The Courtship of Katia Mann
by ALEX CARNEVALE
To use the words of young Nietzsche, I love and affirm in “the atmosphere of ethics, the Faustian flavour, the cross, death and the grave.” In art I believe in pain, experience, recognition, love, profundity, and confront all superficial beauty with either irony or impatience, as seems appropriate.
Four fantastic years of Thomas Mann’s life were spent in the arms of a man. Sex with women had never really interested the German writer, although he was able to maintain an erection with women at times while picturing a more masculine partner. His lover during those four annums was Paul Ehrenberg, a German Jew far lovelier than Mann himself. Mann enjoyed the company of Paul, who was a talented violinist and his brother Carl. But the older man was already a visible novelist and critic with a promising future. Nor could Paul’s affections entirely be relied upon; Mann wrote of his boyfriend, “How is so much torture possible?”
No, Ehrenberg was the wrong choice for so many reasons. Thomas Mann needed a wife.
Mann’s requirements were not demanding. He wanted a woman who was not overly desirous of sex or demonstrative of her ardor. He needed a wife who would not feel thrummed down by the extensive time he devoted to literary craftsmanship, someone with her own life and family. When he first met Katia Pringsheim, that characteristic — of a woman enmeshed in her tight knit family — was also a curse. How to pry her away.
Twenty-year old Katia was not lacking for suitors, and the leading candidate was a professor in his early fifties who, from all available evidence, could furnish her with more of the comfortable upper-middle class life to which she had become accustomed. In Germany before the war, there existed an entire echelon of upper-class, mainly secular Jews, none of whom could ever have imagined the gruesome fate that awaited so many of them.
Katia’s father and twin brother Klaus both favored the well-mannered professor over Mann, and it was only Katia’s mother, a former actress, who saw something in the awkward, regimented behavior of the writer. Showing up at Katia’s door looking somewhat like A.J. Soprano in his military school uniform, Mann was never terribly good at controlling how he appeared to others. “Gently and tactfully,” he had written of the brothers Ehrenberg, “they overcame my gravity, diffidence and irritability by accepting them frankly as concomitants of talents they respected.”
The pursuit of this woman, unexpectedly, roused something in him. He struggled to work up the courage to have someone introduce him to Katia, even though a few of his friends knew the Pringsheims well. Watching her across an amphitheater, he described “her appearance of wanting to hide her awareness that many people were looking at her.” He wrote about her in his journal, mostly to describe how ineffectual he felt his passion was, and sometimes to jot down ideas for stories which paralleled his own experience:
Detail for a love story. As passion wanes, there is an increase in one’s ability to conquer, to make oneself loved. For days he had suffered frightfully over her, full of yearning, weak, disoriented broken down, ill. Then after seeing her again in a big hat which did not specially suit her, he suddenly felt healthier, fresher, more free, more forward, less full of yearning, stronger, more “egoistic,” able to challenge, score points, pay court, make an impression.
As all this was going on, he was slowly, exhaustively, finishing his reading of Goethe.
Eventually, Mann felt the strong inclination to make himself known to Katia. On a daily basis she bicycled to her experimental physics classes, but when it rained she took the tram. He watched her have a fiery argument with a conductor who demanded a ticket she had thrown away, and something else took over. The next week he pretended to return a book to her house, and in ensuing days he invented other excuses to call on the Pringsheims.
Mann shocked himself by how much he admired her; she was “a miracle, something indescribably rare and precious, a creature who through her more existence has more cultural value than the output of fifteen writers or thirty painters.” He also could not help but notice her essential boyishness, an androgynous charm that called to him.
