Novelist Mann: his subject was himself; Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist 1875-1911, by Richard Winston, with an Afterword by Clara Winston. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 319 p. $17.95.

The great German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) is securely established among the vanguard of 20th-century writers - such as Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Faulkner - who added a new penetration and symbolic richness to the detailed picturing of life that had previously dominated fiction. And, as this superb new biography suggests, Mann may surpass all these peers in his consistently bold ''striving for the mythic dimension,'' his intellectual intensity and Olympian irony.

His austerity and rigor permeated his life. ''Even at his simplest and most youthful,'' the late Richard Winston informs us, ''Thomas Mann was complex and mature.'' Thomas was the son of a wealthy Lubeck merchant and his ''half-Latin'' wife, and his sensibility was shaped by ''his father's work ethic'' and ''his mother's romantic inclination toward Art.''

Winston is quite candid about the posturing and pretentiousness and the ''tone of patrician haughtiness'' that Mann never really overcame. His history of ''cool literary relations'' with his elder brother and rival novelist, Heinrich, is well known. Winston feels their competitiveness was crucial to the development of each as a writer; indeed, at one time in their youth, the brothers, ''living in the same room, did not speak to each other for more than a year.''

Winston sees ''an impulse to explain himself'' embedded both in Mann's fiction and in his masterly analytical essays on other writers. Invariably, Winston notes, these are concealed self-analyses. This doubtless had to do with Mann's realization that his notorious ''coldness'' was only one part of his mentality - and that the homo-erotic feelings embodied frequently in his work were just another part in a complex intellectual and emotional fabric.

One sees clearly from the details Winston has assembled why Thomas Mann found himself such a fascinating enigma. He was a ''dreamy child'' who did poorly in school, a time-waster and drifter, the despair of his affectionate and worried father, an inglorious failure in ''the workaday world'' and in military service. Yet he courted and married a beautiful, accomplished woman and settled down to a disciplined, productive writing life, which triumphed over all depressions, distractions, and illnesses.

From the beginning, his published stories were recognized as products of real genius, and his amazingly skillful first novel ''Buddenbrooks'' (1901) -- an examination of ''his immediate ancestors,'' which ''outraged Lubeck'' -- launched him on a brilliant literary career, to which his Nobel Prize (1929) was a justifiable culmination.

What makes Mann an enigma to us, a figure both instructive and forbidding -- and is so powerfully manifest in Winston's portrayal of him -- is the way ''he consistently strove to use autobiography for the ends of art,'' or, as others often called it, his habit of ''ruthlessly using casual acquaintances, friends, or relatives for literary purposes.'' The ''use'' Mann thus made of his life is shown us in virtuosic descriptions of the making of ''Buddenbrooks,'' those celebrated early stories, the ''misunderstood'' and ''neglected'' novel ''Royal Highness,'' and the great short story ''Death in Venice'' (1911).

The reader won't be satisfied with the book's ending. The story of ''Death in Venice'' is a little hurried and the explication rather skimpy. That's because Richard Winston felt he wouldn't live to see the project through to completion, and since this was the major biography for which his distinguished career as translator and scholar had so thoroughly prepared him, he persevered to finish as much as his illness allowed. His widow, Clara Winston, describes these efforts in her moving ''Afterword.''

Nevertheless, what he has given us seems to me already a great literary biography, one of the best since Richard Ellmann's ''James Joyce''; rivaled only by Ellmann's work as a demonstration of how a writer transforms his own life and thought into his work. It's a great pity that we will not have Winston's accounts of Mann's confrontation with Nazi Germany, or of the composition of the major novels ''The Magic Mountain,'' ''Joseph and His Brothers,'' and ''Dr. Faustus.'' I really hope a way can be found for Winston's monumental work to be completed.

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