Art peels the kitsch off of life. –Robert Musil

Thomas Mann’s popularity has been going the way of the Buddenbrooks family business. It is in decline. With many used editions of his books circulating, a drop in consumption would be hard to assess. But there are better indicators. After all, a shrinking readership does not always imply a decrease in stature.

So consider instead what happened this past October, when Die Zeit, Germany’s most prestigious cultural-political weekly, listed fifty authors whose works would constitute an ideal library for young students of German literature. Mann came in a humiliating forty-second. And in an unrestrained act of cruelty, Die Zeit put his older brother and frequent rival, Heinrich, one spot ahead of him. Could Mann’s love of obscure references and epic sweep have prompted such hostile treatment? That seems unlikely. For you will find Friedrich Hölderlin and his recondite Hyperion in twenty-third place, with Hans Henny Jahnn’s huge Wood Ship next in line.

Among the Nobel laureates, Mann finished last. Yet he had the greatest effect on the global imagination. His works have been translated into fifty-one languages. And of all the characters created by all the authors on Die Zeit‘s list, only Goethe’s Werther and Faust and Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Joseph K. are international icons of the same order as Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach and Hans Castorp. Furthermore, Mann himself developed into an international symbol. Through his BBC radio addresses, he quite literally became the voice of German antifascism during World War II. Forty-second place for the writer who, upon fleeing Europe in 1938, arrogantly, defiantly and with some justification, dared to claim, “Wherever I am, Germany is”? Has “the Magician,” as Mann’s children called him, lost his magic touch?

Not if attention from biographers remains a measure of importance. Five major Mann biographies have appeared since 1995. And the astonishing efflorescence of interest does not end there. A big-budget, multi-installment film about Mann’s life aired on German television two years ago. Meanwhile, Mann’s publisher, the S. Fischer press, had just re-released–in an expanded edition–Peter de Mendelssohn’s sprawling, flattering portrait of him, which it had first put out in 1975. Some of these projects are largely commemorative. Not by chance did Heinrich Breloer’s film, a respectful documentary that mixes fictional re-enactments with interviews, have its premiere during an anniversary (Buddenbrooks turned 100 in 2001). But the new biographies have other impetuses and, for the most part, a different coloration.

By stipulating that his diaries should be published twenty years after his death, Mann has helped manage his posthumous career. The diaries often undermine the impression left by Mann’s public persona. And so their staggered availability–the final volume appeared in 1995–guaranteed him decades of lively critical reception. Indeed, when the complete diaries became accessible, the serial biographers went to work, drawing heavily on this “new” source. Donald Prater’s Thomas Mann: A Life; Ronald Hayman’s Thomas Mann: A Biography; and Anthony Heilbut’s Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature all get their main themes from it. Yet if Mann’s diaristic trick kept an audience in their seats, it did not win him the applause he craved. In fact, the diaries seem to have damaged his reputation.

Prater’s detailed book represents Mann as a domestic tyrant who sacrificed family life for art’s sake. (Two of Mann’s sons, Klaus and Michael, committed suicide; the third, Golo, openly disliked him. Mann’s wife once referred to herself as an “appendage” of the artist.) Both Hayman and Heilbut try to debunk the myth that Mann was a proper bourgeois–the myth that Mann’s starched appearance and the tenacity with which he clung to polite forms of address correspond to his innermost being. Citing the diaries, Hayman and Heilbut emphasize the extent of Mann’s repressed homosexuality. They leave us with the sense that unfulfilled “man-to-man” desires, to use Mann’s phrase, tortured and exhausted him, and that Mann bears affinities with his prematurely old, emotionally hapless creations, for example, Aschenbach. While admiring of Mann’s art, Heilbut judges his life harshly, or as harshly as his breezy style allows: “On such occasions he [Mann] may have remembered a youth [i.e., the young Mann] who had foolishly declined to ‘vent his feelings’ and live his life.”

The shift in Mann’s fortunes has been more dramatic in Germany. During the postwar era, three of the most eminent leftist critics writing in German–Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno and Hans Mayer–celebrated the progressive value of Mann’s work, and not because of his opposition to fascism. Rather, they focused on his literature, on how, as a “critical realism,” it engages with social problems, and on the implicit anti-authoritarian politics of Mann’s omni-questioning irony. For a later generation of critics, one less concerned with the ideology of form, Mann’s political statements have carried more weight. And there have been more of them to consider. Some are troubling, for the diaries register a certain ambivalence toward Hitler’s rise and his Jewish victims. Hence, perhaps, Die Zeit‘s unease about recommending Mann to students. Hence also the motivation for a large-scale reckoning with Mann’s politics. This is what Klaus Harpprecht, a former speechwriter for Willy Brandt, delivers in his recent biographical effort. In a little over 2,000 pages, Harpprecht comes to the following conclusion: Mann was laudably active in American exile. He wrote more than 400 journalistic pieces, gave many speeches and served as a cultural adviser to the Roosevelt Administration. But all this came too late. At the really crucial moment, in the early 1930s, Mann said too little. He could have done much more to combat the Nazis, and he should have done much more. We should regard Mann accordingly–as a political failure.

