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The circles in which the Mann children were brought up placed an enormous value on order and propriety, which the young people often found stifling. The children were never allowed to forget their position, or the responsibilities that came with it, in the highly stratified German society. Instead, they were drawn to the rather glamorous, though slightly disreputable, world of the arts.
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The eldest son, Heinrich Jr. He declined, however, to learn a practical trade and chose to pursue the vocation of writer. Thomas proved a highly inept student who failed repeatedly and was unable to finish high school. He envied those who were more worldly, but he considered himself a social outsider.
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This left him, Thomas felt, little choice but to follow the example of his brother Heinrich, and he began to devote all his efforts to literature. In , he published his first novel, Buddenbrooks, a fictionalized account of his family history, which quickly established Thomas Mann as one of the leading young authors of Germany.
The novella Death in Venice was published in By the time World War I broke out, Thomas Mann had married, had started a family, and had become famous.
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Thomas, however, believed that the dramatic political developments did not allow him to simply devote himself to his career and his private life. Though too thoughtful and reflective to be a conventional propagandist, he wished to put his prestige and talent in the service of Germany. His Reflections of a Non-Political Man, published in , was a collection of radio broadcasts and essays on the subject of German character and destiny.
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After the German defeat, Thomas gradually began to take a friendlier view of Anglo-American and French democratic traditions. In , he published The Magic Mountain, often considered his finest novel, which affectionately satirized the intense intellectual debates in Germany. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in Reluctant to become involved in political affairs again, Thomas Mann was not very prepared to respond when Hitler came to power in Because his wife was Jewish, and the works of his brother Heinrich were banned, Thomas decided not to return from a speaking tour and went into exile.
For a time, he still declined to speak out publicly against the regime of Hitler, preferring to work in Switzerland on a series of novels based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. Then, in , Thomas moved to the United States, where his enormous reputation made him a spokesman for the German literary community in exile. Unlike many writers, Thomas Mann loved ceremonial occasions, and he proved adept at cultivating and handling public affairs.
However, his real passion was, as always, literature.
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In he published his last major work, Dr. Faustus, a somber novel about a musician who sells his soul to produce the supreme work of art. After the war, he moved to Switzerland, where he died in Until fairly recently, almost all critics accepted the image Mann liked to project of himself, a dignified family man who practiced an unwavering morality. More recently, biographers and critics have viewed this as simply a public mask.
But, if that is so, what did it conceal?
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According to some, it concealed a confused human being, leading a fairly chaotic life. Other critics see a man who, like Gustave von Aschenbach at the beginning of Death in Venice, lived only for his art and had little hesitation about exploiting other people. The reader will have to form his or her own opinion about Thomas Mann, but it is important to raise the issue.
The works cannot entirely be separated from their author. We do know that the strain of balancing his public image with his personal life, of being both a writer and a man of affairs, often proved a burden; and writing was partly a sort of therapy for Thomas Mann. Almost all his works, particularly Death in Venice, show the tension between a need to confess and a desire for privacy.
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