THOMAS MANN: A Life by Donald Prater


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This elegant but overly cautious study of Mann concentrates on narrating how the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist, caught in the mid-20th century's maelstroms, stepped forward to become a spokesman for enlightened humanism. Prater (A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, not reviewed, etc.) seeks neither to amass a psychological profile nor to recapture the subtleties of Mann's literary skill. Instead, he chronicles his subject's public career as a man of letters, analyzing how historical events altered Mann's trajectory--and how Mann, in turn, sought to shape history. To this end, Prater devotes the bulk of his pages to examining Mann's life after his emigration from Germany in the first years of Hitler's regime. That said, some passages about his earlier life turn brevity to advantage--for instance, in Prater's cogent explanation of the complicated scandal over Mann's story ""The Blood of the Walsungs,"" which featured an anti-Semitic caricature of his wife's family. Prater writes insightfully about issues that concerned the private Mann, such as his homoerotic fantasy life, here usefully placed in historical context. He is also good on Mann's engagement with his fiction, giving a particularly lucid account of the difficult composition of Doctor Faustus. Most importantly, he succeeds at his chief project: tracing how Mann managed his literary celebrity while evolving out of the German nationalist sentiments of his youth toward an internationalist socialism. A thoughtful epilogue recommends that we reassess the significance and accuracy of Mann's political thought in the wake of the historical revelations of 1989, but Prater declines to spice his narrative with such assessment. Prater's solid work on Mann's public life complements the more personal portrait offered in Ronald Hayman's biography (p. 132). True illumination, however, awaits someone who will take these two aspects together and add the missing ingredient: imaginative spark.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1995
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.