Death in Venice: Biography : Paul Thomas Mann

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Paul Thomas Mann was born in Lübeck, Germany, on June 6, 1875. His grain merchant father, Johann Heinrich Mann, was a senator and came from a long line of Lübeck citizens, but his mother, Júlia da Silva Bruhns, came from more exotic stock. She was born in South America, in Rio de Janeiro; her father was a German plantation owner and her mother was a Portuguese-Creole Brazilian. Mann was expected to run his father’s grain business, and he attended school to prepare for such an event. However, Mann hated school and, in his own words, “failed to meet its requirements.”

Mann was fifteen when his father died (in 1891) and the grain business was closed. With the money from the liquidated business, Mann’s mother settled in Munich with Mann’s younger siblings. Mann joined the family after finishing school. He decided to become a journalist, and he went to university lectures on topics like literature, history, art, and economics. He also expanded his knowledge by spending a year in Italy with his older brother, Heinrich, also a writer. In 1898, he published a short story collection called Little Herr Friedemann, and he began work on his first novel, Buddenbrooks, which he published in 1901. Buddenbrooks was semi-autobiographical, telling the story of three generations of a Lübeck merchant family. The novel was highly popular in Germany and was the main reason Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.

During his career, Mann published many novels, novellas, short stories, and essays, most of which center around the idea of the artist, his art, and his relation to society. Some of his most well-known works include the novellas Tonio Kröger (1093) and Death in Venice (1912), and the epic novel The Magic Mountain (1924). His writing was heavily influenced by the works of Goethe, Nietsche, and Schopenhauer; his style included an ironic tone and elaborate symbolism. His long literary career spanned from 1898 to 1954.

Mann was a noted social critic, too. After World War I, he spoke and wrote in support of the republican government of the Weimar Republic, and his later political views espoused liberal, more democratic ideas; he especially denounced the Nazi government in essays, speeches, and a series of radio broadcasts. That government revoked his German citizenship in 1936. From 1933, when he moved to Switzerland, he never again lived in Germany. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1940; he lived in California until 1953.

Mann married in 1905, and he and his wife, Katia, had six children (Erika, Klaus, Golo, Monika, Elisabeth, and Michael). Three of his children (Erika, Klaus, and Golo) became notable German writers. Mann’s private diaries were opened in 1975 and revealed that, despite marriage, he had struggled with homosexuality. A biography, The Real Tadzio (2001) by Gilbert Adair, makes the case that the character of the young boy in Death in Venice was based on an actual Polish boy whom Mann encountered while on vacation in Venice in 1911.

Thomas Mann died in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 12, 1955. 

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