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LETTERS OF HEINRICH AND THOMAS MANN,...

<i> Frederic Morton is the author of "A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889" and "The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait."</i>

Imagine for a moment that Saul Bellow and Herman Wouk had been born in the second half of the 19th century as brothers in a close-knit German family; that throughout their long, productive and prominent careers they had copiously corresponded; that Saul (prose poet of conflicted subjectivity) and Herman (purveyor of a solidly crafted if shallower realism) had both let their affection, vying and percipience flow through their pens at each other; that the exchange reflected not only their respective auctorial stances but the tremors and pressures of history all around them. Imagine all that, and you’d have a rough idea of “The Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900-1949.”

Well, very rough. There are, of course, differences--generational, national, religious--between the above pairs. Furthermore, major breaks disrupt the collection. For the period 1900 to 1914, only the letters by Thomas survive. Still, this is a record of two eloquent minds in vivid mutual engagement. The epistolary energy between them overleaps gaps or conjures by repartee the missing voice of the partner. Here is a dialogue of autobiographical fragments evolving from the heart of German culture with an electricity that invites the fantasizing of fraternal equivalents in other literatures.

In the end, the effect resonates beyond Mitteleuropa. The brothers Mann were tireless travelers and impression transcribers. They spent World War II as emigres in the United States. Taken together, their letters form a mosaic, international and interactive, a dialectic whose abrupt dissonances and complex harmonies sound a Zeitgeist still making waves now, in the days of Generation X.

While the implications of the letters are rich, their tone is rarely portentous. Many of them were written in the heat and uncertainty of the moment. Never mind that D.H. Lawrence acclaimed Heinrich and Thomas as “the artists in fiction in Germany today"--an echo of then-prevalent opinion. The brothers didn’t let their renown betray them into the sort of self-consciousness that sometimes minces through Henry James’ letters to William. When the Manns turned to each other, they addressed the bread-and-butter workaday with condign plainness. But when deeper things are broached, as during their quarrels, they’d launch powerful verbal rapids complete with undertow. They’d ride the turbulence with painful, even tortured, emotion.

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Angst, unadorned, is a leitmotif, especially with Thomas. Already widely printed at 25, he worries (on Jan. 8, 1901) over his publisher’s silence on his “Buddenbrooks” manuscript. “What if nobody wants the novel? I think I would become a bank clerk.” After the arrival of an enthusiastic acceptance, his trepidation simply changes tracks: “Who’s to say that even as many as 100 copies will be sold?” And with the enormous popularity of the novel firmly established in 1903, he glooms to Heinrich, “The success of the novel is based ultimately on a misunderstanding.”

And perhaps because he can’t stop fretting, he must keep hustling, a business all the queasier for being conducted on an august level. In 1912, long eminent, Thomas reports to Heinrich how the director Max Reinhardt is being pressured by an influential journalist to stage Thomas’ play “Fiorenza.” Even in 1934, already a Nobel laureate, hence a certified dweller in Olympian altitudes, Thomas tells Heinrich of rather down-to-earth moves with Hollywood director King Vidor, involving film rights to his first “Joseph” novel: “I signed the option contract somewhat hastily, since [Max] Reinhardt and [Franz] Werfel are planning a big Old Testament spectacle of their own, and I have to fear that [King Vidor] will respond by jumping ship.”

Did Thomas, angling like this, compromise his artistic credo? He was honoring it. To him, the artist was defined by his vulnerability to evil. Temptation is the flash point of inspiration. Thomas’ most affecting heroes are transmoral, from the confidence man of “Felix Krull” to the composer Adrian Leverkuehn trafficking with Satan in “Doctor Faustus.” Not that being creative means being immune to ethics. However, the pangs that ethics visit upon the artistic conscience serve primarily to animate the aesthetic venture. T.S. Eliot (a closer spiritual kin to Thomas than Heinrich) said, “A bad writer borrows. A good writer steals.”

The brothers didn’t hesitate to raid each other’s works. In his perceptive introduction to the correspondence, Hans Wysling details larcenies, petty and grand: Thomas’ “Tonio Kroeger,” for example, counterpoints Italy and Germany in terms resembling those of a character in Heinrich’s earlier novel “Cockaigne”; on the other hand, Heinrich’s “Professor Unrat” seems indebted to the school chapter in Thomas’ “Buddenbrooks.”

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In fact, the brothers reach quite openly for each other’s writerly resources. On Nov. 5, 1905, Thomas, at a loss on how to end his story “The Blood of the Walsungs,” begs Heinrich’s help: “How would you close? If you have any idea at all, don’t keep it from me!” Conversely Heinrich, in April 1912, needing background color for barracks scenes in his novel “The Patrioteer,” asks Thomas about recollections of his conscript days. Thomas willingly complies even though he was mining the same material for “Felix Krull.”

Apparently anomalous, therefore, was Thomas’ scathing letter of Dec. 5, 1903, in which he accuses his brother of purloining phrases, pirating concepts. The “Tonio Kroeger” theme, namely the polarity between “the commonplace” and “the artistic,” has been counterfeited, Thomas glowers, in Heinrich’s novel “Die Goettinen”; indeed the architecture of that novel was filched from ideas Thomas had thrown out casually in a conversation with his brother in Riva, Italy, “in a rowboat.”

Why this sudden outburst? Why Thomas’ furious possessiveness when elsewhere in the correspondence the brothers share so generously? And why, in the same message, does Thomas condemn Heinrich’s “greediness for effect . . . [Y]ou’ve talked too much to me recently of effect and success.” Why--when a few paragraphs earlier Thomas mentions “by the way” that “Buddenbrooks” has gone into yet another printing?

