I have met few people who have read Thomas Mann extensively, and, among those few, fewer still who hold him in as high regard as I do. The problem, therefore, seems to be one mostly of neglect, and only secondarily of poor judgement. My own view is that he ranks with the finest novelists of the twentieth century.
Mann was born in 1875, in Lübeck, and died in 1955, in Zürich. He lived most of his life in Germany, though for a little over a decade, during and after the Second World War, he resided in the United States. (A few years ago, when at Princeton University, I had the joy of visiting his former home and standing in his library, which was quite a thrill. Presumably anyone could do the same: the house is now the home of the university's Catholic chaplaincy.) He had been forced to flee Germany when the Nazis, of whom he had been a forceful critic, came to power. He continued his critique of Hitler's regime from the safety of America, and, in the post-war years, one of his greatest works resulted from a long meditation on the intersection of Nazism with German history and culture. But more on that below.
Mann with Einstein at Princeton, 1938
Mann was something of a prodigy. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, the work principally cited by the committee was Buddenbrooks, which had been published when he was just 26 years old. This book is in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, and traces the slow decline of a family over the course of several generations. It was an assured and impressive debut, but, if memory serves (for I have read it only once), it only hinted at those qualities which were to distinguish Mann's writing as he matured: his long, delicate sentences, with their networks of balanced and counter-balanced clauses (a reasonable English-language comparison would be with Henry James); the poise and precision of his language, which always gives the reader the sense of being in the company of a man who is thinking, and thinking carefully; his talent for adopting a distinctive narrative voice that lingers in the imagination long after the details of the plot have drifted away; an interest in matters of culture, history, religion, and philosophy; and, perhaps most distinctively, an ability to write stories which, while not exactly allegorical, resonate with multiple levels of meaning, and are therefore richer and more rewarding than a bald description would suggest.
In my opinion Mann's two masterpieces are The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. The former is a sprawling tale about a young man, Hans Castorp, who, suffering from some ill-defined disorder, "takes the cure" in a mountaintop sanitorium for an extended period — so extended, in fact, that the reader begins to suspect not only that he is not recovering, but that the doctors who treat him do not intend his recovery. Castorp is naive, and during his stay he falls under the influence of a number of older intellectuals who introduce him to the contested battlefield of ideas raging over European culture, morality, and history. If that makes it sound didactic, I have failed; it is, I suppose, one of those dreaded "novels of ideas" — a meditation on fin-de-siècle European society, for which the sanitorium itself becomes a proxy — but so beautifully written that it dazzles rather than discourages the reader. And persevere to the end: the last chapter is staggeringly great.
Even better (for I would count it among my favourite novels) is Doctor Faustus, a modernized and novelized telling of the famous legend. In Mann's version, the Faust character is a composer named Adrian Leverkühn (modelled rather obviously on Arnold Schoenberg) who makes a diabolical wager in exchange for a lifetime of artistic brilliance and acclaim. Sticking to the conventions of the realistic novel, Mann's tale can be read as confined safely within an immanent frame — there is no Devil in the waiting room such as visited Ivan Karamazov — but the realm of portent and mystery hovers over Adrian all the same. And, by ingenious use of a framing device, the story of Adrian's life becomes a mirror in which to examine Germany's ill-fated encounter with National Socialism, a deal with the Devil if ever there was one. It's a wonderfully rich book, especially recommended to music lovers, for it contains some of the finest writing about music that you're likely to find.
For the readers of this blog, I would also recommend two other books. Joseph and his Brothers is Mann's longest book — a tetralogy, really — which runs to about 1200 pages in my edition. The story is that of the Biblical Joseph, and I know of no greater novelistic realization of a Biblical story than this one. It is told rather straightforwardly, with evident respect for the subject matter — though, as is often the case with Mann, the reader cannot perhaps entirely shake the worry that there is an understated irony sunk several fathoms deep. The narrative immerses the reader in the historical period, teasing out the religious mindset of the time in an effort to better understand and appreciate the origins of monotheism. Mann himself apparently considered it his greatest work, and the judgement is a defensible one. I am due for a re-read. And the other book is The Holy Sinner. Though it is generally thought to a fairly minor work — certainly it is much shorter than any of the books I have mentioned thus far! — it has an appeal all its own. The story is a re-working of a medieval legend about the early life of Pope Gregory (which one, I am not sure). It is a tale of magic, with elements familiar from medieval romances, and makes no effort, so far as I recall, to transpose the legend into realist terms. The tale is one that had fascinated Mann for years. (In Doctor Faustus Adrian Leverkühn had actually composed an oratorio telling the same story.) I remember that I greatly enjoyed it when I first read it; again, I am due for a re-read.
Mann is also admired for his short stories, especially "Death in Venice". His collected short stories fill a hefty single volume, and there are some jewels in it. I would particularly recommend two of them: "Tonio Kröger" is, in my opinion, his best short story, exploring some of the same themes as "Death in Venice" (especially the contest of Apollo and Dionysius in life and art), but doing it more winsomely and without the unsavoury elements. And I am also very fond of "A Man and his Dog", which is about ... a man and his dog. Dog-lovers will, I predict, get a kick out of Mann's unnervingly precise descriptions of dog antics; cat-lovers will probably hate it.
I should say that I have read Mann only in translation. He has had two principal translators into English. H.T. Lowe-Porter translated the books as they were being published and came to be closely identified with Mann in the English-speaking world; her versions were known to him and I believe he thought them satisfactory. In the last few decades John E. Woods has been producing fresh translations; he has completed most of the books I have recommended here (the exceptions being The Holy Sinner and the short stories). For purposes of comparison, here is Lowe-Porter's version of the first paragraph of The Magic Mountain:
The story of Hans Castorp, which we would here set forth, not on his own account, for in him the reader will make acquaintance with a simple-minded though pleasing young man, but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us highly worth telling — though it must needs be borne in mind, in Hans Castorp's behalf, that it is his story, and not every story happens to everybody — this story, we say, belongs to the long ago; is already, so to speak, covered with historic mould.
Catch that? (One wit credited Lowe-Porter with having translated Mann into German.) Here is Woods with the same passage:
The story of Hans Castorp that we intend to tell here not for his own sake (for the reader will come to know him as a perfectly ordinary, if engaging young man), but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us to be very much worth the telling (although in Hans Castorp's favor it should be noted that it is his story, and that not every story happens to everybody) is a story that took place long ago and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history.
My own preference, not just in this case but in general, is for Woods' translations.
I wish that I knew more about Thomas Mann, the person, but I don't. I believe that he was a rather sad man — if I remember rightly, at least a few members of his family committed suicide — and his intellectual influences, which would include Nietzsche, Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Freud, are not exactly a band of merry men, but from his books I have learned that he was a man committed to serious moral reflection who used the resources of modernist literature to probe the spiritual and intellectual malaise of our times. In that sense, he can be appreciated as something like a secular counterpart to T.S. Eliot. There was nothing of the ideologue in him, and he was a great artist.
In conclusion, Thomas Mann was a wonderful novelist.
—Craig Burrell is not a wonderful novelist, nor any sort of novelist, but if he were he would try to be like Thomas Mann. He blogs (in a manner of speaking) at All Manner of Thing, and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives in Canada.