Books: Cultural Amnesia — Thomas Mann |
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So enormous at first glance that he might convince us he can safely be read about rather than read, Thomas Mann (1875– 1955) is nevertheless the twentieth-century cultural figure most likely to keep coming back into the student’s life. We begin by thinking we can do without him, and end by realizing that there is no getting rid of him. In his life and in his art, he incorporated every question about the history of modern Germany, and its place in Europe and the world. He began as a conservative believer in Germany’s national strength, a belief that was an early source of conflict between himself and his radical elder brother, Heinrich. His novel Buddenbrooks (1901) was the story of a prosperous family that declined because it became artistically more sensitive: still a usefully original emphasis, even today. The student would do better to begin, however, with the brief and easily memorable Death in Venice (1912), and then move on, taking the journey by easy stages, to the monumental novel that set Mann on the path to world fame and the Nobel Prize, The Magic Mountain (1924). In the lofty setting of an Alpine TB clinic, the intensity of what does not happen between the young hero Hans Castorp and the bewitching consumptive Claudia Chauchat raises the subject of Mann’s sexuality, which remained a nagging question throughout his career. (The quickest answer is that Thomas Mann the solid paterfamilias also led a fantasy life cast with handsome young men, most of them barely glimpsed in reality: a smile from a waiter could get him started on a novel.) In the early 1930s, when he had already made his opinion well known that Hitler was a threat to all values, the incoming Nazis would have dearly liked to brand their most conspicuous literary enemy as a homosexual. Though Mann’s wife, Katya, was a half Jew, Mann himself was all Aryan, but Reinhard Heydrich had correctly identified him as a friend of Jewish culture and had put his name high on a list of those absentees to be dealt with if they came back to Germany.

Mann, out of the country on a reading tour when Hitler came to power, sensibly kept going. Eventually he went all the way to America, where, in exile, he completed his seemingly inexorable rise to prominence as Germany’s most exalted cultural figure since Goethe. That he himself thought in those terms should not be allowed to detract from our estimation of him. Like his snobbery, thin skin, theatrical fastidiousness and insatiable hunger for honours, his towering pride was a functional element in his ability to focus his creative energy in circumstances that deprived many of his fellow exiles of their capacity to work at all. Even when occupied with such a huge task as his sequence of novels about Joseph and his brothers, however, he found time to help some of his fellow refugees (Jews included: the idea that Thomas Mann was anti-Semitic is a calumny) and to record radio broadcasts to Germany about what the Nazis were really up to. His long novel Doktor Faustus is often thought of as his final confrontation with the totalitarian menace. The student is likely to find that its subject matter, the composition of music, yields no clear indication of the contending forces. A possibly more valuable, and certainly much more immediately enjoyable, late response to the history he had lived through was The Confessions of Felix Krull. Against all expectation, Mann, unshakeably established as the icon and titanic artist, the man of destiny and responsibility, produced, with his time ticking away, a counter-jumping con man of a character with no substance except his own vitality. Felix Krull is even funny, and therefore should be read early on, to provide the student with a lifetime reminder that the sometimes ponderous gravitas of Thomas Mann’s career did not necessarily come from within himself, but was imposed on him by an historical distortion that he would have given a lot to avoid. He would have preferred Germany to stay as it was: but it had already stopped doing that when he was a child.

There are several good biographies, but for readers of German there is nothing to beat Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s sparkling book about the Mann clan, Thomas Mann und die Seinen (1987). Readers of German also have the advantage of a splendid, lavishly captioned picture book, Thomas Mann: Ein Leben in Bildern (1997). Luckily the real treasures among the ancillary writings by and about Thomas Mann, namely his Tagebücher (Diaries), have by now nearly all been translated and annotated. Read in sequence, they are one of the most fascinating ways of following the history of the Third Reich from day to day, and of understanding why, in the end, it was doomed never to prevail. At the very time of the battle of Stalingrad, Thomas Mann, alive and well in Los Angeles, could make an appointment for a manicure. Post-war German commentators who berated him for never coming home (both the West and East German governments offered him every enticement) had a point, but he had the answer. He had never left Germany. Germany had left him. The shelves of any bookshop in Germany today will show the extent to which the nation realized its mistake.

* * *
Turn aside, turn aside! Confine yourself to the personal and the spiritual.

