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Thomas Mann

(1875—1955) German novelist and essayist


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(1875–1955)

German novelist and essayist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.

Born in Lübeck, Mann was the son of a well-to-do merchant; his mother came from Portuguese Creole stock. His elder brother, Heinrich Mann (1871–1950), also became a novelist. After the death of his father in 1891, the family moved to Munich, where Mann lived until 1933. He began writing stories in the 1890s and established a major reputation with an epic two-volume novel about the decline of an aristocratic Lübeck family, Buddenbrooks (1901; translated 1924). The ironic style of this novel was further refined in two novellas of 1903, Tonio Kröger and Tristan (both translated in Three Tales, 1929). In these he developed an opposition between the bourgeois and the artistic, or Bürger and Künstler: the one obtuse and dull but healthy, the other sensitive and brilliant but diseased and decadent. In 1905 Mann married the daughter of a leading authority on Wagner. His second novel, Königliche Hoheit (1909; translated as Royal Highness, 1916), was followed by the highly regarded novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; translated as Death in Venice, 1925), in which the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, a dignified writer of serious works, becomes fatally infatuated with a fourteen-year-old youth. In the complex symbolism of the story, Mann used a literary equivalent of the Wagnerian leitmotiv (for example, in the recurrence of a devil figure with red hair). The novella was made into a highly acclaimed film (1970) by Visconti. In the novel Der Zauberberg (1924; translated as The Magic Mountain, 1927), the setting is a sanatorium, a microcosm of contemporary Europe with its intellectual ferment and disorders.

Though conservative and pro-German in World War I, Mann openly opposed fascism in Germany and attacked it in such stories as Mario und der Zauberer (1930; translated as Mario and the Magician). While he was abroad in 1933, his property was confiscated by the Nazis. He lived in Switzerland until 1939, having warned Europe of the impending danger (Achtung Europa!, 1938). Emigrating to America, he became a US citizen in 1944 but returned to Switzerland in 1952. He was awarded the Goethe Prize in 1949. Of his later works three are outstanding. The tetralogy Joseph und seine Brüder (1933–43; translated as Joseph and his Brothers, 1948) is an archaeologically detailed study of the biblical story and an exploration into the essence of civilized life. In Doktor Faustus (1947) the emergence of demonic forces in the work of the composer and genius who is the hero is paralleled by the apocalyptic collapse of Germany and Europe in the war. The unfinished picaresque novel Die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (1954; translated as Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, 1955) strikes a note of comic resignation as the charming trickster, Krull, triumphs over everything. Important critical work by Mann is collected in Essays of Three Decades (1947).

Subjects: Literature.


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