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
Klaus Heinrich Thomas Mann (18 November 1906 – 21 May 1949) was a German writer.
Life and work
Born in Munich, Klaus Mann was the son of German writer Thomas Mann and his wife, Katia Pringsheim. His father was baptized as a Lutheran, while his mother was from a family of secular Jews. He began writing short stories in 1924 and the following year became drama critic for a Berlin newspaper. His first literary works were published in 1925.
Mann's early life was troubled. His homosexuality often made him the target of bigotry, and he had a difficult relationship with his father. After only a short time in various schools, he travelled with his sister Erika Mann, a year older than himself, around the world, visiting the US in 1927, and reporting about it in essays published as a collaborative travelogue in 1929.
In 1924 he had become engaged to his childhood friend Pamela Wedekind, the eldest daughter of the playwright Frank Wedekind, who was also a close friend of his sister Erika. The engagement was broken off in January 1928.
He travelled with Erika to North Africa in 1929. Around this time they made the acquaintance of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a Swiss writer and photographer, who remained close to them for the next few years. Klaus made several trips abroad with Annemarie, the final one to a writers' congress in Moscow in 1934.
In 1932 Klaus wrote the first part of his autobiography, which was well received until Hitler came to power. In 1933 Klaus participated with Erika in a political cabaret, the Pepper-Mill, which came to the attention of the Nazi regime. To escape prosecution he left Germany in March 1933 for Paris, later visiting Amsterdam and Switzerland, where his family had a house.
In November 1934 Klaus was stripped of German citizenship by the Nazi regime. He became a Czechoslovak citizen. In 1936, he moved to the United States, living in Princeton, New Jersey, and New York. In the summer of 1937, he met his partner Thomas Quinn Curtiss, who was later a longtime film and theater reviewer for Variety and the International Herald Tribune. Mann became a US citizen in 1943.
During World War II, he served as a Staff Sergeant of the 5th US Army in Italy and in summer 1945 he was sent by the Stars and Stripes to report from Postwar-Germany.
Mann's most famous novel, Mephisto, was written in 1936 and first published in Amsterdam. The novel is a thinly-disguised portrait of his former brother-in-law, the actor Gustaf Gründgens. The literary scandal surrounding it made Mann posthumously famous in West Germany, as Gründgens' adopted son brought a legal case to have the novel banned after its first publication in West Germany in the early 1960s. After seven years of legal hearings, the West German Supreme Court banned it by a vote of three to three, although it continued to be available in East Germany and abroad. The ban was lifted and the novel published in West Germany in 1981.
Mann's novel Der Vulkan is one of the 20th century's most famous novels about German exiles during World War II.
He died in Cannes of an overdose of sleeping pills on 21 May 1949, though whether he committed suicide is uncertain. He was buried there in the Cimetière du Grand Jas.
- Der fromme Tanz, 1925
- Anja und Esther, 1925
- Revue zu Vieren, 1927
- Alexander, Roman der Utopie, 1929
- Kind dieser Zeit, 1932
- Treffpunkt im Unendlichen, 1932
- Journey into Freedom, 1934
- Symphonie Pathétique, 1935
- Mephisto, 1936
- Vergittertes Fenster, 1937
- Der Vulkan, 1939
- The Turning Point, 1942
- André Gide and the Crisis of Modern Thought, 1943
- Juliane Schicker. 'Decision. A Review of Free Culture' – Eine Zeitschrift zwischen Literatur und Tagespolitik. München: Grin, 2008. ISBN 978-3-638-87068-9
- James Robert Keller. The Role of Political and Sexual Identity in the Works of Klaus Mann. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. ISBN 0-8204-4906-7
- Hauck, Gerald Günter. Reluctant Immigrants: Klaus and Erika Mann In American Exile, 1936-1945. 1997.
- Huneke, Samuel Clowes. 'The Reception of Homosexuality in Klaus Mann's Weimar Era Work.' Monatshefte für deutschsprachige Literatur und Kultur. Vol. 105, No. 1, Spring 2013. 86-100. doi: 10.1353/mon.2013.0027
- Mauthner, Martin German Writers in French Exile, 1933–1940 London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2006 ISBN 978-0853035404
- Spotts, Frederic. Cursed Legacy: The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0300218008
- Harpole, Kimberley, and Waltraud Maierhofer. 'Women Performing the American 'Other' in Erika and Klaus Mann's Rundherum (1929). Sophie Journal . Vol.4, 2017. 1-32.
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