Thomas Mann’s Sexual Politics Revisited

“Out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around—will love someday rise up out of this, too?”

– Thomas Mann

Two cheers for Thomas Mann, the world-famous German-born author who poured thousands of words into magnificent works of fiction like Death in Venice, BuddenbrooksThe Magic MountainDoctor Faustus and Joseph and His Brothers. And two cheers for Mann who stood up to Hitler and Joe McCarthy. “If ever Fascism should come to America, it will come in the name of ‘freedom,” he exclaimed in the early 1950s when he was in exile in the US.

Mann is back in the news now because of his fascinating connections and disconnections to Germany and the US, as well as his books, including Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, originally published during World War I and republished by the New York Review in 2021. Mann must have meant the title to be ironic. Politics was in his bloodt. Now, also there’s a new novel about Mann titled The Magician, by Colm Tóibín, a professor at Columbia and the author of a novel titled The Master about Henry James.

The bourgeois, anti-fascist Thomas Mann is worth reading or rereading today. His books will likely distract you, entertain you and make you more conscious of the human condition.

Fortunately for biographers and novelists, He had a more colorful and dramatic life than James, though Tóibín focuses on the private life of Thomas Mann who aimed in The Magic Mountain to do the impossible: write a novel that would serve as a farewell to the novel as a genre that had thrived in Germany ever since Goethe’s epistolary work of fiction, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Napoleon hailed it as a great work of art; a generation of men aimed to be like Goethe’s hero.

Mann would have made Napoleon pay attention. After all, in 1933 with Fascism on the rise, he departed forever from Germany, where he was born in 1875. He went into exile, first in Switzerland and then in the US, where he lived from ’39, until ‘52, in the midst of the investigating committees. Mann stayed ahead of the curve.

Hell, he created it. As the British novelist A. S. Byatt writes in her Introduction to the Everyman edition of The Magic Mountain, translated brilliantly by John E. Woods Mann’s novel “is one of those works that changed the shape and the possibilities of European literature…a masterwork unlike any other.” It did. But so did Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Kafka’s The Trialpublished in 1925.

During World War II, he delivered anti-Nazi talks via the BBC. He died in Switzerland in 1955, having refused to return to Germany, though he was perhaps the most Germanic of all the living German writers in the 20th century. True, Bertolt Brecht in theater and poetry and Alfred Döblin in fiction provided Mann with competition for the reading public and for literary awards. But no German writer understood the German bourgeoisie better than Mann, and no one wrote as beautifully about the bourgeoisie as he. Mann won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, largely on the back of The Magic Mountain, which he began before WWI and finished after World War I. A coming-of-war and a coming-of-age novel, it totals nearly 1,000 pages.

Döblin’s masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz, which did for the working and criminal classes what Mann did for the bourgeoisie (and the military) was published in 1929. Döblin never received the Nobel Prize, though Berlin Alexanderplatz has been adapted for film three times, most notably by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in a 14-part miniseries made for German TV. Still, Döblin is far less known in Germany, England and the US than Mann, who has become an icon of the European intellectual and the repressed artist whose repressed personality fueled his work.

Colm Tóibín’s new novel, The Magician, has already added to Mann’s mystique, reputation and fame, in part because Tóibín explores the writer’s personal, domestic and sex life. Married to Katia Pringsheim, the mother of his six children who had grown up in Germany in a Jewish, bourgeois family, Mann thought a lot about having sex with men younger than he. So his diaries and letters indicate. Whether he actually had sex with other men isn’t clear, though it seems iffy. Tóibín who is gay and out of the closet, omits explicit descriptions of the sex act.

In a recent review of The Magician, the critic Adam Kirsch suggests that Tóibín’s “homage” to Mann will bring “new readers to his work.” Unlike them, I’m an old reader of Thomas Mann. I first read The Magic Mountain in 1961 in Lionel Trilling’s comparative literature class at Columbia. I wouldn’t say that Mann was my favorite author that year. We also read Joyce, Kafka and Proust. I bounced from one author to another, my imagination on fire.

After I read Kirsch’s review I turned back to The Magic Mountain. Like most reviewers and critics, who have written about Mann, I have assumed that his books are reliable guides to his inner self. “Mann was a daringly personal novelist,” Kirsch writes. I wanted to see if the novel was as magical as I remembered it from my junior year at Columbia when I was 19 and introduced to what I would call a Eurocentric western literary tradition. Mann looks to the east as an exotic and mysterious place that threatens the wellsprings of western culture.

