Veteran biographer Hayman (Tennessee Williams, 1994, etc.) painstakingly traces the great German novelist's progress from...


THOMAS MANN: A Biography

Veteran biographer Hayman (Tennessee Williams, 1994, etc.) painstakingly traces the great German novelist's progress from anatomist of fin-de-si≤cle decadence to august personification of his nation's conscience. While maintaining a veneer of bourgeois propriety, Mann (1875--1955) experienced a lifelong, seemingly unconsummated passion for young men about which he wrote freely in diaries kept sealed until several decades after his death. Hayman makes efficient use of these journals to convincingly reinterpret much of Mann's life and work in light of his sexual secret, arguing that Death in Venice, for example (in which an aging writer becomes obsessed with a boy), is fundamentally autobiographical. The biographer's focus, however, is not on Mann's inner life, which he leaves nearly as opaque as he finds it, but rather on his accomplishments as a public figure. Hayman locates the origins of Mann's formal style in the starched severities of the wealthy merchant family into which he was born. Once Mann escaped to become a writer, successes came quickly: first well-regarded stories, then the massive family saga Buddenbrooks, whose runaway popularity vaulted him at a young age into the highest circles of literary celebrity. The author skillfully chronicles the progress of Mann's masterful narratives from genesis to publication and also lays out his political evolution, revealing both his early anti-Semitism and the courage with which he later actively opposed Hitler. Mann's life with his wife and children and his late years in exile in the US are meticulously rendered, and ultimately the drama of his bisexuality seems little more than a footnote to history. But Mann's compartmentalized consciousness cries out for a more trenchant examination; striving nobly not to speculate, Hayman refuses to make the educated guesses biographers can best supply. An important, accomplished work, containing the outlines of a less professional, more passionate look at Mann and his family that, while yet unwritten, might someday provide drama to match the master's.

Pub Date: April 1, 1995


Page Count: 672

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1995