Mann failed himself, Mann failed his family and, ultimately, Mann failed the world: Needless to say, these ideas have not exactly pleased Mann enthusiasts, some of whom have attempted to revise the revisionism. The best of the new Mann biographies, Hermann Kurzke’s Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art, is written in this spirit. A longtime expert on Mann’s work, Kurzke makes no secret of his commitments. He tells us: “To build a staunch structure of art as Thomas Mann does, to be loyal all his life to a single publisher and to a single wife, to sacrifice passion that would go beyond those limits, and to maintain this arrangement with tightly held stubbornness–it is cheap to brand that as suppression.” As you would expect, Kurzke’s indignation leads to problems. He wants to show readers “born later” how complicated Mann’s context was and how complicated his responses to it were. Kurzke accomplishes this, but apologetics occasionally intrude noisily on his sensitive discussions. For example, in trying to solve what he labels “the question of all questions,” or the “riddles” of Mann’s nationalistic behavior during World War I, Kurzke tracks the various pressures that were bearing down on him. And he persuasively argues that rather than sheer blindness or brute opportunism, a matrix of factors, including familial tension–Heinrich was a famous pacifist–and Mann’s troubled sexuality, was responsible for his jingoism and his doubts about the Weimar Republic. Yet Kurzke insists that Mann was merely playing “a role” when he articulated those feelings in Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man.

Similarly, Kurzke follows the twists and turns in Mann’s answer to the “Jewish Question,” while doing several peremptory about-faces along the way. He explains how Mann’s Jewish in-laws could enjoy his story, “The Blood of the Walsungs,” even as it was being condemned as an anti-Semitic parody of them. He also struggles to understand how, on April 20, 1933, Mann could confide to his diary, “the revolt against Jewish things might have my understanding to a certain extent,” and still find the Nazis and their anti-Semitism repellent. But elsewhere Kurzke proclaims, “this cannot be debated–Thomas Mann regarded the Jews highly, more highly than he did the Germans.” “This” can be debated, though. Kurzke himself debates it as well as anyone–until he attempts to read Mann’s anti-Semitism as salutary self-criticism. “As the kernel of Thomas Mann’s supposed anti-Semitism, there resides the fear of the threat to life by the intellect. His polemics are so bitter and unjust because he is fighting against himself, against his own better knowledge, because he is afraid for his own composure, form, and dignity.”

In general, Kurzke’s revisionist drive takes him far away from such defensive overstatements and toward a deep level of psychological understanding. Mann’s critics pursue this goal too, of course. But Kurzke goes much further more creatively. The biographies I have mentioned here vary with respect to tone, style, size, rigor and thematic emphasis. Yet with a single exception, the analytic structure of each one would provide a suitable framework for chronicling the lives of many other authors. Heilbut could examine how Kafka’s sexual discomfort influenced his art. Harpprecht could write a biography that evaluates Goethe’s politics. Only Kurzke’s method works only with Thomas Mann. For Kurzke organizes his book around interpretive openings peculiar to his subject. And only Kurzke gives us penetrating new insights into Mann’s lived experience, into what, for Mann, life was like.

Kurzke adapts form to content in several ways. Most obvious is his mode of storytelling, which approximates Mann’s. Like Mann’s narrators, Kurzke often shifts registers. He analyzes (“the essays about Verlaine, Kleist, Gide, and Platen are a kind of masquerade”); recounts (“at the time of his passion for the waiter Franz Westermeier, Thomas Mann returns to the two earlier [platonic] love affairs”); holds small lectures (“the degree and type of a person’s sexuality extend into his spirituality to the highest degree”); meditates on big questions in literary language (“death, however, is not bad for one who sees the starry sky blinking over every grave”); scolds from the perspective of a scandalized Bürger (“we do not approve of it…. but the elegant, bourgeois Thomas Mann sneaked off surreptitiously to occult séances”); sighs (“here his limits lie”); and praises (“with a real power of decision and strength of will, he will stand tall”). And Kurzke forgoes most scholarly apparatus. Five hundred and eighty pages and footnote-less (in the English version), his narrative resembles a novelistic tome, or the kind of novel that Mann wrote. So Kurzke evokes Mann’s art as he portrays his life. That is not just a nice scenic effect. In Leslie Willson’s daringly faithful translation, Kurzke’s prose has a Mann-like lyrical rhythm and its own aesthetic appeal (“Fascism is what is impure, what is unvirtuous, the babbling foolishness of Baal, irrationality abiding in dark fertility”). But, more important, through his style of interpretation, Kurzke gets his head around Mann’s mind.