Katia’s mother had soundly cast her vote in favor of Mann, but the rest of the family, including Katia, was not as convinced. Mann mostly expressed his feelings to Katia in a mode of worship, a predilection that made the object of his affection uncomfortable. It did not help that they were always chaperoned, ensuring the two would continously encounter various black holes in conversation. Mann did better in his writing, expressing himself in a way that felt oppressive in person. He tried to logically reason things out:
I am quite aware of not being a man who arouses simple and instantaneously safe feelings. To prompt mixed feelings and ‘perplexity’ is after all — forgive me! — a sign of personality. Someone who never provokes doubts, never astonishes, never causes a slight feeling of dread, someone who is always simply lovable is a fool, a phantom, a figure of fun.
This did not even represent the full spectrum of his “awareness.”
I am aware of causing a certain awkwardness through my ‘lack of spontaneity,’ of ingenousness, of unself-consciousness, all the nervousness, artificiality and difficulty of my nature, hinders everyone, even the most well-meaning people, from coming closer to me or even dealing with me in a bearable, comfortable way; and that troubles me all the more when I detect in people’s behaviour towards me that warmer interest which is called sympathy, and in spite of all the obstacles, this happens with quite incredible frequency…
You know that personally, humanly, I could not develop like other young people, that a talent can function like a vampire — bloodsucking, parasitic. You know what a cold, impoverished, merely representative, merely symbolical life I have been living for years, know that for many years, important years, I regarded myself as nothing, in human terms, and wanted to be considered only as an artist. Only one cure is possible for the attachment to the representative and artistic, this lack of instinctive trust in my personal and human side: through happiness; through you, my clever, sweet, good-hearted, beloved little queen. Be my affirmation, my justification, my fulfilment, my salvation, my — wife.
Katia felt she could not give him an answer yet. He despaired at her reticence and caution, and his friend Kurt Martens encouraged him to give her a deadline or pull away for a time altogether to see what she would do. Mann resisted putting this pressure on Katia, correctly thinking that making his feelings seem so changeable was more likely to unnerve her than draw her closer. Instead, he continued along the same lines, making the legal case for himself:
Silly little Katia. Still carrying on about “overrating,’ and insisting you will be unable to “be” for me what I expect you to be. But I love you. Good God! Do you not understand what that means? What else is there to expect and to be? My wife is what I want you to “be,” and in that way to make me absurdly proud and happy. After all, what I “make of you,” the meaning I give you which you have and will have for my life — is my concern, and it gives you no bother or responsibility.
Mann’s letters were unlike any others she received, and slowly she began to warm to him. Whenever the idea of marriage came up, a deeply fearful look overtook her (Mann described it as that of a “hunted doe”), but other than that, the couple enjoyed spending time together. Finally, one afternoon before she was to leave Munich for the summer, Katia and Thomas were permitted an afternoon alone. Afterwards he wrote “there was a indescribably sweet and painful parting which is still present in all my nerves and senses.”
He doubted her until the very moment of her assent. “Her naivety is extraordinary — supreme and dumbfounding,” he wrote. “This strange, kind-hearted and yet egotistical little Jew-girl, polite and without a will of her own! I can still hardly believe she will ever bring the word Yes to her lips.”
Mann tried to appeal to Katia’s more rational faculties — after all, she was a student of mathematics. She insisted that in comparison to him, she was stupid and not worthy of his adulation. It was his letters that finally got to her. Mann’s desire for her to be his wife was so evident and honestly broadcasted, that she could not truly feel she was getting any part of the man that was not the real thing. In one particular missive, he even confessed to weeping at the sight of her handwriting.
At first she had been overwhelmed. Now she was simply whelmed, and Mann knew it was his moment. “I believe you feel as strongly as I do that it is high time to put an end to this in between state! Do you not think that once we belong together in the eyes of the world, the relationship will be much more clean-cut and comfortable?” Mann biographer Ronald Hayman described the moment: “When he took her in his arms, he was half-surprised she neither pushed him away or called for help.” The wedding took place on February 11th, 1905. Katia conceived on her honeymoon, and the two had sex very infrequently, mainly indulging themselves only to get Katia Mann with child.
After the engagement, Mann lost all touch with the Ehrenbergs, and Paul himself was married by the next year.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
mann’s writing desk