Thomas Mann’s Queer Kids

Posted on August 25, 2008
Filed Under Book Review | 316 Comments

Thomas Mann\'s Queer KidsDid you know that Thomas Mann’s daughter was married to W.H. Auden?  When asked why he agreed to the marriage, Auden replied:  “What else are buggers for?”  In fact, Auden met Ericka Mann the day he married her.  He did it as a favor:  the marriage entitled her to British citizenship–something she desperately sought as an exile from Nazi Germany.

Andrea Weiss’s new book In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain, is the story of Ericka Mann’s extremely close relationship with her brother, Klaus Mann.  They were both queer and sometimes claimed to be  twins–somewhat strange because they were born a year apart and looked surprisingly un-alike:  Klaus almost pretty, Ericka rather masculine, slightly homely.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is how the repressed Thomas Mann raised these two unapologetically queer individuals.  It is a study of contrasts:  Thomas never once chiding them about their open sexuality–and perhaps envying them just a bit.  (A situation that seems remarkably resonant today.)  When Ericka and Klaus made their way to the libertine, hedonistic Weimar Berlin, Thomas didn’t do much to stop them–even though Klaus was underage at the time.

One gets the impression that Thomas Mann was always silently, intently observing it all–potential plots for stories, perhaps?  Ms. Weiss quotes Mann biographer, Marcel Reich-Ranicki:  “…whereas Thomas…experienced next to nothing and wrote about almost everything, Klaus lived his life to the full–some might say too full.”  This book illustrates just how true that statement was.  Yes Klaus experimented maybe a bit too much–he became a heroin addict and eventually took his own life–but he was consistently true to himself:  as a performance artist, later as an anti-Nazi activist and always first and foremost as a writer.

This is a story of fascinating people living fascinating lives–at a time when opinons really did seem to matter. It is a time when Albert Einstein wrote to Thomas Mann–gently asking him to speak out against the “completely wrong and evil” Nazi regime.  Indeed, Thomas Mann’s slowness to speak out against Hitler almost led to a complete estrangement between him and his beloved daughter, Ericka.

While Thomas Mann comes off as slightly out of touch, Ericka and Klaus come off as extremely in touch–even ahead of their time.  Early on, when Ericka witnessed the gruesome spectacle of Nazi flags flying over every house in Munich, she described it as looking like “a skin disease” on her hometown’s face.  Klaus might have been thought of as alarmist in 1936 when he predicted:  “Fires blazing on the horizon; rivers of blood in the streets; and the frenzied dancing of the survivors..around the bodies of the dead.”  But his vision was remarkably prescient.

Ironically it was Hitler who drove their lives. Ericka and Klaus became hugely popular (and highly paid) speakers in the United States–intelligently arguing the case against Nazism.  Later, Pearl Harbor gave Ericka and Klaus a mixed bag of opportunities.  But it was the end of the war that sadly brought about their demise.  Without Hitler, their lives seemed to lose their meaning.

Ms. Weiss was wise to include multitudinous illustrations throughout the book–they really help to bring the story to life.  And the University of Chicago Press should be commended for such a high quality printing.  It is a beautifully produced book.

Andrea Weiss’s In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain:  the Ericka and Klaus Mann Story is published by the University of Chicago Press.

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