A comparison of Thomas Mann’s parents suggests immediately the sense of ambiguity or contrast that marks his works. His father was a rich middle-class merchant, a solid citizen of the patrician bourgeoisie of the North German, Hanseatic trading town of Lübeck; his mother, Julia da Silva-Bruhns, was a fiery, artistic woman with a passion for music, of South American (Brazilian) origin and Creole stock. Of the five children, in addition to Thomas, Heinrich, the oldest, also became a fine writer. Thomas was both proud and mocking of his own staid, honored ancestry: He saw the decadence taking place. When he was nineteen, in 1894, after the death of his father, the Mann enterprise in Lübeck fell apart and the family moved south to Munich. By this time, Mann had given up on the puritanism of middle-class respectability, though he never transgressed too noticeably in the opposite direction. The tension sparked his desire to become a writer—an artist with many reservations about his vocation, like Tonio Kröger—and after entering and exiting various schools, he traveled with Heinrich, winding up in Rome, where he began to work on the novel that brought him fame: Buddenbrooks, a story of the decadence of a bourgeois family. Then with Tristan and Tonio Kröger, he confirmed his reputation, expanding the focus, adumbrated in the later Buddenbrooks, from the sociological to the artistic-musical. Now Mann meditated on the contrast between life and art, between the one’s necessity for involvement and the other’s need for isolation. Like the former one, this new tension resulted in a kind of pervasive irony, aimed in both directions. As an artist in search of beauty, Mann had variously mocked political venality, but “Beim Propheten” (1904; “At the Prophet’s,” 1936) also mocks the artist’s solitude, in this case that of the poet Stefan George and his disciples.
Instinctively, Mann determined that the expansion of tensions necessitated an evolution of literary style, from the basically naturalistic vein of a writer steeped in the novelistic literature of Russia to the more intellectualistic manner of a writer interested both in realistic characterization and in a more directexposition of his own views. Mann mastered the art not only of open, contrastive dialogue between characters but also of “inner” dialogue between character and author. The novella Death in Venice illustrates the new manner in a context of disintegration and solitude. It appeared immediately before the eruption of World War I. In an effort to defy his would-be solitude as an artist, Mann surprised his contemporaries by embracing with passionate patriotism the nationalistic cause of Germany and of Wilhelm II. His essay on Frederick II of Prussia, “Friedrich und die grosse Koalition” (1915; “Frederick and the Great Coalition,” 1929), led to Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, which was immediately attacked by his democratic critics as Germany succumbed. In the totality of Mann’s life, this political stance was an aberration....
(The entire section is 1259 words.)