Time to Revive Thomas Mann

08/27/2010 12:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Hitler came to power, the German writer Thomas Mann moved to Switzerland and was ultimately buried in the Kilchberg village cemetery next to the elegant old villa that housed the American International School of Zurich. That's why, when I was a boy growing up in Zurich, I used to walk past the Nobel prize winner's grave every day, on my way from bus stop to school. Mann was always this spectral presence hovering in the periphery of my vision.


But I had to grow up before I could read him. Several times in the course of my life I picked up The Magic Mountain, only to find out I did not have the stamina to complete the book. When I returned at age 43 to the U.S., after living in London for 17 years, I finally had the maturity to see it through. I am glad I did. I am convinced that The Magic Mountain, now out of favor, is one of the great works of 20th century literature.

All of life is contained in The Magic Mountain - the role of psychology, philosophy, evil, family, science, politics, love, society, war, perception. It's a tour de force, in short, remarkably toying with the reader's physical sense of time. Large swaths of beautifully written pages fly by in a nanosecond, while others are so painfully slow and turgid to read, it feels like it's taking a lifetime to sweat through the copy. But that's the essential point - the book is all about the passing of time and how we perceive it. There are times in life when every second is drawn out and tortured, and other moments when life seems to have flown by in an eye-blink.

I have not read Mann's other great masterpiece, The Buddenbrooks, but will do so soon. In the meantime, I read his short stories and novellas sandwiched between 1897 (Little Herr Friedemann) and 1912 (Death In Venice). I am riveted, for technical reasons, because they suggest to me that writers often retell the same story until they get it right. It's almost as if they have to physically exorcise the story from their system. A writer friend of mine pointed out that in both my debut novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and the novel I am completing, Buddhaland Brooklyn, there is one central theme - both books involve men having to go out into the world, far from their own cultures, to fulfill their destinies and become complete human beings. I never noticed that until my friend pointed it out.

Little Herr Friedemann is about a deformed writer and artist who devotes himself to his work, repressing all things to do with eros. In walks the beautiful wife of the new governing officer, and poor Herr Friedemann is tragically lost. This short story ends rather too abruptly and implausibly for my taste. Flash forward to Death In Venice, and Mann has the same story just right. This time, however, the repressed writer has of course tragically fallen for a 14-year-old Polish boy.

The moral: ignore eros at your peril, for he will surely figure out a way for you to pay attention, whether you like it or not.