I have recently discovered Thomas Mann. I am not sure how I would have turned out had I discovered Mann in my youth. But there is no doubt that my character would have been significantly, and permanently, altered on reading his work. Even after just two novels.
I first read The confessions of Felix Krull, confidence man. And then I read The Holy Sinner. Presently, for me, if a novel cannot make me laugh out loud – preferably bitterly – it is doomed at the outset. Profundity, as a rule, is ruled out. If, however, profundity, is an absolute must for the author, it should present itself properly armed with satire, or it should invoke personal embarrassment in the reader, or it should make you want to meet the author and spend a whole night holding them very tightly. When it does all three, whilst firmly prohibiting any saccharin and exalted delusions of wisdom in the reader, it is safe to call the author a genius. Thomas Mann is such a genius.
He manages to consistently make me feel as if he has seen humanity naked, finds it often wanting and just as often beautiful, but never commits himself to an opinion. But this lack of commitment does not take the same form as J. M. Coetzee’s refusal to offer a moral exemplar. It is not nearly as self-consciously detached and objective (please note, I am a fan of Coetzee’s too). Unlike Coetzee, Mann often comments through his narrators. He judges, he approves, he fears for them, he puts his reader at ease about them. But his narrators (at least, in these two novels) are themselves characters like confidence men or Catholic monks. Objectivity is thus instantly thwarted. What I have loved about them both, the confidence man narrating himself into existence and the monk narrating a very holy man, is that through their respective biases there is a sort of fictionally tempered objectivity. I suspect Mann’s reasonableness, his clarity about people, is simply a feature beyond his control. He cannot help but see things like they are. His humour is surely an extension of this reason.
But, granted, love is blind. And I am in love with Thomas Mann. How is one when one is in love with Thomas Mann? You first tread carefully to see if it is appropriate to express this love. One does not simply fall at his feet. That would be madness. A path to self-ruin. If one wants the love to be reciprocated (figuratively, of course), one investigates, plans and then approaches head on. To love Thomas Mann is to approach confidently, but be ready to retreat should his gaze begin to, as they say, ‘go right through’. That would make one invisible – the death knell to a hopeful lover. Unless one’s flaws are interesting, sophisticated and even glamorous – in the broadest sense of the word – one should rather simply be Mann-perfect. Either way, it is very evident to me that what he wants from his lover is a person who is able to temporarily bend the path of his gaze. I’ll probably never be ready, but I will declare it in this very, very private place: I love you, Thomas Mann. Also for your politics.