Though Thomas Mann lived until 1955 and depicted twentieth century horrors in his novels, he belongs in many ways to the nineteenth century. It is not just that he wrote thick volumes such as BUDDENBROOKS, but he embodied the standards, intellectual and moral, of the earlier century. Born in 1875 into a North German merchant family of declining fortunes, he refused to enter the business, but remained so ambivalent about his writing that he associated art with weakness and disease.
His self-doubt derived, too, from an attraction to boys and young men. Hayman believes Mann never acted on this impulse, mastering it with the same discipline applied to perfecting his classical writing style. On paper he undercut control with irony, but in life, formality strait- jacketed him. This suited the famous writer, but not the husband or father, and his Olympian remoteness blighted the lives of his six children.
Already a celebrity by the early 1900’s, Mann spoke out on all the violent events of this century. Though a German patriot during World War I, he became one of Hitler’s most vocal opponents during World War II. A naturalized United States citizen, he settled in Los Angeles till the McCarthy witch-hunts following the war forced him back to Europe. During all the turmoil, he wrote such acclaimed works as THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS, DOCTOR FAUSTUS, and THE CONFESSIONS OF FELIX KRULL.
Unfortunately, Hayman’s biography hardly does justice to this fascinating life. It begins with an impressive sixty-page chronology of major events, but the rest of the book proves to be only a slightly more filled out account. After a chapter on Mann’s sexual repression that shows Hayman capable of insightful commentary, he marches double-time through events and details, pausing only occasionally to add historical background or discuss a particular work. With no real distinction made between minor and major events and little thematic development, this disjointed information never coheres into a compelling portrait of Thomas Mann. Unfortunately, the book probably will not stir a reader’s interest in its subject’s novels, which should be one of the main purposes and joys of a literary biography.