Anyone writing about the German novelist Thomas Mann faces the same problem that Mann himself often did. How do you write about a family with six children? How do you juggle the lives of Erika (b. 1905), Klaus (b. 1906), Golo (b. 1909), Monika (b. 1910), Elisabeth (b. 1918) and Michael (b. 1919)? How much simpler it would be if there were just two children, or even four! “When a man has six children, he can’t love them all equally,” Mann claimed.
In a story Mann wrote in 1925, he dealt with the problem by removing the middle two children and by focusing on the child he loved best, Elisabeth. The story was called “Disorder and Early Sorrow” when it was first translated into English, in 1936, by Helen Lowe-Porter. In a new anthology translated by Damion Searls, THOMAS MANN: NEW SELECTED STORIES (252 pp., Liveright, $30), the work is called “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow.”
The favored daughter is called Lorchen in the original German (Lowe-Porter changes her name to Ellie; Searls, to Lorrie). Lorchen is too young and innocent to notice the changes that are going on around her. The story is set in 1923, when inflation raged through Germany. While the family in the story, like the Manns themselves, has not been made destitute by the nation’s collapsing currency, it takes planning and ingenuity to procure even the most basic groceries.
The story is also set in a time of fierce social change, during which the two eldest Mann children began to fascinate their father. They dressed as they pleased, said whatever they liked and slept with anyone who struck their fancy. In a letter, their father made his jealousy of their freedom clear: “Why should you be the only ones who constantly sin?”
In the story, as the two eldest children — called the “big folk” in the Lowe-Porter edition and “the Bigs” in the Searls — give a party for their friends, dress codes are old hat and many systems of manners and deportment have broken down. This new generation listens to jazz; men will dance with men, women with women; men will wear rouge.
The father, Prof. Abel Cornelius, pretends to be busy while the party proceeds. He goes to his study, considers a lecture he has to give, writes a letter, but he uses any excuse to return to the reception rooms of his house where this brave new world is on display.
The professor is besotted with 5-year-old Lorchen; Mann notes “the love with which he looks at her and kisses her finely shaped little hand or the side of her forehead where the little blue veins are so delicately, movingly traced.”
Cornelius also enjoys watching the dancers: “They shimmy well, it’s a pleasure to watch them. One has to admit that these dances of the wild new age, when the right people apply themselves to them, can be enjoyable after all.” He takes special pleasure in the dancing of a guest, Max Hergesell: “dark-haired but rosy-cheeked … attractive in a pleasant, winning, civilized fashion, with kind dark eyes, even wearing his tuxedo a little awkwardly.”
More than a decade after “Death in Venice,” Mann presents us again with a middle-aged man gazing at youth. In his introduction to “New Selected Stories,” Searls writes that “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow” is “in my view Mann’s best story — it was Hemingway’s favorite too … I feel it belongs up there with James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and anything you want to name by Gallant or Munro or Chekhov at the very top of the canon of short fiction, but it is never, to my knowledge, singled out as such.”
Mann’s story has much in common with “The Dead.” They both are set at a party. Both stories have a protagonist who is distant and engaged, watchful and nervous, in possession of a coiled sensuality. In “The Dead” that sensuality emerges dramatically as Gabriel Conroy becomes acutely conscious of his wife’s allure as she stands in the stairwell listening to a song. We see it emerge, too, in Mann’s “Death in Venice” (also included in this collection), as Aschenbach, the protagonist, yearns for the beautiful boy on the beach. Searls writes that “a friend of mine recently taught the novella in an Ivy League literature course, and his students’ reaction was that Aschenbach should be in jail.”
As “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow” comes to its strange conclusion, it is hard to know where Professor Cornelius should be. Searls notes that critical interpretations of Mann’s writing went through a “process of reduction to biographical identity after his private diaries were published in the 1970s and it became clear how deeply his emotional life was homosexual.” The publication of his wife’s memoirs in the same period also drew attention to the connection between Mann’s characters and his family and friends. “When he was writing a book,” Katia Mann wrote, “Thomas Mann never considered what effect it would have on the people he had more or less used as models.”
In “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow,” Mann uses his love for his young daughter as raw material. At the party, the little girl stays up late, and enjoys dancing with the adults enough for her to “twist free, almost annoyed” when her father tries to pull her to him. “He is a stranger to her.” She “struggles out of his grasp,” and “the professor can’t help but feel a twinge of pain.”
“His love,” Mann writes, “this not entirely selfless love with its not entirely irreproachable roots, is a sensitive one.”
The professor leaves his young daughter dancing with Max Hergesell and goes to mail a letter. When he returns, Lorchen, having been removed from the party, is in her bedroom utterly hysterical. Cornelius “has never seen her like this before.” She stammers: “Why … isn’t … Max … my brother?” Her nanny remarks: “The female drives are coming out very strong in this child.” (Lowe-Porter translates this as “female instincts.”)
Lorchen is calmed only when Max returns to soothe her. And then, as she falls asleep, she is lovingly watched over by her father. The professor consoles himself with the thought that little Lorchen, once morning comes, will forget what happened and see Max as “pale shadow … powerless to disturb her heart in any way.”
Mann, with his magisterial “Buddenbrooks,” a novel about the decline of a Hanseatic trading family, and with his speeches and articles, had placed himself in an unassailable position in his homeland as a patriarch and a most serious writer. This meant that in “Death in Venice” and later in “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow,” he managed to dramatize aspects of sexuality that were strange or forbidden without having to worry too much about his reputation.
In “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow,” Mann explores and transforms his own family life — the weirdness of his two eldest children, his love for his young daughter — and his own experience of economic and social change. He distills these further into a set of unsettling images: the father’s love having an odd, erotic charge; the daughter’s innocence dramatically disrupted by her dancing downstairs.
It was as though, by posing dutifully as a most respectable writer and a man of probity, he had earned the right to explore areas of experience that can make readers uncomfortable even today. The power of the story comes from Mann confronting his own reticence, writing fiction whose frankness belonged to the world of his elder children as they did what they pleased in the chaotic Germany of the early 1920s. In this story, he became their contemporary.
Colm Toibin’s latest book is “A Guest at the Feast: Essays.”