Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Talk With Thomas Mann at 80


Travemuende, Germany -- Thomas Mann's eightieth birthday--June 6--might suggest an aged Olympian gazing distantly upon the world from his Lake Zurich retreat. The picture, however, is not entirely accurate. Before meeting this writer, for example, the Nobel prize winner had just delivered speeches on Schiller in Stuttgart and Weimar, negotiated possible film sales of "Buddenbrooks" and "The Magic Mountain" in Goettingen and spoken on the North German radio. Soon after the interview he was to receive Honorary Citizenship of his native city (Luebeck), be the object of a number of official birthday fêtes in Zurich, launch a lecture tour in Holland and, last not least, complete his "Felix Krull,"* which recently appeared (442 pages strong and briskly subtitled "First Volume of the Memoirs") to a volley of German critical huzzahs.

Travemuende, the Baltic Sea resort in which this writer cornered the octogenarian, was supposed to provide a brief lull for the Herr Doktor. (In Germany, where every solvent person with spectacles is presumed to possess a Ph.D., Thomas Mann goes by the title of the Herr Doktor.) His hotel suite, though, could have been the opening-night dressing room of Mary Martin. Flowers, telephone calls, telegrams and she whom even Miss Martin could never boast of, namely Katja Mann. For to interview Herr Doktor means invariably also to interview Frau Doktor, his attractive and most vivacious wife, whose conversational impulses have a wonderful way of advancing, instead of interrupting, a causerie. On this visit she wore a smart (one is almost tempted to say snappy) turquoise velvet jacket with embroidered sleeves. During the talk she directed traffic between a messenger boy, a hotel official, the interviewer and a maid pouring tea.

In the midst of it all, the master. Clad in business gray, hands factually folded, he looked about fifteen years younger than his age and much more (there's no help for the word) bourgeois than even his photographs. In fact, he resembled a Hanseatic grain merchant pondering, in the solitude of his office, wheat futures on the Hamburg bourse. His actual problem, just put to him by the visitor, was a little different.

"I am not sure if I consider any one book my most important," he said in his precise but measuredly cadenced High German. "The longest and, to my mind, richest work is the Joseph tetralogy, but perhaps--" the Mann smile like the Mann phrase often has a decorous ambiguity, regretful and self-ironical at the same time "--perhaps I like 'Joseph' best by way of overcompensation. Because of its size it is the last read of my major works, you know." He turned to light a cigar. "Then of course there is the 'Faustus' which put the heaviest strain on my resources and in that sense is closest to me. And there is 'Tonio Kroeger'; it is the most private and emotionally most autobiographical thing that I have ever done."
"Now wait!" Frau Mann waved an admonitory cookie, "Our friend here is an American. You better say something nice about the 'Mountain.'"
"Yes," Herr Doktor said. "In the United States they consider 'The Magic Mountain' my chef d'oeuvre, possibly because it attempts to be a dialectical summary of European culture. And in German 'Buddenbrooks' is still being praised. Naturally I am grateful to these books. Perhaps--" again that smile "--you shouldn't ask me for a favorite child. I have too many and therefore none."
"He had his first one sixty-one years ago," Mrs. Mann said suddenly. "His first story came out before he was 20." And the cigar smoke "he" blew across the decades prompted the visitor to ask if there were a unifying motive, a thread common to all these many years and works?
"I suppose," he reasoned slowly, "the basic theme on which I've tried to play all my variations is the problem of the artist, the contrast between the excitement of beauty and the demands of life; between, if you will, the ab- or super-normal poetic vision and the normal necessity of catching the eight o'clock bus. My theme is also the paradox that the vision could never live without the opposing necessity since it must be inspired by it."

A brief absorptive silence after which the visitor wondered if the problem of the artist had changed in the sixty years of the Herr Doktor's experience?

