Magazine article The Spectator

Children of a Genius

Magazine article The Spectator

Children of a Genius

Article excerpt

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Andrea Weiss University of Chicago Press, £14.50, pp. 272, ISBN 9780226886725 £11.60 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The subtitle is 'The Erika and Klaus Mann Story', and the shadow is that cast by their father, Thomas Mann, the greatest German novelist of the 20th century.

Erika and Klaus were the oldest two of his six children, and, while it is fair to say they lived in his shadow, they were not obscured by it, being extraordinary people in their own right, Klaus at least a remarkable writer himself also. Andrea Weiss, an American film-maker as well as writer, an associate professor at the City College of New York, tells their story with enthusiasm, sympathy and insight, in a style mercifully free of the clotted jargon we tend, not always unfairly, to expect from American academics.

There was a year between them in age, Erika the elder, but they were so close to each other that they were often taken for twins and seem indeed to have thought of themselves as such. Enemies -- and they had plenty -- accused them of an incestuous relationship.

This is unlikely. Both were predominantly homosexual, Klaus almost exclusively so. But each was indeed for the other the most important person in the world, until in middle-age Erika transferred her intense devotion to her father.

They enjoyed what is now called a privileged upbringing and also a liberal one, surprisingly liberal perhaps in view of Thomas's reputation for high-minded and self-conscious rectitude. They flourished in the adventurous freedom of the Weimar years, Erika as actress, cabaret artiste, sketch-writer and what have you, Klaus as journalist, dramatist, novelist and occasional actor. Erika was briefly married to the actor Gustaf Grundgens, previously Klaus's lover. Gustaf would later become a star in Nazi Germany, Goering's pet, appointed Director of the State Theatre.

His corruption forms the theme of Klaus's most famous novel, Mephisto, published in 1936 but banned in Germany.

They were early opponents of the Nazis, writing against them, mocking them in cabaret (Erika ran a satirical cabaret called The Peppermill). Klaus, observing Hitler in a Munich hotel, found 'his inferiority truly striking'. They exiled themselves as soon as he came to power, not, Klaus insisted, because of their Jewish blood -- their mother Katia's parents were Jewish, though converted to Lutheranism -- but because they were democrats and liberals.

In exile they continued to write and speak against the Nazis, Klaus editing a literarypolitical magazine. They were deprived of German citizenship. Erika made a marriage of convenience with W. H. Auden to secure a British passport. Klaus was stateless for years.

Andrea Weiss is very critical of Thomas Mann's reluctance to burn his boats.

Though he too lived abroad after the Nazi takeover, he remained loyal to his German publisher and hesitated for three years to make a public denunciation of the regime.

His children were critical too, but Thomas's hesitation is understandable. He had much to lose, not only his property, but a large part of his income if his books were banned in Germany. The whole family, including Erika and Klaus, was financially dependent on him. Eventually he spoke out after Erika, his favourite child, threatened to break off relations with him if he didn't. …

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