This time around, I loved the first 200 pages or so of The Magic Mountain. I fell in love with the story, and I loved the depictions of Hans Castorp, the protagonist, and his initial experiences at a sanatorium in Switzerland where he visits a cousin with TB and ends up as a patient. Many of the minor characters that Castorp meets are appealing and Herr Settembrini is a charismatic figure, albeit more fully realized as a representative of a certain European weltanschauung born of the Enlightenment and romanticism than as a rounded fictional character.

Much the same might be said about Naphta, Settembrini’s double, polar opposite and adversary, who represents the authoritarian personality that evolved or rather devolved into totalitarianism. Napht is also Jewish. (Anti-semitism is a topic Mann doesn’t want to address though it briefly rears its ugly head in the pages of The Magic Mountain.)

Naphta and Settembrini are both caricatures of 19th century European intellectuals.The latter wants to win hearts and minds through love and reason, while the former believes in terrorizing the masses and demanding absolute obedience. Over the course of the narrative, Mann is attracted to both of them and their ideas, and also repelled in varying degrees by both of them and their ideas.

After a while they spew nonsense. Maybe that’s Mann’s point. Still, I found myself skimming and turning pages quickly, then feeling guilty about skipping and went back and read every word. Settembrini and Napha are as boring as Madame Chauchat is fascinating and entertaining. A wealthy, married, Russian-born TB patient at the sanatorium—who has “Kirghizh shaped eyes”—Chauchat might serve as a fashion model.

The two intellectuals live in their heads. She is a femme fatal who mostly lives in her beautiful body, even as she’s dying little by little day-by-day. Wagner might have wanted to include her in an opera with mountain gods and goddesses. Mann makes the women characters, led by Chauchat, into foliage and strip-teasers who keep their clothes on most of the time. When Hans finally kisses Chauchat, it’s anticlimactic, and the end of their romantic yet chaste connection, not the start of a sexual relationship.

Madame Chauchat, also known as Frau Chauchat and as Clavdia Chauchat or just Chauchat, is heard before she’s seen in the pages of the novel. Literally a “hot cat,” she purrs, demands to be stroked the right way, and doesn’t fall for Castorp’s professions of love. He is a boy and not a man of the world and unfit for a mature relationship.

When she returns near the end of the novel it’s with her lover, a Dutch multimillionaire and imperialist named Mynheer Pieter Peppercorn, who lives and dies and unlike Naphta and Settembrini doesn’t talk about either. Then she vanishes as mysteriously as she arrives in Hans Castorp’s world. Throughout The Magic Mountain, Chauchat is viewed through the bourgeois male gaze of Hans Castorp, a nobody from a wealthy family, who has no ideas of his own, but who absorbs the ideas of others, and who serves as a link between the avant-garde experimental author who means to reinvent the German novel and his bourgeois readers. Now and then, Mann also speaks directly to the “Dear Reader” as though to vouch for the authenticity of his narrative and to frame it as a slice of contemporary history and the news of the day unavailable in a newspaper.

Unlike Chauchat, who comes and goes, appears, reappears and disappears, Castorp stays in place for the whole seven years that he lives at the sanitorium, leaving only at the end to go to war. So, the novel of manners becomes a war novel. The scenes of WWI are a kind of pacifist outcry against the slaughter of man by man.

The Magic Mountain is also a novel of nature, of mountains, seasons, time and the weather, both external and internal. The chapter “Snow” could stand on its own as a masterful short story. It also marks a pivotal moment in Castorp’s journey from health to sickness and death, from the “flatland” to the mountains and back to the flatland, initiated into the rites and rituals of a dying culture that Mann knew and loved.

The Magic Mountain has moments of brilliance, some of them extended. The writing is exhilarating, and the tone of voice allows for both engagement and detachment from the characters. If there’s a lesson here it’s that analysis is essential in both life and in literature as a safeguard against rash acts, such as going to war, though analysis isn’t enough to prevent war.

As an analytical novelist, Mann loses readers, especially during his intellectual riffs and by refusing to allow Chauchat to tell her story herself and not be viewed through Hans Castor’s innocent and naïve eyes. A “problem child,” as Mann calls him, he doesn’t ever see as far and as wide as the author himself.

Dear Reader, don’t choose between Mann’s work and Tóibín’s novel about him. Read the master himself and then read the author of The Magician, and see if you don’t love The Magic Mountain, which can sound apocalyptic, prescient and now: “And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that infames the rainy evening sky all around—will love someday rise up out of his, too?”

Mann’s question is still worth asking today.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.