Afew years ago, a Scottish newspaper carried the story of a bird-call imitator who, to his great pride, had sustained a conversation with an owl in the next door garden for over a decade. They would call to each other every evening from either side of the wall. One day his wife mentioned the matter to her neighbour. This lady’s husband, it appeared, had also been mimicking an owl for the past ten years. Is it conceivable that this Scottish misunderstanding might cast some light on the complex relationship between Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno—or Tommy and Teddy, as they called themselves?

Let us begin with the end. When Adorno learned of Mann’s death, he telegrammed his widow Katia:

It was indeed a love story, though a one-sided affair. Adorno really did love Mann. Their correspondence reveals him solicitous, faithful, flattering; unflagging in his enthusiasm, he heaped the great author with high praise to the last. In 1945, two years after their first encounter, Adorno offered Mann—at seventy one, nearly thirty years his senior—this moving confession:

This was written during that magical time when the two were neighbours in California and met several times a week to work together on Doctor Faustus. Their intimacy was short-lived, yet Adorno nourished the notion that it endured to the end. Near the conclusion of his extraordinary essay, ‘Towards a Portrait of Thomas Mann’, he touches on Mann’s playful nature, which survived the most extreme situations:

Nobody who has read Adorno’s essay can forget that impressive detail—he had fun even with his death! The letter itself, however, proves more puzzling, and Adorno’s reading is, to put it cautiously, a very free interpretation. Mann’s message to him was scarcely suffused with the consciousness, or even the suspicion, that his condition was fatal. He was worried, but had no real idea how dangerous the illness was. He explained that he would have to rest in the Zürich cantonal hospital for another four weeks, at least, to cure the inflammation of his veins. Then they would meet up in Kilchberg. Adorno would enjoy seeing his house, whose beautiful situation and unpretentious comfort made it the perfect final residence.