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.