The answer might hide in Thomas’ talent for subterfuge. As in much of his fiction, so in some of his letters: That which is said becomes the devious vehicle for that which is not. The 1903 letter, the longest, most high-strung in the collection, is also the most revelatory. Between its lines glimmers the root of Thomas’ jealousy of Heinrich. It’s an aguish, wracked root that--not so paradoxically--nourishes Thomas’ deeper sensibility and accounts for his continued relevance in the modernist canon.

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This can be surmised from the letter’s final fulmination. There Thomas’ subtext pulses closer to the surface. He rages against Heinrich’s treatment of the erotic in the novel “Die Jagd nach der Liebe” (which means “the hunt for love”), how far it ranks below the work of Frank Wedekind, “probably the boldest sexualist in modern German literature.” The reason for Heinrich’s inferiority? Wedekind is “more demonic. One feels the uncanny depths, the permanently questionable nature of sexuality, feels the suffering caused by the sexual. . . . But the utter nonchalance with which your people, once they’ve just touched hands, fall down and make l’amore cannot speak to the better sort of people. This perpetual smell of flesh is disgusting.”

The target of the outburst is less the salaciousness in Heinrich’s novel than the sex in Heinrich’s life. That thrust, implicit in Thomas’ diaries, emerges from the total context of the correspondence. Thomas envies his brother’s robust well-being--his uncomplicated, freely projected, abundantly consummated heterosexuality, so different from the labyrinthine and precarious twilight of Thomas’ libido. Again and again, in one letter after another, Thomas wistfully refers to his brother’s “strong good health.” In 1908 he replies to Heinrich’s lines from Rome: “It is so beautiful, what you write about the Spanish Steps. I’m sure I’ll never be able to admire a set of steps that way. This ability to freely enjoy beautiful sights is no doubt the main thing for which you have to thank your ‘effortless youth.’ I don’t have it; during those years in which one develops something like that, I was quite likely too deeply mired in difficult subjective matters.”

Inversion and introversion divide Thomas from what he perceives to be Heinrich’s carefree, sunlit sensuousness. The barrier keeps him from savoring his privileged career. In 1905 he marries Katja Pringsheim, a beautiful, patrician young woman, yet he writes within two years after the wedding: “I don’t tell anyone around here how bad and exhausted and used-up and dead I feel. Without a child and wife things would go better and I’d feel more indifferent. I’m tormented by the thought that I was wrong to allow myself to be attached and tied down. I already suspected at the time that it was with the last of my energies that I won external happiness.”

Six years later, “externally” one of Europe’s most celebrated authors, Thomas reviews his existence as a panorama of despair. “I look forward to your work,” he writes Heinrich, “more than to my own. You are in better shape psychologically, and that is the critical factor. My time is up, I think, and I probably should never have let myself become a writer. ‘Buddenbrooks’ was a novel of the bourgeoisie and means nothing to the 20th century. ‘Tonio Kroeger’ was merely larmoyant, ‘Royal Highness’ vain, ‘Death in Venice’ only half-cultivated and false.”

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Thomas sent this letter in November 1913, on the threshold of the Great War in which he, however limply, supported the German side while Heinrich remained a vibrant pacifist. During the war, Thomas’ invention lay fallow. By contrast, Heinrich’s creativity crested during the first two decades of the new century. In 1904 he produced “Professor Unrat,” a much discussed novel whose film version attained global notoriety when glamorized by Marlene Dietrich’s legs in “The Blue Angel.” The year 1918 saw the publication of Heinrich’s most impactful book of fiction, “Der Untertan.” Both novels took a devastating inventory of the constriction and pretension of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Reich. Both were trenchant paintings of the social landscape. They did not explore the tectonics beneath. Both faded as the decades wore on.

Meanwhile, what of Thomas? Still “mired” in inwardness, he lagged behind Heinrich in denouncing Nazism. His troublous maze of ambiguities never quite released him. It claimed his faculties; it also deepened, enriched, empowered his oeuvre. He went on to write “The Magic Mountain,” the “Joseph” tetralogy and “Doctor Faustus.” Thomas groaned and groped his way toward immortality.

The difference between the brothers lay not just in substance but in style. Heinrich wrote in a mode smoothly straightforward. Thomas’ metier was the oblique. He liked to suggest interior meaning through a surface cunningly incongruous. That constitutes his famous irony. It also poses a major difficulty for his translators. Add to it the quirks of his mother tongue--tricky word coinages, for example, or that time bomb in German diction, the verb, which detonates the action at the very end of the sentence.

Such difficulties were bravely negotiated by H.T. Lowe-Porter, who translated most of Thomas’ work. As a rule she was good at devising English surrogates for his subtleties. But here and there she didn’t catch the tonality of his phrasings, which threw her surrogates off-key. (A similar weakness also affects the otherwise competent translation of the Manns’ correspondence by Don Reneau.)

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Therefore “Doctor Faustus,” newly Englished by John E. Woods, is welcome. It reduces to a minimum imprecisions of the earlier renderings. It preserves the Gothic Faustus aura while conveying it in persuasive English.

At least that’s my conclusion after comparing key passages in both versions. But translations aside, what impressed me most was the contemporary ring of a medieval tale re-imagined in the century of the Third Reich. With “Doctor Faustus,” Thomas Mann not only gives Germany’s throes a mythic edge, he asks a question reverberating through his letters and his life, which turns out to be urgent in our own time. He asks about the chasm, still widening, between world and self. It is a question born of the industrialized soul capable of endless artificed thrills but very few authentic joys. It is about the acceleration of our individual lives, which deprives us of the warmth of strolling together. It is a question that underlies Thomas’ lament to his brother--his inability to “freely enjoy” the beautiful.

The same question was asked by another prophet of estrangement, that other Thomas whose last name was Eliot, when he wrote, in the very bloom of his youth:

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”

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