Australian Arts

Thomas Mann

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

And so Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is Melbourne’s musical-in- waiting. The show that can only go on when we’re 80 per cent vaccinated. This absence of entertainment in a theatre or a cinema is, of course, an opportunity to read, or read again, Proust or Dickens or the Lord knows what. You can savour the Bach cantatas or ponder the mystery of Bob Dylan. You can teach yourself Ancient Greek or Chinese or classical Arabic. What you can’t do is have a normal life interacting with your friends in a pub or around a dinner table. Nor can you have that ancient, always taken for granted experience of being part of an audience as a live show gets going or the film starts to roll though you can read.

And if you want to read through one of the great modern literary masters, you might try the great German novelist, Thomas Mann, who is the subject of a massive new biographical novel by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín.

The Magician is alive, in its flickering way, to the current of homoerotic feeling in the author of Death in Venice which has preoccupied some people. But it’s a pity that you get so little sense of Mann’s voice which is so vivid in his letters and diaries. Mann’s is an extraordinary oeuvre. For someone who never wrote the same kind of book twice he’s a marvellous page turner of a modernist.

He starts out with the long brilliant, utterly credible, saga of Buddenbrooks, a novel anyone who likes the great 19th century novelists can delight in. Then in The Magic Mountain – his signature piece, his Hamlet work, where the artistic mirror is only a breath away – we are in the heart of a Swiss sanitarium where TB treatments are like emblems of the malaise of the world. But we feel an absolute sympathy for the golden boy hero Hans Castorp as he prepares himself for a new world. That world will encompass the Great War but the tone of the book has extraordinary warmth.

Death in Venice is intimately known to the world not least because of Visconti’s empathic interpretation of it which is like the absolute translation of a book into another medium. And Dirk Bogarde gives one of the greatest performances in the history of modern cinema and Mahler’s music – his Fifth Symphony – becomes a marvellous equivalent to the rhapsodic periods of Mann’s prose.

His parodistic glamour and echoic opulence is at a zenith with the Joseph and his Brothers tetralogy started in Germany but completed in Roosevelt’s America where Mann sought refuge with his very secular Jewish wife Katia (who is one of the more successful portraits in The Magician). Joseph is like a 1,500- page novel written in the style of the King James Bible but incorporating a world of anthropological and biblical erudition – a contemporary knowing perspective on one of the most humane and poignant of the later Genesis stories. It has a fabulous golden quality of romance and high and mighty shadows of the power and glory of late Shakespeare: the comparison is in fact not over the top.

In minor key – and with a medieval slant – The Holy Sinner has a similar stylistic lushness, the quality Thomas Mann’s antagonists see as overripe because it is so confidently succulent. But, as with fine food and wine, that edge of being almost off is one of the beauties of the late Mann. Tóibín presents the extraordinary cast of characters when the Manns are in Pacific Palisades, California but not the eloquent   friction of their interplay. One of the great Germans in exile ––and they included Bertolt Brecht whose Galileo was performed in Hollywood with Charles Laughton in the title role – was Schoenberg who developed the twelve-tone scale.

And it’s Schoenberg the author of that anti-grand opera Moses und Aron who feeds into Doctor Faustus in which Mann presents a great composer of striking modernist dislocations who forms his own pact with darkness and devilment as the title suggests. If you read Doctor Faustus – and everyone should sooner or later – read it (and indeed, all of Mann) in the original Helen Lowe-Porter translations. In the case of Doctor Faustus she’s inward not just with the general Renaissance resonance we associate with the high reformation style of the King James but with its prefiguration in Tyndale the greatest and most innovative of the Bible translators and Faustus has an extraordinary gloom and an even greater quality of nightmare, then heartbreak, as if the horror of what Germany became could be contained in a fable.

Later, or alongside it, Mann writes Lotte in Weimar about the greatest of German writers, Goethe, in love. And then, right at the end, he returns to a story he had started a lifetime before about a trickster who was also the deepest kind of charmer and produces Confessions of Felix Krull – a champagne novel of absolute charm and comic sparkle.

David Malouf is devoted to Thomas Mann and he is certainly the most variegated, the least far out, of the great moderns. Colm Tóibín, a man of great charm, who wrote some kind of masterpiece himself with The Heather Blazing, was apparently seriously sick when he was writing The Magician and perhaps that’s why the literary glamour of Mann’s world – the everyday magic – doesn’t come through. It’s interesting that the most vivid figure in the book – where his brother Heinrich and his children Klaus and Erika, geniuses in their own right – should be the wife because the logic of The Magician is in fact to skip the literature in favour of the aggregation of family turmoils.

There is a wonderful film about the Mann family with Armin Mueller-Stahl as the magical climber of literary summits which is part drama and part doco and gives plenty of emphasis to the children Klaus (so brilliant and so up against it) and Erika (who improbably married Auden).

You would think the Germans would have dramatised Thomas Mann more. There’s a TV version of Doctor Faustus with Jon Finch, Polanski’s Macbeth, presumably chosen for his dark archangel looks. Maybe the Germans think Mann’s too great to film but Visconti belies this.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments