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.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.