Klaus Mann, most famous as the author of Mephisto, was one of the great idealists of his day. More than his father Thomas Mann, he was prescient in being always on the right side (against Hitler from the 1920s, critical of American anti-communism from the 1940s) and courageous in fighting for his beliefs, as a writer and even as a soldier. He was an astonishingly energetic and prolific writer whose optimistic drive to make things happen was always hampered by a longing for death. He played “again and again with the terrible and sweet idea of suicide”.
Adaptation of the week: Istvan Szabo's Mephisto (1981)
In this new biography, Frederic Spotts is astute about Klaus’s historical importance and sensitive to his strange mixture of confidence and diffidence. He is less perceptive when it comes to Klaus’s “Magician Dad”. In Spotts’s account, Thomas “despised, tormented and humiliated” his son throughout his life and remained unmoved by his death.
When grief-stricken, it’s hardly immoral to spend your evening listening to sad and beautiful music
There isn’t much room in this narrative for ambivalence, which seems absurd given that Thomas Mann turned ambivalence into his great, tragic theme. He knew full well that he had cut himself off from ordinary emotion in his life in order to experience it through his art and he knew the costs of this. He was pained by his relationship with his eldest son and touchingly proud of his achievements as a soldier, even if he could rarely easily admire his writing.
Spotts describes Thomas and Katia Mann attending a performance of Der Rosenkavalier days after Klaus’s death and warmly greeting an old friend. He suggests this is evidence that Thomas was an “unforgiving, uncomprehending, hate-filled father”. Isn’t it possible, though, that his grief was too raw to be expressed in public? That after a lifetime of protecting his feelings from public scrutiny, he was able to do it even now? And when grief-stricken, it’s hardly immoral to spend your evening listening to sad and beautiful music, while remembering the sad and beautiful child you have lost.
There have been several books on Klaus Mann before, notably Andrea Weiss’s insightful joint portrait of Klaus and his sister, Erika, In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain. Spotts does bring new material to his volume, but most of it is detail to be appreciated only by Mann obsessives. His most significant claim to originality is in his interpretation of Klaus’s death.
Klaus Mann was found unconscious in his hotel room in Cannes in May 1949 and died in hospital a few hours later. According to Spotts: “Biographical orthodoxy has it that he deliberately killed himself. Biographic orthodoxy errs.” Though Spotts admits that Klaus was longing for death on a daily basis (“I do not wish to survive this year,” he had written in his diary in January), he correctly points out that this doesn’t mean we can see the final overdose that killed him as an intended suicide. He had taken so many drugs for so long that they may cumulatively have killed him, without this being an actual suicide attempt.
This is an important biographical intervention. On the basis of Spotts’s evidence, I’m persuaded not that Klaus didn’t do it, but that we can’t know for certain either way. I’m not sure that in the end this enormously matters, given that Klaus definitely knew that he was killing himself slowly with drugs and that he was open in wishing for death. The people who loved him most certainly experienced this as a suicide. Indeed, in a passage Spotts doesn’t quote, Thomas blamed himself for his son’s act: “My relationship to him was difficult, and not without feelings of guilt, for my very existence cast a shadow on him from the start.”
Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury). Cursed Legacy is published by Yale University Press (£30). Click here to order it for £24
Novelist, journalist, and playwright Klaus Mann (1906-1949) left Germany with the rise of fascism in 1933 and wandered the émigré cities of Europe before landing in America, which eventually granted him citizenship. His writings addressed a wide range of cultural and political affairs; he is most famous for his 1926 novel, Der fromme Tanz, which explored themes of homosexuality; for autobiographical works like The Turning Point; and for scandalous roman à clefs, like Mephisto. Biographer Spotts tells the story of Mann’s life in a straightforward, chronological fashion, drawing from Mann’s letters, diaries, manuscripts, and published works.
The Klaus Mann who emerges is a free-thinking, uncompromising aesthete struggling to create an unconventional sort of lifestyle for himself in the first half of the twentieth century…rather than the first half of the twenty-first century, which might have been a better fit. Mann was openly homosexual; on rare occasions (when he was desperate to enlist in the US Armed Forces, for example) he had to deny engaging in “perverse acts,” which to him was not untrue. Rumors of incestuous overtures from his father or sister did not bother him particularly. What was depressing to him was his own inability to maintain any long-term romantic relationships.
While comfortable with his sexuality, Mann found the political realities of his time appalling. He watched the rise of fascism in Germany, as opportunists infiltrated key institutions and then seized power by appealing to the fears and frustrations of the masses. Unlike some fellow artists who thought they could work with the more “open-minded” Nazis, Mann knew it was impossible to compromise with such evil. After the war, he was not deluded that the problem was over. Germany was not de-Nazified; Klaus’s own Nazi nemeses were recycling themselves into postwar positions of power. His new home, America, was retreating onto insularity and worse—anti-Communist “cleansing” campaigns.
Klaus Mann’s persistent death wish, his drug use, his homosexuality—these are not problems for a biographer, as Mann himself was relatively open about them. The one issue Mann himself could not confront was the problem of living his life as the son of writer Thomas Mann. This was a father who considered himself a genius, the very embodiment of a great writer. His children were inconvenient nuisances. While they might have their occasional uses—Thomas did find the young Klaus physically appealing, and Thomas allowed daughter Erika to care for him and manage his literary estate in his old age—the idea that any of his children could be great at anything was absurd. His many children waited all their lives in vain for their father’s compliments, small kindnesses, or approval. It is hard to comprehend the pain this father inflicted on his children.
Frederic Spotts has a special mission in this biography: to emancipate Klaus from Thomas Mann’s overwhelming reputation, to allow the son to be seen as an artist on his own merits. So skilled is Spotts as a biographer, that—apart from the title of the book and a rather heavy epilogue—he lets the facts of Thomas Mann’s “parenting” speak for themselves. Spotts writes with humor and style, and a great admiration for his subject, which makes this biography valuable for literary historians but also quite accessible to the general reader.