ABWENDEN, ABWENDEN! turn aside, turn aside! He felt it; he believed it; but luckily he did otherwise. At the time of the disastrous Munich conference in 1938, Thomas Mann’s impulse was to put the political world aside forever. Earlier, he had thought that the internationally famous writers could still do something if they teamed up. In Geneva with Paul Valéry, Gilbert Murray, Karel Čapek and Salvador de Madariaga, he had seen a possible mission for the heavyweight manifesto adorned with multiple signatures of the eminent. But after Munich he wanted to quit, and obviously thought that the resignation could be permanent. Disengagement has always been the artist’s temptation and has the advantage of looking like a claim to seriousness as well as a right of refuge. Witold Gombrowicz never questioned it. In the third volume of his Journal (pp. 134–35) we see him reading Sartre’s Situations, picking out the sermon on political engagement, and tearing it to shreds. Thomas Mann had arrived at the same conclusion partly from permanent instinct, partly from bitter experience.

Thomas Mann had taken a nationalist political position at the beginning of World War I and it had earned him, in the long term, a reputation as a warmongering reactionary. In the chaotic aftermath he built himself a suit of armour as the unbiddable literary eminence, becoming more and more reluctant to open his visor. His own children execrated him for his slowness to make a public condemnation of the Nazis. (Actually he had several times cried out in warning, but when the time came he thought it prudent to fall silent.) Undoubtedly there was a sense in which he would have preferred never to make a stand at all, even when he was safe abroad. Californian exile suited a personality so theatrical that it could make even retreat into a performance. In April 1941, with a rampant Hitler already on the point of turning east, Mann’s idea of a pertinent note in his diary was: Der Pudel gesund. The poodle is healthy. He wasn’t talking in code. He meant the family dog.

We could hardly be blamed for thinking him a bit of a poodle himself, if we did not have, from the same source, evidence of how much time and effort he was putting into his role as the master spirit of the emigration. He was keeping it alive with his prestige, his connections and, quite often, with his money. The eminent refugees were in his house, taking his hospitality, his advice and, above all, his precious time. In addition, he spoke for them all at a level they could not reach: on the international stage. He was wearing himself out. Abwenden! Turn aside! Forget about it! But against all his inclinations towards a studious solitude, he felt compelled to do the opposite, and when he did, nobody was more effective. As early as September 1942 he was making broadcasts about the massacres of Jews in the east. Having, of course, no access to the Ultra decrypts, he had to put the story together by himself, partly from the detailed reports that were showing up in the Swiss press: but he was transmitting the information in a clear voice at a time when the Allied governments were still using the soft pedal. (The story is ably told by Walter Laqueur in his The Terrible Secret.) Later on, there would be plenty of Germans, resident in Germany, who would be ready to claim that they had had no idea of what was going on. Thomas Mann, a German resident in California, knew exactly. His claim to represent the real Germany thus became as unassailable on the political level as it had always been on the artistic one. It had been a long time since he had wanted the idea of art to be connected to the idea of a nation. But finally, at a higher and better level, he was forced back into the identification with which he had begun, and he might even have realized that the historical disaster which had diverted him into an uncomfortable, time-consuming and uncharacteristic position of generosity had also made him a greater artist. If he had immured himself untouchably in Pacific Palisades and Brentwood he might still have given us his Joseph. But to give us Felix Krull he had to rejoin the world. The seductive, amoral fabulist Felix Krull is the invention of a man set free; and Thomas Mann was set free by submitting to the bonds of duty.

