Jenny Farrell reviews Colm Tóibín's latest novel
There are many books, including biographies, of Thomas Mann as well as about other members of the Mann family. There are far fewer novels about this writer. Now Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has presented us with just this. His novel about the magician, as Mann was known in his family circle, centres on the man, his times, writer, husband, father, brother, and yes, on the hidden fantasies of Thomas Mann.
Tóibín’s book is as substantial as a Mann novel, however, it is easier to read. The author takes his time, exploring in many scenes Mann’s family background, his childhood, his marriage to Katia von Pringsheim, his first great success with Buddenbrooks, the family saga based on his own family.
Tóibín creates the world of Mann very well and does justice to his times. He does nothing to excuse Mann’s inability to see WWI for what it was, and happily writes of brother Heinrich respectfully. Heinrich Mann, Thomas’s elder and very left-wing brother, becomes an interesting character in his own right in the novel, a recognised moral authority. While “Heinrich’s article began by insisting that there was no such thing as victory in a war. There were only casualties, only the dead and injured”, “Thomas got comfort from being part of a movement that included workers as much as businessmen, and people from all parts of Germany.”
In Munich, during the days following WWI, while Germany lived through its ultimately failed revolution of 1918/ 1919, Heinrich was part of the movement, supported and led by socialist and communist writers such as Kurt Eisner, Ernst Toller, and Erich Mühsam, which resulted in the establishment of the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic. Tóibín devotes time to those days of unrest and shows the anti-revolutionary, bourgeois Thomas Mann family’s attitudes during this time.
The establishment of the Munich Soviet Republic had been preceded by the abdication of the Bavarian King and the setting up of the Bavarian free State. This free State was headed as prime minister by the writer Kurt Eisner, who was assassinated after 100 days in office. Heinrich Mann I gave the oration at the memorial ceremony a few weeks after this murder: “It took Thomas a while to accept that there was a new and functioning government in Munich and that it consisted of poets and dreamers and friends of Heinrich’s. He was comforted by the news that no equivalent revolts had happened successfully in other German cities.”
Thomás is told by an emissary of this government: “You were on the list of those to be detained,” he said. “I was in the room when that list was read out. And two of the leaders insisted that your name be removed. One was Erich Mühsam and the other was Ernst Toller. Toller spoke eloquently about your virtues.”
Mühsam and Toller are given considerable importance in Tóibín’s book, especially the horrendous fate of Mühsam, who was viciously tortured and killed in a concentration camp. Thomas Mann is appealed to for his intervention in trying to save Mühsam.
“There is a reason I wanted to see you alone,” Toller said.
He was even more nervous than before. Thomas wondered if he was going to ask for a large amount of money.
“Erich Mühsam is being held by the Nazis. They arrested him after the Reichstag fire. I know he has been tortured. (….) As he sat alone in his study, it struck him that he could stir up interest in Mühsam’s case in the wider world, maybe even in America, but this might make things worse for him.”
During Mann’s exile in the US, he is entreated time and again to try and help save German writers fleeing Nazism. He also comes under pressure from Heinrich and his children Klaus and Erika to take a clear stand against Nazi Germany and to urge the US to join the war. All three are very active in the antifascist struggle.
The question of citizenship understandably dominates the family after leaving Germany. Erika takes fate into her own hands and enters a marriage of convenience with W.H. Auden. She had previously been married to the later Nazi star actor Gustaf Gründgens between 1926 and 1929. And so, Auden and Isherwood meet the Mann family in Princeton. Tóibín seems dismissive of both English writers and also of Virginia Woolf. With regard to Auden, biographers have noted how grateful the Mann family was to him and it would appear that Tóibín may be taking poetic licence. It is also inconsistent with historical fact to suggest that Virginia Woolf was aloof from the British antifascist movement. She supported the Spanish republic during the civil war and was also supportive of the campaign to award the incarcerated Carl von Ossietzky the Nobel Peace Prize.
True to historical fact on the other hand is Tóibín’s description of the FBI watching and questioning the Mann family: “Erika returned, there was a letter waiting for her from the FBI, which wished to interview her, wanting to know the names of anyone in America who had been involved in the anti-fascist movement in Germany before 1933.”
When they visited Thomas, they “made clear then that they were here to find out about Bertolt Brecht and his associates and Thomas realized that he would be in a difficult position no matter what he said. Brecht had certainly been hard to avoid in the circle of German exiles on the west coast, but his contempt for Thomas and his work was also widely known. Although his visitors promised complete confidentiality, he suspected that news of this encounter would leak out. He thought of contacting Brecht before the end of the day to let him know that this meeting had occurred”.
Brecht and Mann had little to do with one another, and consequently, Brecht does not appear in person in this novel.
U.S. secret services continue to follow Mann and intervene when he visits Germany after the war: “My mission,” Bird said, “is simple. I represent the U.S. government and I am here to tell you that we do not wish you to travel to the Eastern Zone. (…) “We don’t want you to go,” Bird continued. “If you do go, you will find America a cold place on your return.”
Mann defies this threat and goes to Weimar. This spells the end of his acceptance in the U.S:
“When Thomas was named as a Communist by a hotel in Beverly Hills that did not want to host an event at which he might speak, he could not blame Heinrich or Klaus for tarnishing his reputation as an imperturbable man of reason. Nor could he blame Brecht, who was living in East Berlin.”
He and Katia move to Switzerland, where they lived until their respective deaths, never returning to Germany to live.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.