I’ve read some damning stuff about Thomas Mann (particularly this LRB piece by Colm Tóibín), so it was with interest that I picked up his letters this weekend. Granted, they’re selected, and, granted, Thomas Mann had a vested interest in crafting his public image, but they really show a very good side of him. He comes across as extremely modest for a man of his accomplishments (there’s the one where he goes on at length in an effort to dispel rumors of his encyclopedic knowledge engendered by his, well, encyclopedic novels), and he sounds very reasonable and even-tempered throughout.
Perhaps nowhere is he more even-tempered than with Arnold Schoenberg, who, it seems, was convinced that Mann was out to steal credit for inventing the twelve-tone system. In letter after letter Mann assures Schoenberg that he has nothing to fear from him, and he repeatedly tells Schoenberg that he’ll have no success goading Mann into attacking him. (For another subjective take that puts Mann into a good light in this encounter, see this essay by Michael Wood.)
I know that Schoenberg was legendarily paranoid, but the following missive in this ongoing battle over twelve-tone supremacy was striking for the amount of lunacy it implies. On February 17, 1948, Mann opened a letter to Schoenberg with this line: “That certainly is a curious document.” One already senses the understated but utterly palpable condescension employed when talking to a stray animal, a young child, or Arnold Schoenberg. And here’s the proof of it: a footnote appended to the end of the sentence informs us that:
A “Hugo Triebsamen” had purportedly sent Schoenberg an extract from an imaginary Encyclopedia Americana of 1988, and Schoenberg forwarded it to Mann with a bitter comment. The extract stated that Thomas Mann, originally a musician, was the real inventor of the twelve-tone system, but that after he became a writer he silently tolerated its appropriation by a thievish composer named Schoenberg. With the publication of Doctor Faustus, Mann had claimed the musical system as his own intellectual property.
I know what you’re thinking: “Sure, it’s a little excessive to send Thomas Mann an extract from a fake encyclopedia written by some madman as objective historical proof that Mann really did steal Schoenberg’s system, when Mann had already stated otherwise on numerous occasions, but it’s not that bad.” True, true, until you read the next sentence in the footnote: “In a cordial letter of reconciliation dated November 25, 1948, Schoenberg admitted that he had invented Triebsamen and his letter.”
Didn’t Schoenberg have enough to occupy his time with?