An epic is a sublimated boredom.
THOMAS MANN, TAGEBÜCHER 1935–1936, p. 23

Thomas Mann had a knack for the short statement that demands an essay to back it up. Frequently the essay was supplied by him, but the above statement sits unaccompanied in his diaries, seemingly waiting to be joined for dinner. He said it in a restaurant, perhaps while waiting too long for the reappearance of a dish he had sent back. There is truth to it, because it brings in the self-congratulatory element that helps drive the reader or listener to complete the task set by the visible dimensions of a long work. Simply by its outline, an epic demands of us that we submit to having our time consumed, and be conscious of it. There are long works for which this bargain need not be made. War and Peace I would have read in a breath if I could have held my breath long enough. There is nothing boring about it except the overtly philosophical passages at the end, which are tedious in the same way as Chaplin’s exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator—they are not only superfluous to the purpose, they betray it by falling below the standard set by the creativity that precedes them. In all other respects, War and Peace works like an ordinary novel—it’s just extraordinarily rich. A true epic works in other ways, but always by setting terms for the bargain: the reader must pay in pain. There are Wagnerians who claim to have become so well acquainted with the Ring cycle that they cease to feel the pressure on their behinds even during Siegfried, but they are hard to believe. The Ring, however, is transparent excitement punctuated by the occasional stretch of opacity, like the Homeric epics and the Divine Comedy. More problematic is the Aeneid, which reverses the proportions: the Dido episode, and the journey into the underworld that succeeds it, add up to an oasis in a carefully landscaped desert, and it takes a lot of thirstily summoned dedication to convince yourself that those parched miles of dunes, elegantly arranged though they might be, are worth crossing just for the prospect of getting to Troy and watching it burn. The Orpheus and Eurydice episode in Georgics IV shows the intensity of dramatic talent that lay within Virgil’s reach, but that only makes things worse when we find out how little drama the Aeneid has, compared with the long swathes of beautiful language with nothing in particular to be beautiful about. As it has come down to us, epic poetry in Latin is a misfire. The great classical historian Ronald Syme spoke the truth in passing, when he said that Tacitus wrote the Roman epics that the poets didn’t. One poet did, but his name was William Shakespeare.

Benedetto Croce made a distinction—a fundamental concept for his aesthetics and a handy ad hoc proposition for us—between poesia and letteratura. Applying it to the Divine Comedy, he concluded that the bits you like are poetry while the other stuff is merely literature. The same criterion applied to the Aeneid would give you very little poetry amongst all that impeccably crafted verse. In Homer, the Catalogue of the Ships is only an interruption, and is even fascinating: a list of ships and tribes is, after all, likely to be inherently more sonorous than a shopping list of groceries. Though Homer can take his time to get his chores done, you will never have to read far to find something nearly as electrifying as the episode in which Odysseus, washed ashore, wakes up on the beach, looks up into the dazzle of the sun, and sees the outline of the nymph Nausikaa. You can call such moments the stuff of Homer’s epics. You could say the same about Dante: stretches of theology are not its norm. Scholars warn us we should be slow to assume that drama always mattered more for Dante than theology did: but there can be no doubt that it matters more for us. Luckily for us, the Divine Comedy is thronged with human beings poetically alive. If only the same could be said for Paradise Lost. But except for Adam and Eve, Milton’s characters are not of this Earth, and by restricting himself to a superhuman cast-list he faces the insuperable problem that nice angels are not interesting. Lucifer is the hero a fortiori. The forces of good are necessarily lacking in vitality, and the poem imposes upon itself a narcotic identification of virtue and bathos. The results are not ridiculous (Philip Bailey’s long and justly forgotten poem Festus is ridiculous) but their dignity is all they have, in a language whose heightened decorum is its only purpose: stilt-walking in a toga.

In a monoglot literary context it can be fatal to call Paradise Lost a fizzer—there is no examination school in which it would be wise even to hint at such a thing. (There are plenty of examination schools in which Milton doesn’t even get a mention, of course, but that isn’t because he is thought no good: it is because he is thought too hard.) Keats didn’t like the language of Paradise Lost but he might have lived to think differently, as T. S. Eliot did at a later time. Hazlitt is probably sincere about praising Milton’s language; but there is something dutiful about the sincerity; he seems so much more relaxed when praising the language of Shakespeare, or even of Burns. Nevertheless the case for Milton’s “high style” has accumulated too solidly to be wished away. There has never been any real liking for the poem’s story, however, because there isn’t one. It is just an outline, wished into existence out of the desire to write an epic. Even more damaging, the stories within the story are not up to muster either: the saving graces that make the Aeneid worth the space are hardly there. Most damaging of all, there is very little that demands to be remembered. There are lines and even passages that can be memorized, but that’s a different thing. I have a friend who studied Paradise Lost at Oxford and has read it constantly ever since. But I have heard him quote Milton only twice in all the years I have known him, whereas he quotes Shakespeare all the time, and as naturally as breathing. There’s the difference: Paradise Lost is unspeakable. Virgil should have been a warning for Milton: a got-up epic is not only hard to write, it reads that way. Virgil should also have been a vade mecum: if you have stuck yourself with so schematic a project, get some interesting digressions in at any cost. It was a pity that Aeneas had to leave Carthage, but at least we are given a taste of why Dido wept. Milton’s hero should have got himself a girl.

