated, Doktor Faustus is a dark, indeed very dark and heavy novel, a tragic and deeply pessimistic work of mourning (Trauerarbeit) over the catastrophic decline of German culture under Hitler. Now that he had put that task behind him, and World War II was mercifully over at last, it is clear that Mann needed some emotional relief. On every page of this book, you can feel the sheer joy of finally being able again to just tell a story – for the fun of it, without all that heavy sense of responsibility about writing the novel about German’s pact with the devil while knowing all too well that you are yourself Germany’s greatest living writer.

And what an amazing story it is... A royal couple have twins: a brother and a sister. The twins fall in love (or rather, are in love since they are born) and commit incest, resulting in her giving birth to a baby boy, who like Moses is put in a little boat and sent out into the sea, to prevent a scandal. The baby reaches an isolated island and is saved; and having grown up, he sets out to find his parents. Coming to the city where his mother still reigns as queen (his father has died on a crusade to do penance for his sins), but not knowing who she is, he miraculously saves the city from its enemies and ends up marrying the queen, his own mother, who gives birth to two daughters. Incest number two. When they finally discover who they are, they see no other way to escape eternal damnation than through the gravest penance. The son/husband spends seventeen years on a lonely rock in the sea, surviving on some kind of earthly “mother’s milk” that miraculously comes from the rock. Finally he is saved because two Roman gentlemen have divine dreams that tell them that the person elected by God to be the new pope will be found there on that rock. And so it happens. He ends up becoming a “very great pope,” is re-united with his mother-wife and his daughters too, and they all live happily ever after.
I guess it’s a no-brainer that only a very great writer can re-tell such a wildly improbable story full of “naive” medieval piety (not to mention the incestuous and oedipal theme) and make it all work. You guessed it – Thomas Mann proves more than up to the challenge. This novel contains perhaps some of the very best written prose I have ever read, by anyone anywhere, including even in Mann’s own oeuvre – sparkling, sovereign, with incredible rhythmic flexibility, light and yet serious, poised perfectly between irony, satire and tragedy, so that the reader is willing to believe anything he is being told, no matter how weird it gets. So that’s what a genius writer does when the hard work is finally over and he is looking to have some fun.

Volume 12: Felix Krull

I had not read this one before, and it was a surprise in several ways. As the editor explains, the Krull project is the only one that spans the entirety of Thomas Mann’s career: he started it in his early years, then kept dropping it for other projects and kept returning to it, with increasing hesitation as time went on, until finally he just barely managed to finish its third book shortly before his death. Krull remains unfinished and ends with a surprising cliffhanger. 
One effect of the very long writing period is that the three published books document the development of Thomas Mann’s writing skills like no other. Parts of it are simply well written without being extraordinary; but then again and again, quite suddenly from one moment to the next, the writing moves to an entirely different register with such absolutely luminous prose and such profound levels of observation and reflection that one knows this must have been written in Mann’s final and most mature period. For me personally, the chapters about the actor Müller-Rosé and the circus trapeze artist “Andromache” remain unforgettable highlights (again, about the conflict between the public persona and one’s own real self), but there are many other gems. I think for instance of Krull’s simulation of sickness to stay out of school; his simulation of epilepsy to stay out of military service; his seduction by a wealthy woman in the hotel, who gets excited by the idea of him stealing valuables from her room (the most erotic scene Thomas Mann ever wrote, which actually caused some reviewers to call it “not suitable for minors”!); and his nearly successful seduction of Zouzou by means of a beautiful long discourse about the true nature of love

This latter passage is profoundly ambiguous, because by now the reader knows that Krull does not understand what love is. Yet he can still talk about it so well that as readers we are more than happy to believe everything he saysFor seasoned Thomas Mann readers, most fascinating about the Krull project must be how he analyzes the hidden connections between the artist and the imposter (Hochstapler) or confidence man. Mann says that the artist, by necessity, is playing a role, and must play it to such perfection that the audience will never notice the effort. What the audience loves about the artist is the brilliance of the act, the perfection of the deception – not the actual truth of the person behind the screen, the one who is doing the acting but whose true nature must remain hidden from view. The audience does not love the artist, only his art. The public honour and recognition that the artist earns through his work is the flip side of his solitude: nobody knows who he really is, and frankly, nobody cares. 
Krull is the natural born pretender, and at the core of his identity there is a void – his public roles are really all there is, and that seems to be just fine with him. At the core of Thomas Mann’s identity and at the heart of his oeuvre, by contrast, there is not a void but a deep loneliness: a profound human need to express himself to his readers – to tell them who he really, really is – but with the acute awareness that he will never be able to express that truth except by continuing to hide behind one mask after the other. Again, they do not want the truth, they want the illusion. And they are right too, for the truth may be deeply human but isn’t beautiful. Still, paradoxically, the undeniable and even deeper beauty of Thomas Mann’s oeuvre comes precisely from this human core at the very center, one that can only be revealed and expressed by virtue of being hidden and suppressed.

And now I will continue my exploration of the GKFA with Thomas Mann’s non-fiction, beginning with Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen. Stay tuned…


  1. Very interesting post on one of my favourite writers. It is interesting that the Swedish Academy named Buddenbrooks by name in their motivation for awarding Mann the Nobel Prize. They had waited for the realise of the Magic Mountain but some of the committee members were disappointed with it and argued that Mann was no longer worthy of the prize, so they settled on giving it to him but to single out Buddenbrooks as his major work. This was actually a disappointment to Mann who considered the Magic Mountain his magnum opus, so the Prize was bitter sweet to him.
    Maybe I can interest you in my thoughts on Death in Venice?


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