On Thomas Mann
In Budapest in the 1980s there sat the sizeable tomes of Thomas Mann on every bookshelf, easy to spot. At grandparents’ and friends’ parents’, every home seemed to be reading the unreadable, buying it and keeping it, a private challenge. The first time I opened one I wasn’t sure if Thomas Mann would like us.
In the soft dictatorship that Hungary was still for a couple of years after my birth, all works of art that reached the public got a stamp: Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott (Banned, Tolerated, Supported—but alliterating, because after all this is art). Thomas Mann, the anti-Nazi was thus Tolerated and reprinted, despite being a German, a bougie, a guy with money, a cigar-smoker, a beach-goer, a moustache-wearer, a Classics reader, a relic of an old age type of guy. And the grandparents, who were themselves either banned, or tolerated or supported, bought him up avidly—who’d want to come for kávé to a house that doesn’t own Joseph and His Brothers?—and then stared with bewilderment at the pages. What does this have to do with us?
It’s a poor man’s shock how everything can turn into an act of—if not revolt but—resistance in a hand empty or held down, for those who don’t have a friend. That the Jägerstrasse villa near the Brandenburg Gate was now in East Berlin, in the Soviet Sector, therefore on our side. That in 1937, the troubled Communist Attila József, the greatest Hungarian poet of all time, wrote an ode for Mann’s visit, for him, called him the only European in the room, and then killed himself.
That there’s a kind of escape and loss and exile presented as normal for people like us—why did you have to be born into Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, or Africa, what did you expect?—but not for his class, his faith, not for that unchallenged pomp only Europe can bring down. That like his heavy-handed books that were lining our shelves, with his cascades of words that had lost all their relevance, he made that experience, that tragedy, suddenly visible, for us.