Goethe didn’t make Milton’s mistake. In Faust the heavenly battle takes place on Earth. Goethe was as infatuated with Mephistopheles as Tacitus was with Tiberius, and with the same artistic result: evil energy was given intense language. As Satan’s terrestrial representative, Mephistopheles has the persuasive human voice of Iago, and the divine virtues with which he is at war are incarnated as ewig-Weibliche women you can touch. Faust is occupied with his reasons for touching them, and with what he should do afterwards.

Denkt Ihr an mich ein Augenblick’chen nur:
Iche werde Zeit genug an Euch zu denken haben.

Think about me for just a little moment: I will have time enough to think of you. So says Margarete, and Faust must look into his conscience. What male reader never has? The poem’s grand, overarching drama is not about Rome’s imperial destiny or a schism above the clouds over Protestant England, but about how we live and think, whatever our circumstances. Only when the witches of Walpurgisnacht rave on too long does Faust run out of human incident, and thus out of interest. It thus offers few opportunities for the reader to score brownie points for endurance. But it does offer some: nearly all epics do. Authors of epics are almost certainly right to suppose that the reader will want to congratulate himself on having stayed the course. Anthony Lane has written entertainingly about how his young love affair with The Lord of the Rings began before he had read the first page: it began when he glanced at the last page and realized that the book was 1077 pages long.

Tabulated through all their various editions, sales statistics for the individual volumes of à la recherche du temps perdu reveal that La Prisonnière has always been the point where most readers call it a day. Those of us who love the book, and never finish re-reading it, must still admit that Albertine’s captivity is sublimated boredom with a vengeance. But we don’t just admit it: we insist on it. We are proud of our battle honours. And there is even something to the argument that we have to find out how long Proust can go on before we can appreciate how brief he can be. At base, Proust is aphoristic. The pregnant conclusion is at least as characteristic of him as its long preamble. The same is true of Thomas Mann himself. We trust the slow unfolding of a block-long sentence in Doktor Faustus because we know about his knack for the neat statement. It was a knack he could overdo. In 1914 he said, “Germany’s whole virtue and beauty ... is unfolded only in war.” Later on he realized he should never have said that. Chastened by the fateful specificity of a youthful certitude, he took refuge in a style that got in all the nuances at once, but the ability to speak about emotions on the human scale was always at the heart of it, and in his last years he proved it triumphantly by finishing (or anyway continuing: for once it was a terrible pity that he didn’t go on forever) Bekentnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull, the book we know as The Confessions of Felix Krull. It is not in Felix Krull’s nature to put up with a moment of boredom, and his creator caught the mood. We catch it along with them both: the delight of the most impetuous of Thomas Mann’s books is to be swept away at the speed of the hero’s counter-jumping ambition. But we can give ourselves no credit for enjoying Krull’s company: the book that enshrines his scapegrace charm is not an epic. To enjoy Hans Castorp’s company in The Magic Mountain is a harder trick. It helps if we realize that Castorp, as he sits around in the health resort mainly doing nothing, isn’t meant to be interesting: if he were more so, Claudia Chauchat would be less so, because Claudia’s only dramatic function is to represent the vitality to which he might aspire if he could only concentrate his energy. But he doesn’t have any energy. There is no uniqueness to him: he is a character without character. The same goes, and goes double, for Dr. phil. Serenus Zeitblom in Doktor Faustus. His grinding ordinariness is there to make Adrian Leverkühn light up. In the epic, flat patches can be functional. They are counterproductive only when we see no relief ahead.

John Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic is the only long book that I have ever read right through to the finish in the certain knowledge that it would never come good. In three tremendously uninspired volumes, Motley never writes a memorable sentence until the end, where the little children weep in the streets. I have never forgotten that sentence, but perhaps I set myself that task too, to compensate myself for the insane plan of reading ten pages a day until it was all over. It was an extreme case of what a long work can do for us: etch its highlights into our tired brains by the pressure of its average weight. It helps if the average is high: a passage in Dante about nothing except dogma is still fascinating for its craft. But an average is something any tolerable epic is bound to have, because it can’t do without low points. An epic must have historical sweep, in its frame of reference if not in its narrative sequence; and exposition, beyond a certain level, can’t be made exciting. The question will always arise more acutely about the poetic epic than the prose epic, because if we find a prose epic disproportionately dull we tend to dismiss it, no matter how good an argument can be made for the longeurs. (Joyce’s Ulysses would be a less successful prose epic if it had an even longer stretch of deliberately dud prose brilliantly reproducing the mannerisms of hack journalism.) Our tolerance of the uneventful poetic epic is more elastic from the start, because we have learned to expect less. Spenser is only the third most gifted exponent of the stanza named after him (Byron comes first and Shelley second) and his vast poem The Faerie Queene has a way of concentrating the reader’s attention on everything except itself. When I was reading it I had to sit facing away from the window, or I would find myself counting the people on a passing bus. Whether by Ariosto, Tasso, Camões or Mickiewicz, an intermittently fascinating poetic epic might need explication and excuse, but no defence. Scholars must go on defending The Fairie Queene because no common reader can get through it without setting himself a daily quota. Other epics in English are easier on the eyelids, but they all leave Dante safe. Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King is nothing beside Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and even in Malory there are roads of dross between the golden castles. Browning’s The Ring and the Book is as unspeakable as Paradise Lost: the same greatness, yet the same resistance to being incorporated into memory. But the catalogue could go on, like Homer’s list of ships, except that all the ships are holed below the waterline. The only serious epic that is entirely, lyrically successful from line to line is Eugene Onegin, which is really a verse novel. All the other entirely successful epics are comic: in English, they are The Canterbury Tales, The Dunciad and—the pick of the bunch, and the Cullinan Diamond of poetry in English after Shakespeare—Byron’s Don Juan. An epic that mocks itself can make virtues of its own mechanisms. Otherwise it is doomed to creak forward like a siege engine in a landscape short of citadels. Any attempt to divest it in advance of its necessary dullness will destroy its coherence. An epic compiled from nothing except images is a contradiction in aims. Ezra Pound tried it, and the Cantos is, or are, there to remind us that nobody can make a meal out of condiments, or a statue out of sparks.

Last night I finished reading Heinrich’s Henry IV, a unique book ...
THOMAS MANN, TAGEBÜCHER 1935–1936, p. 179

Thomas Mann could be generous even about his older brother: something worth remembering when we face the persuasive evidence of just how self-centred the great writer could be. On page 413 of Tagebücher 1937–1939 we find the Pacific Palisades Hausherr and his brilliant children locked in a delightfully catty argument about which of the émigré writers should be awarded die Palme der Minderwürdigkeit—the palm for mediocrity. Should it be Stefan Zweig, Emil Ludwig, Lion Feuchtwanger or Erich Maria Remarque? Even in exile, they all had big sales. It was easy for Mann to feel threatened. Contrary to the opinion about him that has since become commonplace, it took Mann some time to establish himself as the unchallenged literary representative of the eternal Germany. During his first American years, he was often prey to the fear that things were going too slowly for him and too smoothly for others. (This was before Remarque won the affections of Paulette Goddard, but All Quiet on the Western Front had already been a best-seller in English on a scale that Mann was never to know.) Emil Ludwig alone was more than enough to make all the other exiled German writers feel that they were bound for oblivion. Ludwig’s biographies of the great made him famous, influential and rich. They also inculcated in their author the preposterous notion that he was some kind of great man himself, a delusion he backed up by living in an appropriate style. Ludwig’s Wagnerian standards of comfort were evoked scathingly by Alfred Polgar, an incomparably better writer with an incomparably smaller bank balance. But Polgar was not the only observer to spot the discrepancy between Ludwig’s self-esteem and a just measure. Mockery for Ludwig’s pretensions was standard throughout the emigration.

It is sad, however, to find Stefan Zweig’s name on the list of mediocrities. Zweig thought Mann was an admirer. Mann was the master of the diplomatic letter that took people at their own estimation. He could effortlessly mislead them about his true opinions. But at his best, the diplomacy was his true opinion. He was generous about the importance of other writers in the emigration even if he did not much admire their individual works. The Palm for Mediocrity game is a useful reminder that shared adversity did not necessarily make people into saints. But the adversity was the culprit: the characters were its victims. Among the less immediately spectacular of Hitler’s cruel tricks was his ability, at long range and by remote control, to drive different personalities into the same airless trap, where, struggling for a share of oxygen, they found out the hard way that they had never belonged together. After all, for writers to help each other beyond the bounds of friendship is no natural condition. In normal life, they are more likely to be at odds, and if they don’t much like each other’s work the usual response is not to talk at all. In the emigration, gifted people whose normal destiny would have been to despise each other were put at each other’s mercy. Some, like Joseph Roth, were kind to those in adversity. But some behaved badly. Walter Mehring, whose memoir Die verlorene Bibliothek was one of the many inspirations for the book you are reading now, acquired a reputation for accepting financial help but forgetting to be grateful for it. Whether or not the reputation was earned, it still follows his memory. No such accusation has ever attached itself to Thomas Mann. Chronically behind schedule on his latest enormous novel, he hated to be bothered, but he did his duty.

