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God, Man, the Devil—and Thomas Mann

- Abstract

At one point in the 20th century, everyone who read serious books knew that Thomas Mann was the most important German writer of the age and one of the most important writers, period. And what an age it was: prominent among the other modernists who mattered were Marcel Proust, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But the accepted canon of great 20th-century writers changed significantly from, say, the 1930’s to the 1970’s. By the latter date, with politics, sex, and religion tending to trump literary judgment as such, Proust had begun to be celebrated less for his aestheticism than for his inverted sexuality, Eliot to go behind a cloud because he was an orthodox Christian and possibly an anti-Semite, Lawrence to come under suspicion as a male supremacist, and Woolf to be exalted as the reverse. As for Mann, the author of such once-familiar novels as Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain and of stories like “Tonio Kröger” and “Death in Venice,” he either ceased to be read at all because he was supposed to be too Teutonically difficult, or was read selectively because of a homosexual sensibility in his writing that was perceived to be at least as marked as Henry James’s. It is true that Mann can be difficult; but, like any great writer, he helps us to overcome whatever may be difficult in his thought as we go along. It is not true that he can be thought of as a spokesman for homosexuality—which, like James in fact, he tends to see as a stage in human development that most young people grow out of. But misapprehensions like these are, among other things, what make the publication of John E. Woods’s new and extraordinarily bright translation of Joseph and His Brothers1 so welcome an occasion—an occasion for re-appreciating Mann not just for his powerful novelistic imagination or his attitudes toward sexuality but for his broader concerns with the human condition in the modern world. The author of this huge tetralogy based on the second half of the book of Genesis was born in Lübeck, by the Baltic Sea, in 1875

About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.