“A Ghost in His Own Life”

This week: a conversation with Colm Tóibín about the German novelist Thomas Mann. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

Disease, we’ve learned this pandemic, intertwines with everything else: our politics, our social life, and more. In The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s new novel about Thomas Mann, we find the drama behind a writer who sensed that intertwinement acutely, a thinker “fascinated by decay, by tuberculosis — illness itself interested him,” as Tóibín tells us this week.

Go through Mann’s major fiction, and you’ll find a sustained focus on disease, amid stories of obsession and desire. In “Death in Venice“ the disease is cholera; The Magic Mountain is about a tuberculosis sanatorium. Says Tóibín:

In Buddenbrooks, it’s typhoid. In Doctor Faustus, it’s meningitis. In Doctor Faustus it’s also syphilis. These illnesses absolutely fascinated him—almost in the same way as sex did, death did. Eros and Thanatos: the two of them arrived in his imagination. And it wasn’t that they did battle. They embraced.

Mann’s study of destruction, of ruin, contributed to his thinking on Nazi Germany, too, from which he was exiled. On this week’s show, Tóibín says Mann saw broader cultural forces at work in Nazism:

The big issue was an argument between him and Brecht, and it had a particular importance in America over who is responsible for what has happened in Germany. And Bertolt Brecht would have said the working class are not responsible. Thomas Mann would have said the entire culture is responsible. And we have to know that in order to remake that culture. If we just say that there were just one percent responsible for leading the other 99 percent in this direction, we’re going to miss the point of what happened in Germany.

Mann would weigh in often on such topics, because he found himself in the role of public intellectual. As Tóibín tells it:

He would regularly give lectures, appear at podiums, give readings. And he became—I think, especially in the 1920s, after the publication of The Magic Mountain, leading up to the Nobel Prize, in those years when people in Germany desperately wanted someone to cling onto, someone who seemed to be rational politically, as he became, but also had written novels that in their way of imagining the world stood apart from mere politics and suggested some other rich way of life to be observed, and became interested in ideas of freedom against restriction—he became somebody who Germans could trust, and enormous numbers attended his readings and read his books. And he began to matter enormously. And of course, anyone operating as he did in those years became an implacable enemy of the Nazis.

But Tóibín’s novel isn’t just about Mann; in fact, Mann’s family takes up much of the book. The author explains:

He, in ways, was a ghost in his own life. He was silent in his study and he would come into the house and someone else would always be making the noise. And he had six noisy children . . . Thomas Mann . . . was never someone out late at night. That never interested him. He lived a very sedate life. He was deeply domestic. He did not have close friends. He did not have a peer group. Once he married, he stayed home. So that the excitement in the book is all happening around him. He’s watching it. He’s resisting it. He’s nourished by it. But it’s not as though he himself is making the noise.

Read: The Magician

On this week’s show, Tóibín also talks through Mann’s connection to classical music, and reads from his novel a scene in which Mann, while hearing Beethoven, contemplates music, emotional instability, and Nazism:

If music could evoke feelings that allowed for chaos as much as order or resolution, Thomas thought, and since this quartet left space for the romantic soul to swoon or bow its head in sorrow, then what would the music that led to the German catastrophe sound like? It would not be war music, or marching music. It would not need drums. It could be sweeter than that, more sly and silky. What happened in Germany would need a music not only somber but slippery and ambiguous, with a parody of seriousness, alert to the idea that it was not only desire for territory or riches that gave rise to the mockery of culture that was Germany now. It was the very culture itself, he thought, the actual culture that had formed him and people like him, that contained the seeds of its own destruction. The culture had proved defenseless and useless against pressure. And the music, the romantic music, in all the heightened emotion it unleashed, had helped to nourish a raw mindlessness that had now become brutality.

Listen: Beethoven’s Opus 132

In the scene above, Thomas Mann is listening to and musing upon Beethoven’s Opus 132 (performed in this case by the Borodin Quartet). And speaking of Mann’s preoccupations with disease: it’s been called the Beethoven work “for pandemic times” and a “journey through illness.”

This week’s ephemeral library

On Melvin Van Peebles. Murakami’s t-shirt collection.Emissary from a Watery Future. Our Constitutional Crisis is Already Here. The New Yorker Writers and Editors Who Inspired “The French Dispatch.” On the Internet We’re Always Famous.

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org