- By Bruce Allan
- Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor. In the career of Thomas Mann (1875-1955), we see a triumphant example of what intellectual power and artistic discipline can accomplish. The son of a successful Lubeck merchant, Mann far outgrew his burgher origins, trading his family's comfortably acquired principles for an ironic contemplation of the tensions between materialism and spirituality. His innate political conservatism gradually burdened his developing view of the world, and Mann became an outspoken critic of Hitler's Germany and later an American citizen. Even his hard-won intellectual status came under his own suspicious scrutiny - and Mann created incisive fictional portrayals of artists whose dedication to an ideal betrayed them into neglecting the claims of ordinary life. His major novels and stories unquestionably rank among the century's finest. His first novel, ''Buddenbrooks'' (1900), unforgettably traces the decline of a proud mercantile family undone by its assumption of modern relativist values. The famous novella ''Death in Venice'' sees in an elder professor's hopeless love for a beautiful youth a premonition of the collapse of traditional moral order. Similar envisionings dominate ''The Magic Mountain'' (1924), Mann's incomparable diagnosis of the moral sicknesses eroding our century, and the tetralogy ''Joseph and His Brothers'' (1933-43), in which the biblical hero's fortunes are implicitly contrasted with the downward-spiraling momentum of wartime Germany. And, in his last major work, the imposing ''Doctor Faustus'' ( 1947), Mann examines the life of an expressionist composer (who also resembles the philosopher Nietzsche), whose symbolic ''pact with the devil'' parallels his country's weak-willed complicity with the Nazis. These are great, brooding books , deemed too ambitious and demanding by some readers, but enormously provocative and rewarding for those who'll school themselves to Mann. Most of his important books are in print and easily available, but there are some gaps. It is, therefore, something of an event that Vintage has reissued three of Mann's lesser-known novels, representing virtually every stage of his long career. None is on a par with the recognized masterpieces, but all three relate in interesting ways to those colossi, and each displays qualities of Mann's art that have not always been fully appreciated. ''Royal Highness'' (1909) has long been dismissed as a ''lightweight'' minor novel - perhaps because Mann himself labeled it ''this little story of a prince'' and ''a novel of high life with a happy ending.'' Set in the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm (1905), in a small principality beset by economic disasters, this is the story of its protagonist's education. He is Klaus Heinrich, a genial do-nothing of a nobleman, elevated to the public status of Grand Duke in place of his austere elder brother, who fails to command the people's affection. Klaus Heinrich grows in wisdom and sensitivity, marries a charming American heiress, and brings prosperity and decency to his state. The key to the novel is its young hero's announcement to his fiancee that ''the public weal and our happiness, . . . are interdependent''; its message that the wise ruler must live in the world and be one with his people bears an obvious relationship to Mann's several portrayals of artists who isolate themselves from everyday humanity. The theme has been taken to bear on Thomas's lifelong rivalry with his elder brother, Heinrich, a minor novelist whose work never received the public approval that came to Thomas's books easily and often. ''Royal Highness'' is, on balance, highly successful, sophisticated, and funny. It is enlivened by its fairy-tale motif and its vividly amusing secondary characters (the best of them a neurotic, overbred collie named Percival, who supplies a hilarious caricature of hothouse aristocrats who are just too refined and sensitive to breath the common air). It's a delightful book. ''The Beloved Returns: Lotte in Weimar'' (1939) is usually considered a frigidly abstract and intellectualized book, and with good reason. It describes the visit of Charlotte Kestner to Weimar in 1916, nearly 50 years after her young admirer, Goethe, left her, then immortalized her as Lotte in his famous novella ''The Sorrows of Werther.'' Nothing happens, except that Charlotte converses at length with several beneficiaries and victims of the great man's multiform personality, eventually meets Werther again, and goes back to her own life, unpersuaded that the path of a genius was indeed the better way. There's little question that the novel's thrust is to sympathize Charlotte's hearty normality - and yet, the slowly built, static portrayal of Werther in all his intellectual complexity gathers genuine force and depth. We get a real sense of the range of his literary, political, scientific, artistic, and philosophical interests, and we understand anew Mann's fascination with the self-imprisoning character of the mind that has become its own place. ''The Beloved Returns'' is heavy going, but it must be recommended to those who want to know the range of Thomas Mann's work. ''The Holy Sinner'' (1951) is slighter fare, a retelling of the medieval legend of the life of Pope Gregory, drawn from the classic German poet Hartmann von Aue and several other 12th-century sources. It's the story, set mainly in Flanders, of a high-born brother and sister whose incestuous love produces an illegitimate son; he's abandoned, then raised on one of the Channel Islands under the supervision of an elderly abbot whose namesake he becomes. The amusing plot brings the young Gregory back to Flanders, where he becomes a knight in the service of the Princess, who, unbeknownst to him, is his mother. The ensuing complications justify the narrator's claim that this is ''a tale at once frightful and highly edifying.'' The manner in which Gregory turns into ''a great penitent who had spent 17 years on a rock and now was exalted by God to the throne of thrones'' is brilliantly narrated by Mann in the guise of an emotional, digressive monk known as ''Clemens the Irishman.'' The novel abounds with witty inventions, not least of which is a comical mixture of languages rendered skillfully by the translator in broken English. Some may find the inventiveness forced or the period language a bit stale, but it seems to me that it all holds up wonderfully well. ''The Holy Sinner'' may, in fact, offer a pleasant starting place for readers who've been reluctant to tackle Mann. It shows him at his most playful and it will very likely stimulate interest in the great novels of his maturity.
The Holy Sinner, Thomas Mann, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Vintage. 336 pp. $7.95 (paperback).