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”.
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.
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.
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