Mann Bio May Spur a New Interpretation

Article excerpt

THOMAS MANN

Eros and Literature

A biography by Anthony Heilbut

618 pages, Knopf, $40

THE LIFE of Thomas Mann exemplifies the paradox of modernism: bent on creating works of social and spiritual consequence, artists of the earlier 20th century were constrained - by the very societies they hoped to reform - to stay at a distance from the core issues of sexuality and the intimate politics of erotic life.

Thus Henry James, creating his greatest works about the same time that Thomas Mann was attracting worldwide attention with "Buddenbrooks," could never bring himself to describe overtly the act of love and created an elaborate rhetoric in which his own sexual inwardness could be sublimated. Thus Mann himself, staid and straitlaced in his public appearance; courted and married a charming woman and fathered six children, the oldest three of whom were, like their father, homosexual.

The conventional wisdom about Mann has been that he struggled to accommodate his personal feelings and his ardent German nationalism to the conventions of the novel as he knew them, injecting his own struggles as an artist into characters like the eponymous Tonio Kroeger and Gustav Aschenbach in "Death in Venice."

To show that this conventional view is incomplete, Anthony Heilbut has written a densely detailed account of the first two-thirds of Mann's life, the years of his greatest successes, leading up to the publication of "The Magic Mountain" in 1924 and his winning the Nobel Prize in 1929. Heilbut's point, apparent in his title, is that Mann's sexual turmoil - the result both of the necessity of hiding his homosexuality and of the very intensity of his sexual appetites - was the most significant force in the shaping of his fiction. …