After his death in 1955, Thomas Mann, while respected as one of the century’s foremost prose artists, seemed fated to be the kind of author who is taught in university seminars but largely unread by the cultivated public. His austerely formal manner seemed pompous and arrogant, and the stilted translations into English by H. T. Lowe-Porter served him poorly. In the 1990’s, however, interest in Mann has greatly revived, due partly to more fluent English renditions but also thanks to the publication, since 1979, of his diaries covering twenty-five years of his life (he had destroyed the others). They demythologize the Jehovah-like patriarch and reveal him as an often tortured soul plagued by usually unconsummated but lifelong homosexual longings.
Professor Anthony Heilbut interprets virtually all of Mann’s writings as stemming from his infatuation with males, an inclination which Mann masterfully concealed by presenting himself as a comfort-loving married man with six children—three of whom lived out their father’s desires by being homosexual. In 1911, Heilbut states, Mann almost emerged from his closet but instead wrote his finest novella, DEATH IN VENICE, virtually every detail of which was based on experiences he had had, with his protagonist Aschenbach’s voyeuristic pursuit of a beautiful Polish lad matching Mann’s adoration, from a distance, of a beautiful Polish boy.
Heilbut describes Mann’s attraction to two Lubeck schoolmates, Armin Martens and Willri Timpe; to the Munich art student Paul Ehrenberg; to seventeen-year-old Klaus Heuser, whom Mann met when he was fifty-two; and to the waiter Franzl Westermeier, with whom he became infatuated at the age of seventy-five. None of these men reciprocated Mann’s feelings; with none of them, possibly excepting Ehrenberg, did Mann have a sexual union. As Heilbut sums up: “There are no happy endings; the pursuit is all.” When he decided to marry the wealthy Katia Pringsheim in 1905, Mann broke off his friendship with Ehrenberg.
Heilbut writes eloquently and perceptively. His biography has value as a study of the moral and emotional problems of a greatly gifted artist. In a work of art, however, the creator rearranges and transforms autobiographical sources so they lose specifically personal meaning. The work has many more dimensions than simply being a copy of the artist’s life.