Bluebeard's Chamber: Guilt and Confession in Thomas Mann by Michael Maar
I've read hardly any Thomas Mann. I know, I know! I should have done. I've read Death in Venice and, well, I preferred the film (and didn't really think that much of that!). So, a book of Thomas Mann literary criticism is probably not a book I was ever likely to get that much out of. But, with its winning subtitle (Guilt and Confession in Thomas Mann) and coming from one of my favourite publishers (Verso) I thought I'd give it a go.
Marr's essay is setting out to argue against a common (mis)conception in Mann circles: that Mann's terrible fear in 1933 that his diaries would fall into Nazi hands was not due to their homosexual content. Marr is canny enough to know that a close reading of Mann's work (and this is a close reading of his entire oeuvre: this little 150 page book has 31 pages of end-notes) will not reveal the exact nature of whatever it was that Mann was hiding but it can establish two things. What are the important suggestions in the text, in the diaries and elsewhere as to what Mann's secret(s) could be? And does the usual suggestion that it was his fear at being found out (to be gay or pro-gay) stand up?
Marr nails the second question. Whilst there is no doubt, he argues, that voluptuous "and hot guilt" provides for Mann the spur to write - to write to conceal and to reveal - it is not homoerotic desire that he is either guilty about or which he seeks to hide. In a sense this is banal: Death in Venice is obviously a gay text, isn't it? And, if you can read German (or the useful notes in Marr that correct the bowdlerised extant translations), Mann's letters and diaries and speeches all defend a rather Greek view of homosexual love. But prudish literary critics will have their politically correct way and the secret(s) of Mann's youthful destroyed diaries are always reduced to fear of public exposure. Marr, it would seem, scuppers such notions.
But what is Mann's big secret? What are the skeletons in his cupboard that he reveals and reveals again but does not somehow fully show transformed as they are into his highly autobiographical work? What is he trying to tell us and simultaneously trying to hide? Marr hints at dark things. Paedophilia (boy-love) and murder are half-suggested but then shied away from. Mann is too much the aesthete and artist to be simultaneously the criminal ("it is simply impossible to think of him venting his wrath in murderous violence") so perhaps he was merely a witness who did not intervene? Maybe, even, witness to some Satanic ritual in Italy's dark South?
We should, perhaps, be glad that Marr isn't too didactic, too strident in his (counter-)suggestions but it is a little frustrating to get to the end of the essay without any real dirt!