THOMAS MANN: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911 by Richard Winston
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THOMAS MANN: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911

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Nigel Hamilton's The Brothers Mann (1979), though satisfying on its own terms, made clear the genuine need for a major critical biography of Thomas Mann. And, indeed, Richard Winston--editor/translator (with wife Clara) of Mann's letters and author of a fine Becket biography--began work on such a study almost 20 years ago. Tragically, however, Winston died last December, having completed what seems (judging from his close-textual approach) less than a third of the book. So this, then, is a painfully good treatment of Mann's early years, filled with references to the unwritten chapters ahead--especially to Doctor Faustus, in which Winston apparently would have found all the themes of the life converging. Throughout, in fact, Winston's greatest strength is his totally assured analysis of the extensive autobiographical elements in all of Mann's fiction--from early, little-known stories to fame-winning Buddenbrooks to Death in Venice (with a shrewd consideration, though seemingly half-completed, of Mann's own partially homoerotic nature.) The ""brother problem""--with older, more prolific, more hot-blooded Heinrich--is far more subtly investigated (in the texts as well as events) than in the Hamilton book, with special, convincing emphasis on Thomas' apparent guilt over his envious feelings. And the treatment is unusually astute, too, when weighing influences on the young Thomas, seen here as a far more vulnerable sort than is usual: Winston cannily refuses always to take Mann's own later statements as gospel; he reevaluates the well-known influences (Wagner, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer), along with rather less familiar ones (Ibsen, contemporary popular novelists); and he persuasively blends the literary and the psychological in arguing that Rend Hauperin (by the Goncourt brothers) was a stronger influence on Buddenbrooks than is generally thought. Also fully explored: the brothers' contributions to a reactionary magazine (""both sacrificed principle for publication""); Thomas' knotty problems as a self-professed ""philo-Semite"" alternately accused of being Jewish and being anti-Semitic; the largely neglected novel Royal Highness; apocryphal stories which should be expunged from Manniana; the courtship of Katia; and a disastrous army stint. (""The priceless scene of Felix Krull's simulating 'epileptoid' symptoms possibly goes back to the reveries of an unhappy One Year Volunteer as he sat cleaning his rifle in barracks while whistling a melody from Tristan."") Winston's admirable technique in this biography was cumulative rather than thematic, with thoughtful consideration of each incident and work as it appears, but without overtly announced theses or conclusions. The result, unfortunately, is that this abruptly ended 300-page section seems especially fragmentary; despite the publisher's neat subtitle, the effect is not of a self-contained first installment but of a complex conversation cut off in mid-thought. Still, if sad and frustrating, the work here is hugely valuable as it stands--for its vast, impeccable research as well as its blend of authoritative scholarship and human insight; and one can only hope that perhaps some equally wise and graceful biographer will either pick up where Winston left off or at least follow, inspired, in his footsteps.

Pub Date: Dec. 10th, 1981
Publisher: Knopf