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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Mann’s inhumanity to Mann

Anna Katherina Schaffner on a brilliant biography of a literary son unloved by his more celebrated father

Mann’s inhumanity to Mann
Mann’s inhumanity to Mann

“Klaus Mann was six times jinxed. A son of Thomas Mann. A homeless exile. A drug addict. A writer unable to publish in his native tongue. A not-so-gay gay. Someone haunted all his life by a fascination with death.” Thus opens Frederic Spotts’s elegantly written and deeply moving biography of the writer Klaus Mann. These lines set the tone for the exploration of the tragic life of a courageously uncompromising and truly European intellectual, who, born in 1906 and living through the darkest period of European history, was plagued by both political and personal calamities in almost equal measure. Spotts leaves the reader in no doubt that Thomas’s coldly judgemental attitude towards his eldest son was a root cause of many of Klaus’s problems.

In his diary, Klaus complained that his father’s “general lack of interest in human beings is especially strong toward me”. If there was indeed such a lack of interest, it certainly did not prevent the harshest of judgements, for, in his own diary, Thomas pronounced of Klaus: “The boy is morally and intellectually not intact”. In his novella Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925), a thinly disguised family portrait, Thomas describes the character modelled on Klaus as someone who “knows nothing, can do nothing and thinks only how to play the clown and lacks even the talent for that”. There is little if any evidence to suggest that Klaus’s remarkable achievements later in life altered his father’s damning verdict on him.

In many ways, Klaus was Thomas’s opposite: while his father remained a closet homosexual all his life, Klaus bravely embraced his sexuality, and wrote about it in explicit terms in many of his works. As Spotts puts it: “The son suffered from being openly homosexual, the father from not being so”. While Thomas was a great respecter of authority, Klaus had an anarchic streak, defied social conventions, and detested nothing more than moral cowardice and political opportunism. These are the subject of his best-known work, the novel Mephisto, an astute analysis of the psychology of a Nazi collaborator, first published in 1936, in Amsterdam. It almost beggars belief that this momentous “parable of an artist’s political opportunism” was published only forty-five years later in Germany, after a protracted legal battle, purportedly concerning character defamation, the main character in Mephisto having been based on the German actor Gustav Gründgens.

Thomas was a loyal family man, whereas Klaus was prone to one-night stands and tempestuous affairs. Thomas was always careful to consider his own financial and reputational advantages; Klaus lived and breathed politics, sacrificing everything for his beliefs. His many initiatives included the founding, in 1933, of the exile journal Die Sammlung (“The Collection”), which his father publicly repudiated in order to protect his publishing ventures in Nazi Germany, but to which many other literary heavyweights contributed, among them Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Jean Cocteau, Alfred Döblin, Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Spender, as well as Albert Einstein and Leon Trotsky. It was three years after Hitler’s seizure of power before Thomas distanced himself publicly from the Nazi regime – Klaus had been an outspoken anti-Nazi long before 1933. And while Thomas was a careful craftsman, meticulously constructing and polishing each of his novels and short stories, Klaus worked at white heat, his mind “as dazzling as a Catherine wheel, endlessly spewing out colour and fire”.

Although some of his works were greeted with critical derision or even remained unpublished during his lifetime, his output was prolific: Klaus wrote seven novels, half a dozen plays, four biographies, three autobiographies and hundreds of stories, as well as numerous essays, reviews and articles. Before his death from a drug overdose in 1949, at the age of only forty-two, he produced what Spotts rightly describes as a “unique record of the catastrophic first half of the twentieth century, told in both fiction and non-fiction”. Tellingly, on the news of Klaus’s death, Thomas, Katia and Erika Mann, who were in Stockholm at the time for a series of lectures, decided not to interrupt their schedule to attend his funeral. Of his many siblings, only Michael Mann decided to pay his respects.

Misfortune followed Klaus throughout his life. Each of his many love affairs ended badly; fellow writers whom he admired and supported let him down; many of his publishing ventures ended in failure; and after he had served for almost three years in the US Army, which he joined in order to fight Nazism, he was denounced as a Soviet agent and subjected to an inquiry by the FBI. Having turned his back on Germany in 1933, he found that post-war Germany, eager not to be reminded of the horrors of the Third Reich and the moral culpability of its collaborators, shunned the politically uncomfortable émigré.

The one blessing in his life seems to have been his relationship with his formidable sister Erika, the oldest of the six Mann siblings, and a successful actress, journalist and writer in her own right. Together, brother and sister moved to Weimar Berlin and starred in sexually and politically provocative plays, toured America, journeyed across Europe (including to Spainduring the country’s Civil War), and were important figures in the American literary exile community during and after the Second World War. Yet even his beloved sister failed to attend Klaus’s funeral.

Like all the finest biographers, Spotts brings history to life. He enables the reader to grasp the deep anxieties experienced by someone whose political convictions threatened his professional livelihood. He paints a disturbingly vivid picture of the difficulties faced by German émigré writers whose citizenship had been revoked by the Nazis. Above all, he tells the heartbreaking story of a profoundly courageous intellectual who stood up for his beliefs in dark times and paid a high personal prize for his politics. Or, as Klaus himself put it, “the story of a German who wanted to be a European, of a European who wanted to be a citizen of the world”, someone who “spent the best time of his life in a social and spiritual vacuum, striving for a true community but never finding it, disconnected, restless, wandering, haunted by those solemn abstractions in which nobody else believes – civilization, progress, liberty”. If this new biography succeeds, as it should, in bringing Klaus Mann and his work to wider international attention, it will have, in its turn, served those precious values.


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