Given all that, Mann deserved his status as a lion. He showed he had the heart for it, and all the more so because it was against his nature. One of his many reasons for hating the Third Reich was that it forced him to be a better man than he really was. Left undisturbed, he would have been a monster of conceit. But when thoughtfulness was forced on him, he rose to the occasion, and it would be conceited on our part to assume that the perennial thespian was just being careful not to look bad in the eyes of posterity. Literary pygmies are always making pronouncements about what goes on in the head of a giant, and the pronouncements always sin through over-confidence. They can’t really tell what’s going on up there. The worst you can say about Thomas Mann is that his ego was so big he took even history personally; but at least he knew it was history. “Poor Čapek!” he lamented during the war, “He died of a broken heart ... and Menno ter Braak, the Dutch creator of precious criticism, shot himself on the night Hitler’s troops occupied Amsterdam. Two friends, who were lights of my life—and National Socialism murdered them” (Altes und Neues, pp. 11 and 12). This is actually made stronger, not weaker, by the German reflexive verb: und der Nationalsozialismus mordete sie mir. Murdered them for me. Michael Burleigh’s admonition in his marvellous book The Third Reich should not be forgotten: the destruction was not just of the creative and the prominent but of the ordinary and the unknown—millions of them. It can be said, safely from this distance, that Thomas Mann did not think enough about them. But he could certainly think of anyone who was a bit like him. Possibly, like most egotists, he thought everyone else was an egotist too. If he had been the egomaniac he is sometimes painted as, however, he would have had no concern even for the prominent: especially not for them, since they were rivals for the limelight.

Heinrich always spelled trouble for Thomas, and not just because Heinrich had made so much noise in earlier times. In fact Thomas would probably have liked it better if everything Heinrich did had scored a hit like Professor Unrat, the book that eventually gave us The Blue Angel. Artistically, however, the older brother, by the fastidious standards of the younger, was pathologically facile: a geyser with its own self-renewing supply of soap. All too wearily often, Thomas had to strain his criteria of worth to say that Heinrich had done well. There was also the problem of Thomas’s bourgeois propriety: his domestic stability and prosperous façade were essential parts of his armour. Heinrich was a bohemian by comparison, and the more so the older he got. Later on, in Los Angeles, Heinrich’s batty mistress was regarded chez Mann as an even bigger embarrassment than Heinrich’s indigence, which could be judiciously compensated for, whereas there was no disguising her fathomless capacity to throw scenes. It would have suited Thomas to write off the crumbling Heinrich as a liability who had brought ruin on himself. But Thomas was too aware that Heinrich has come to his final grief only with Hitler’s help, and finally there was always the consideration that Heinrich had done some good things despite all. Thomas had thought Henry IV was one of them, had said so, and continued to rate Heinrich at that level of possibility, if not of consistent achievement. In honour of artistic standards, Thomas Mann could put even his own ego into perspective: a Mount Everest yes, but with a picture of itself as only one mountain in the Himalayas, although admittedly the tallest. We should restrain our scorn then, when in Donald Prater’s excellent biography of Thomas Mann we see, on page 237, the master spirit praising “my worried modesty.” It sounds like comic self-deception, but it was justified by his behaviour. Even without his behaviour, it would have been justified by his art: nobody incapable of humility bothers to rewrite a sentence. Careful composition is an act of renunciation in itself. Thomas Mann wrote too well to be a true monster of self-regard. But with the help of the invaluable diaries we soon find out that in his everyday dealings he could be selfless too, and didn’t always need that to be known. After his death, journalistic opinion tried to make an ogre out of him, but that said more about journalism than it said about him. He was one of the first victims of a modern cultural trend: mass therapy for the semi-cultivated, transmitted through supposedly edifying examples of the idol with feet of clay.