Thomas Mann: Bourgeois Affirmation and Artistic Tragedy
It could be argued that Thomas Mann never wrote a political novel. Even in his short story, Mario and the Magician, an explicit attack upon fascism, there is not a political figure in sight. But if Mann shuns the overt workings of politics, his novels still exhibit the profound permeation of politics within modern society. He is barely concerned with the machinery of politics but much perturbed by its consequences. In particular his treatment of the complex and at times opaque relationship between ideology and politics raises the whole question of realism in the modern novel. Compared with Zola, Dostoevsky and Conrad, his novels after Buddenbrooks can hardly be called realist in the classic sense at all. The result has been a number of contradictory responses. While Lukács ignores much of Mann’s stylistic innovation in order to label him a critical realist, Zéraffa sees him as one of the central figures in the ‘revolution of the twenties’ novel’ whose heroes withdraw into authentic personal sensibility from an alien technocratic world. The truth of the matter lies somewhere between these extremes. Mann did help to transform the realist novel out of all recognition, a transformation balanced by serious losses and important gains. The Magic Mountain and Doktor Faustus are outstanding examples of a contemporary realism which had assimilated the revolutionary transformation of twentieth-century fiction. At the same time the detailed concern with the personal sensibility of the hero is always on the verge of degenerating into pure obsession. Yet, as most of his critics have noted, we can read in these novels the tragic history of modern Germany.
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