This recursive, elliptical study of Thomas Mann's life and writings successfully captures the total Mann, albeit with some sacrifice of narrative cohesion.
With terse elegance, Heilbut (whose previous book was a study of 1930s German artistic and intellectual refugees) knots together diverse moments from Mann's long career. Looping from considerations of definitive late novels like Doctor Faustus back into descriptions of Mann's youth, Heilbut traces how the writer's introversion and self-obsession underwrote his telling commentaries on German society. Heilbut notes that Mann's birth was roughly contemporaneous with the political unification of Germany, the legal emancipation of German Jewry, and the popularization of the term "homosexual.'' Detailed critical readings of Mann's private and public works explore the author's psyche while showing how Mann's literary consciousness became a theater for the exploration of the license and limits of German, Jewish, and homosexual self-expression. Heilbut recounts, for example, how the classic novella Death in Venice celebrates homoerotic longing while depicting a national idol dying amid debased tourism. Boldly venturing where other recent Mann biographers--Ronald Hayman and Donald Prater--tread only haltingly, Heilbut cites letters and journal entries in contending that the straitlaced Mann not only acted on his homoerotic impulses, but moreover had tacit understandings with his family about his orientation. Heilbut's path is emphatically not linear; the best recent chronological account remains Hayman's. And in large part because of his book's associative structure, Heilbut fails to capture the force of Mann's activism against Hitler and subsequent exile with the acuity that Prater displays. Nevertheless, Heilbut does convey plenty of relevant intellectual history, connecting Mann to contemporaries like Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, and noting the important influence on his work of writers like Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Whitman.
With its unprecedented picture of Mann's character and accomplishments, Heilbut's biography opens up an important new perspective in Mann studies.