May 14, 2015

#04-018: Thomas Mann, Einstein of Literature

black-and-white photo of a serious-looking mustached man with a full head of hair, leaning his head on the knuckles of his right hand in an almost-coy pose
Thomas Mann

Note: One of the greatest figures of 20th-century literature is (alas!) little-read by English speaking audiences. Meet Thomas Mann and his creations in this lesson.

Get Ready: Most readers are familiar with the French writers Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo. But can you name any great German novelists?

Though not as well-known as his famous countryman, German author Thomas Mann (1875-1955) had a lot in common with Albert Einstein (see Lesson #04-016). They were born in the same decade, and died in the same year.

Like Einstein, Mann studied science at the secondary level, but switched to journalism in university. Though Einstein was Jewish and Mann Christian, both held similar humanistic values. (Mann's wife was also Jewish.) And both men lived for a year in Italy in the 1890s.

Both men moved to the United States, Einstein in 1933 and Mann in 1939, and both became U.S. citizens, Einstein in 1940 and Mann in 1944. Both settled in California.

Perhaps most significantly, both men also won Nobel Prizes in the '20s, Einstein for Physics in 1921 and Mann for Literature in 1924.

Unlike Einstein, however, Mann returned to Europe. He moved to Switzerland in 1952, and though he never lived in Germany again, he traveled there frequently.

Mann is known today for several major works: Buddenbrooks (1901), The Magic Mountain (1924), Death in Venice (1912), and Joseph and his Brothers (1943).

The first of these, Buddenbrooks, was specifically cited in his Nobel award (though the Prize itself is given for a "body of work"). It is the saga of a family not unlike Mann's own, and focused on the struggles between the world of business and the world of art. It remains Mann's most popular novel in Germany.

The Magic Mountain is considered one of the most important German works of the 20th century. It is about a man who goes to visit his cousin in a sanatorium high in the Swiss mountains, and--falling ill--ends up staying for seven years. Through meetings with the hospital's various inmates, the novel explores themes of life and death, health and wellness, and many more. It is a subtle, complex work; Mann recommended that it be read twice to be understood.

Death in Venice is a shorter work, a novella, about a writer whose "writer's block"--inability to write--is cured by his seeing--but never meeting--a beautiful young boy. Finally, the writer dies of a plague of cholera that affects the whole city.

The fourth major work for which Mann is known is Joseph and His Brothers, a tetralogy based on the Biblical story of Joseph. The four parts are: The Tales of Jacob, The Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt," and Joseph the Provider. Mann considered it his greatest work.

Thomas Mann died in Switzerland in 1955.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. cited
  2. citizens
  3. countryman
  4. inmates
  5. journalism
  6. novella
  7. saga
  8. sanatorium
  9. subtle
  10. tetralogy

  1. named to support or prove something
  2. people who live in an institution, like a prison or a hospital
  3. a short novel
  4. delicate in meaning or intention
  5. the study of writing for newspapers and magazines
  6. a story that tells about several generations of a family
  7. a work (like a book or movie) made up of four parts
  8. a kind of hospital, where people stay long-term
  9. "members" of a country
  10. a person from the same country

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for May 14, 2015

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. a; 2. i; 3. j; 4. b; 5. e; 6. c; 7. f; 8. h; 9. d; 10. g