He looked out the window at the Baltic Sea. "I would say that the condition of the artist has become more difficult. I don't mean financially, for it has always been that. I am referring to the growth of mass communications which dilute and often drown thought. It has become more difficult to concentrate on a fundamental problem or to dramatize it. Today political agitation and popular entertainment impinge on the young writer from all sides. It is too tempting to tune in and to write for these facile media. All such distractions prevent the artist from facing himself and the humanity in him."
"If he lets himself be distracted," Frau Doktor said.
"I was very lucky," he nodded. "I went through two world wars and was myself the object of much propaganda. But I kept sticking to my work. For instance, I started 'Joseph' under the growing shadow of Hitler. I continued it in European exile. I finished it during the war in America."
"Oh, he acts as if he hadn't participated in the struggle," Frau Mann told the visitor with a fondly reproving head-wag at her husband. "With all the radio speeches he gave over the Voice of America and all the pamphlets!"
"Yes, true," he said, "but I tried to keep outer happenings from my creative work."
"But even in your work you were influenced--not distracted but influenced." She put her hand conspiratorially on his arm, "Tell him the Presidential secret about 'Joseph.'"
"The what?" exclaimed the visitor.
"Oh, it's no secret," Dr. Mann smiled. "My conception of Joseph was Joseph was in part distilled from my personal acquaintance with Franklin Roosevelt. And my view of Joseph's administration in Egypt has some traces of my impression of the New Deal."
"There you are!" beamed Frau Mann.
"Of course 'Joseph' was not meant as a roman à clef, he said, "yet my wife's phrase 'influenced but not distracted' is very right. Under the pressure of events my original preoccupation with the artist acquired a broader base. Without trying to indulge in politics I did draw moral conclusions from political facts and added to them the so far largely esthetic themes of my work."
"Didn't you start consciously with 'Mario'?" Frau Doktor asked.
"Yes, 'Mario and the Magician' brought that to the forefront, and 'The Magic Mountain' and most of all the 'Joseph' series."
And didn't this vein, the visitor ventured, also emerge in the recently published "Krull"?
"Oh yes, and it's the drollest serious book he's ever written," Frau Doktor said. "Did you see those German reviews?"
"After I had published the first 'Krull' fragment," Dr. Mann said hurriedly, perhaps to cut off discussion of praise, "I carried the rest of the book around with me for forty years before sitting down to actually write it."
"Forty years!" the visitor marveled.
"Well, 'Death in Venice' intruded itself and then a number of other projects. So I kept pushing it aside. There was also a difficulty with Krull's style. It is actually a parody that echoes not only comedies of the eighteenth century but also--" he leaned forward with a smiling confidential whisper as if playing a little joke on a colleague, say on a fellow grain merchant in the adjoining office "--but also caricatures occasionally Goethe's confessional style in 'Dichtung und Wahrheit.' I thought at that time that such an idiom was good for scenes or flashes but could not be sustained in novel form. Even more important--" Frau Mann looked at him proudly as his huge, finely tooled sentences rolled out from under the gray mercantile mustache "--I was not ready until now to embody in a completed 'Krull' the duality of subjects the book requires. I had to formulate both the old problem of the artist--for Krull, the mountebank, arranges and modulates his identity much as a painter composes his picture--and my newer social and moral motif, since a mountebank must play on the values and the frictions of the social universe in which he lives."
"And it's a very funny book!" Frau Doktor declared in what turned out to be an excellent non- non-sequitar.
"Yes, that was perhaps my most crucial reason for tackling 'Krull' again," he said. "As I'm getting on in age I've become more and more impatient for opportunities to make people laugh-- to make them laugh constructively, if possible, that is seduce them into amused self-recognition. My greatest joy now during a public reading is the sound of laughter."
"But your difficulty with Krull's style" the visitor reminded him.
"Tja, I managed that by softening the satirical edge of it. I made it into a psychological rather than a mostly literary instrument. That will become especially apparent in the second volume where--."
Suddenly he interrupted himself and looked doubtfully at Frau Mann.
She nudged him. "Oh, go on. Give him a little sneak preview."
"Well, in the second volume I shall put Krull through some matrimonial and penitentiary episodes ("Don't make the two sound so synonymous!" Frau Doktor warned him) and finally into a kind of retirement in London where he writes his memoirs."
Which caused the visitor to inquire how Dr. Mann himself, constantly engulfed in the most active opposite of retirement, managed to write his daily quantum?
"Tja, between nine and one after breakfast every morning when I am in Zurich. I've bought a house there, you know, and in it I have a daughter (Erika), a black poodle and a lot of good cigars. The afternoons are for reading, for my much too mountainous correspondence and for walks." He rose. "We have a Spaziergangsverabredung (an appointment to talk a walk with someone) right now."
Would the Herr Doktor, the visitor asked his last question, ever return to the United States?
"I hope so, at least for a visit" he said. He put on a gray homburg; Frau Mann, a chic scarf. "I spent fifteen of my most stimulating and satisfying years in America. But--" he gave a smiling, wistful shrug "--the older I get the more I feel my European roots. And I must yield to them."
Then the visitor yielded him and his lady to their walk.

*"Confessions of Feliz Krull, Confidence Man" will be published in this country in the fall.

Credits:  A Talk with Thomas Mann at 80 (1955)

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