Unlike father, like son; Klaus Mann
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 April 2016)

Biographies teach us that parents of richly talented artists can't expect generous treatment from posterity. If they are devoted parents and get things right, no one will hear about it. If they get it wrong, no one will hear about anything else.

Thomas Mann, the most admired writer in Germany for many years, got it wrong, by all reports. His reward this year, six decades after his death, is the role of villain in Cursed Legacy: The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann (Yale University Press), by Frederic Spotts.

Klaus Mann, the second of Thomas Mann's six children, is the victim of the book. He had the bad luck to be a good writer with a great writer for a father. Thomas considered Klaus lacking in seriousness, a dilettante who would rather travel than work, rather pursue his many gay lovers than study. He showed little interest in Klaus's work. Klaus considered Thomas cold, distant and selfish.

The other children felt the same way. They thought their father vain and easily annoyed, quick to anger. Spotts quotes someone who said that when he arrived it was as if an iceberg had entered the room. He was apparently fonder of his dogs than of his children. Once he gave some fruit to his firstborn, Erika, but gave none to the other children. He explained, "It is just as well for you to get accustomed to injustice in life." During the food shortages of the First World War, Thomas ate well but the children did not.

As his published diaries show, Thomas had a powerful streak of homosexuality. Klaus's feelings were similar. But where Thomas hid his desire, Klaus described his erotic feelings in detail and in print. That was one reason Thomas and Klaus never got along. Thomas thought it scandalous to made such things public.

Work ethic also set them apart. Thomas worked hard every day and took his books as seriously as the critics did. He probably felt the Nobel Prize that he won in 1929 was a suitable reward for decades of labour. Klaus wrote a shelf of novels and hundreds of articles but never suggested they were important. Other things mattered more, such as the crumbling of European civilization.

Thomas saw no value in Klaus's work. When an earlier book was being written about him, decades ago, one of his friends said it should be titled Subordinate Klaus.

As a biographer, Frederic Spotts clearly takes sides. He's pro-Klaus and anti-Thomas. His book suffers from bias and an overly confident psychology. "Klaus craved Thomas's approval," Spotts writes, and goes on to say Klaus turned his frustration and anger inward. There it created depression, drug addiction and thoughts of suicide. That's neat but too easy, an over-simplified account of a complex life.

Spotts claims Klaus was not a suicide, as many people have always believed.

He died in 1949, at age 42, from an overdose of sleeping pills. Thomas wrote sorrowful words in his diary: "My relationship to him was difficult, and not without feelings of guilt, for my very existence cast a shadow on him from the start."

Elsewhere in the text, Spotts is more sure-footed. He convinces us that Klaus was ahead of most Germans when he predicted (around 1930) that Hitler was a catastrophe for Europe and especially Germany. In 1936, while living as an anti-Nazi in Amsterdam, Klaus wrote Mephisto: Novel of a Career, about a great German actor who collaborates with the Hitler regime for the sake of his professional life and his place in society. The actor, Hendrik Höfgen, is clearly based on the famous Gustaf Gründgens, who was Klaus's brother-in-law and was best known for his performance as Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust. Klaus reworked the Faust theme by having his Gründgens-like character selling his soul.

The novel was Klaus's most admired work and his most controversial. It became the centre of a famous trial in 1966 when Gründgens's adopted son sued the publisher and demanded the book be banned. After arguments about libel and freedom of literature, the court ruled that Gründgens's postmortem personality rights prevailed. After years of argument, West Germany's high court let the judgment stand. The novel was finally published in Germany in 1981.

Klaus's actor sister, Erika, was an exile like him. As a German citizen Erika was afraid the government might drag her back to face trumped-up charges of subverting the government. In 1935, in Amsterdam, Klaus suggested she should obtain foreign citizenship through marriage. His friend Christopher Isherwood, being gay, seemed a good candidate for a marriage of convenience.

Isherwood declined but thought his friend Wystan Auden, then a schoolteacher in England, might agree. Auden replied by wire: "With pleasure." Erika had never met him but soon she was in England marrying the poet W.H. Auden. They never lived together but remained friends, and technically married, until Erika's death in 1969. Times of terror bring out surprising feats of ingenuity.

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