Mann's Goethe connection

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28.8.1749 – 22.3.1832): the paragon of German literature, so famous in his time that Napoleon summoned him for meeting in Erfurt on 2 October 1808 and his barber sold his locks to a swooning international fanbase, if we are to believe Martin Walser's "Ein liebender Mann". He was the author of "Faust" and, in his younger years, of "The Sorrows Of Young Werther", which outraged and entranced Europe in equal measure.

A recent article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung explicitly links "The Sorrows of Young Werther", which was published in 1774 and is therefore celebrating its 250th anniversary, to "The Magic Mountain": "It was with Goethe's 'Werther' that German literature came onto the stage of the European novel, only to immediately vacate it again after this spectacular entrance. In the period that followed, a wider European readership only rarely warmed to German novels, including Goethe's own later novels "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship", "Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years" and "Elective Affinities".

It would be a full 150 years before another German novel conquered a global readership with Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain", which celebrates its centenary this autumn. It both adopted and undermined the principles of the Bildungsroman or "coming-of-age" novel of which Goethe was hitherto the primary German exponent.

Thomas Mann never ceased to admire and draw on Goethe's work, but it was not until 1939 that he published an explicit homage to Goethe with "Lotte in Weimar", translated into English by Helen Lowe-Porter in 1940 as "The Beloved Returns". It is not merely Goethe who inspired Mann's novel, though. It is about none other than Charlotte Kestner née Buff who rebuffed Goethe's love when they were young and married Johann Kestner instead. They both got the literary treatment in "Werther" – Charlotte as the partial inspiration for, wait for it, Charlotte, and Johann as the model for Albert.

In "The Beloved Returns", 63-year-old Charlotte Kestner arrives in Weimar on 22 September 1816 to pay a visit to her old friend and lodges as the Elephant Hotel. Word has already spread of the arrival of this literary celebrity - "Werther" was already a classic and still something of a cause célèbre – and the hotel is immediately besieged by a large crowd. Charlotte is due to visit relatives, but it takes her well over 100 pages to even make it out of the house because the hotel manager keeps letting superfans in to see her. These include an English paparazza by the name of Mrs Rose Cuzzle, who is travelling around Europe painting portraits of any superstar, military, literary or aristocratic, she can blockade into a room with her easel.

As Bernd Hamacher has written in a fascinating article entitled "meine imitatio Goethe's" ("My Imitation of Goethe") "The Beloved Returns" takes a god-like image of Goethe which had dominated German literary research since the establishment of the first archive of the national poet's work in 1885, and humanizes it. When "Lotte in Weimar" came out before the First World War, Hamacher writes, "it was vastly ahead of its time and its audience in terms of the image of Goethe". This was partly because of his demystification of the man – "The Beloved Returns" consists to a great extent of Charlotte's conversations with people who have known Goethe and complain about him, demonstrating the costs of "genius" to others. However, it was also because Thomas Mann was interested in the late stage of Goethe's work and had been while German literary criticism was still more obsessed with his early "Sturm und Drang" stage and his crowning Classical phase.

In Thomas Mann's autobiographical essay "On Myself", which he wrote in 1940, he writes: "Der imitatio Gottes ... entspricht meiner imitatio Goethe's" – the source of Hamacher's title and also a pun suggesting that Goethe was God to Mann.

Mann abandoned a first project to imitate Goethe in favour of "Death in Venice"; he said that it would have been a "debasement". This would have been just before the photo below was taken, showing a 38-year-old Thomas Mann in 1913 beside a portrait of Goethe at the same age.

In demystifying Goethe after an aborted attempt to dethrone him earlier in his career, "'Lotte In Weimar' seems almost an almost exemplary illustration of Harold Bloom's theorization of the literary influence of the Oedipal syndrome," wrote Yahya Elsaghe, quoted in Hamacher's article. Thomas Mann went from regarding Goethe as an untouchable father figure to something of a brother in their old age (both men are 79 in the pictures at the top).

It is interesting to relate this to where Thomas Mann thought he belonged in the pantheon of literature in German. He famously said while in US exile during the Second World War (in total the Manns were there from 1938 to 1952) that "where I am, German culture is too". It is the kind of thing that would have been claimed of Goethe, and indeed Martina Schönbächler's study of marginalia in Thomas Mann's personal library at the Thomas Mann Archive reveals just how eager Thomas Mann was to be compared to his great compatriot.

He keeps calculating how old Goethe was when he did what! 21 in the first note; 50 in the second.

His only real rival in the realm of the novel during his lifetime was Gerhart Hauptmann – and he cut him down to size by caricaturing him as Mynheer Peeperkorn in "The Magic Mountain", much to Hauptmann's displeasure. He wrote a letter of complaint to their mutual publisher, Samuel Fischer, and their subsequent falling-out resulted in the two families no longer holidaying together on the Baltic.

And whereas many international readers will know the title of at least one Thomas Mann novel, – generally "The Magic Mountain" – how many of them could name a work by Gerhart Hauptmann?

Thomas Mann would appear to be vindicated in his endeavours, for publications like the Neue Zürcher Zeitung continue to connect him to Goethe.

Photos of Thomas Mann in 1954 and 1913 and photos of marginalia, all courtesy of ETH-Bibliothek, Thomas-Mann-Archiv.

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