How does this process work? Again, Kurzke fits his approach to a very particular set of circumstances. They are as follows: Mann “hid” the homosexuality that dominated his psychic life, Mann’s voluminous diaries and letters alert us to its importance; Mann’s literature, which “appropriates” more than it “invents,” speculates elaborately on his own emotional conflicts. As Kurzke puts it, “The biography of his heart stands spellbound in his writings.” Having steeped himself in Mann’s diaries, letters and the facts of Mann’s personal narrative, Kurzke is able to break the spell and “back-translate.” He creates a kind of analytic circuit, using diary entries and correspondences to read Mann’s art, and then reads his art to illuminate the hidden part of his life. For while the diaries and letters convey the size and intensity of Mann’s eros, they say little about how he experienced the disparities between it and his monogamous heterosexual lifestyle. Nor do they explain the logic of that lifestyle.

Not only is Kurzke’s procedure inventive but he applies it with both subtlety and passion. He never makes too much of superficial resemblances or asserts that Thomas Mann must be talking about himself. In fact, as Kurzke uncovers the historical actors behind many of Mann’s characters, he stresses that Mann’s literary transformations generally have a composite nature. They embody elements of several people, in other words. Mann puts his own works-in-progress on Aschenbach’s C.V. That, however, does not mean Aschenbach is a “Mann figure.” And although just before he wrote Death in Venice, Mann went to the Lido, where he fell for a young tourist, Aschenbach’s Tadzio consists exclusively of symbolic features (e.g., beautiful hair and bad teeth) and no doubt has few qualities in common with his “real” model. Still, for Kurzke, the novella is revealing. In his diaries and letters Mann noted his numerous crushes–both homo- and heterosexual–in ingenuous and even kitschy ways (“pretty people are a joy”). Death in Venice has the therapeutic function of publicly expressing these tendencies. Yet it also levels potent criticisms against them. Aschenbach’s surrender to desire is catastrophic–but not because he has transgressed heterosexual norms. The problem with Aschenbach’s urges is that they are manifestations of a death drive. They delude Aschenbach, who at times thinks that love is revitalizing him, and that he can recapture and enjoy the simplicity of a youthful attraction. Instead, desire leads him away from the things that mattered most to his creator–work and productivity–and into an “abyss” of formlessness.

According to Kurzke, this aspect of Death in Venice too is intimately autobiographical. The ideal of enlightened, long-suffering chastity forms a pervasive motif in Mann’s art and, Kurzke surmises, in his life as well. Characters who cannot live up to it end badly. Witness Hans Castorp’s seven-year drift, much of which he spends infatuated with Clawdia Chauchat, and his violent demise. Or consider the unfortunate protagonist of The Black Swan, a late novella. She is a middle-aged woman in love with a younger man. When she discovers what appears to be menstrual bleeding, she assumes that her amorous feelings have restored her fecundity. But she actually has terminal cervical cancer. Only Joseph, of the “Joseph novels,” passes the test and thrives. If we look closely at Mann’s diaries, letters and behavior, i.e., his decision to marry, we will see that he lived by the same code. He fought to choose renunciation and work over surrender and the abyss. Kurzke picks up on this equivalence and admonishes us to understand Mann’s mental life in the terms of his art. He argues that Mann perceived the world through the lens of his artistic dualisms. Mann feared social stigmatization and kept his homosexuality secret for that reason, shrouding it under a literary “veil.” However, his marriage was not a lie, or the result of conventional mechanisms of repression, as other biographers have claimed. Kurzke reads out of the Joseph novels that Mann reflected on and believed in his way of life; that, for Mann, “chastity becomes the fundamental principle of life and perception. It is not merely the masochistic flight of the frustrated.” In Kurzke’s analyses the differences between Mann and his most famous characters are loaded with biographical significance. Whereas these figures give themselves over to familiar psychological temptations, Mann resists. His work tells us why: Such principled resistance or sublimation makes art on Mann’s scale possible (he wrote about 100,000 pages in sixty years). And it made Mann’s life into art. This–and not Mann’s use of autobiographical material in his literature–is the primary referent of Kurzke’s subtitle, “Life as a Work of Art.” Kurzke’s Mann willfully “erected” a productive life over the emotional and political “abysses” whose pull he knew and described so well.

That point is not entirely new, of course. Michael, Mann’s youngest son, once observed that his father lived his own Bildungsroman. But Kurzke takes the large additional step of showing how this work developed, and how Mann felt living it. In doing so, and by relating many anecdotes that humanize Mann (for example, Mann seems to have taken wry, vicarious pleasure in the homosexual exploits of his two eldest children, Klaus and Erika), Kurzke alters the image of his embattled subject. Mann’s life becomes at once more complex and more understandable–an impressive bit of biographical magic from the Magician’s apprentice.