Thomas Mann, right, with his brother Heinrich.
In December 1903, Thomas Mann wrote his older brother, Heinrich, a long letter reviewing the latter’s novel—with brutal candor. Some of the most scathing bits are below. The complete missive is in The Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900–1949.
My impressions? They are not exactly very pleasant—which impressions, indeed, don’t absolutely need to be. It didn’t exactly make agreeable reading—which, indeed, however, is absolutely not necessary either. I struggled back and forth with the book, threw it aside, took it up again, groaned, complained, and then got tears in my eyes again … For days, in the lowest barometric pressure in a hundred years (according to the meteorologist), I went about in the agony your book caused in me. Now I know approximately what I have to say to you.
That I am not in agreement with your literary development—that must finally be said … When I think back ten, eight, five years! How do you appear to me? How were you? A refined connoisseur—next to whom I seemed to myself eternally plebeian, barbaric, and buffoonish—full of discretion and culture, full of reserve toward “modernity” and historically as talented as could be, free of all need for applause, a delicate and proud personality for whose literary endeavors there would quite probably be a select and receptive public … And now, instead of that? Instead, now these strained jokes, these vulgar, shrill, hectic, unnatural calumnies of the truth and humanity, these disgraceful grimaces and somersaults, the desperate attacks on the reader’s interest! … I read them and I don’t know you anymore. The psychological constant of the work, the desire of weak artificiality for life, this desire that would gladly masquerade as amorous desire within the lonely and sensuous artist—how is it supposed to move, to work convincingly when not even an attempt is being made to come close to life, to observe and capture even the air of the inner impulse of this simple madcap? Everything is distorted, screaming, exaggerated, “bellows,” “buffo,” romantic in the bad sense …
Dear Heinrich, I’m speaking candidly and saying things that I’ve had on my heart for the longest time. It is, in my view, a greediness for effect that is corrupting you … you’ve made yourself so healthy that you can work six hours a day, but what you produce is sick, not because it is itself pathological, but because it is the result of a distorted and unnatural development and of an addiction to effect that becomes you unspeakably badly … I find no trace of discipline, of resolution, of a bearing toward language … Ambition, naïveté, unscrupulousness—those are indeed qualities of the “artist,” the “pure artist” whose role you have taken on, and I wouldn’t reproach you with them if I didn’t know that they are so utterly foreign to your original being and nature …
I’ve reached the end. Some of it came out harder than I intended and I would probably copy the letter in milder terms if it were not that I’m permanently afflicted by a kind of writer’s cramp. May you then read the epistle as it is … I’m not at all without doubt. Perhaps if you save this letter and it comes to light one day, perhaps a later generation will find it amusing how a younger brother couldn’t appreciate your greatness—perhaps …
A pleasant Christmas and a fruitful New Year!
Translated from the German by Don Reneau.
Last / Next Article