There could hardly be an author we know more about than Thomas Mann. Time and again, it’s true, hints of some still unplumbed darkness glimmer through the biographies and interpretations, a sense of some original trauma in Mann’s career. But a highly plausible account of these has now been widely accepted, as we shall see; and nearly all the evidence would seem to testify in its favour, including virtually everything in Mann’s diaries, extant from 1933 until 1955, the year of his death. Nearly all: only a scattering of entries in these diaries would indicate that the popular theory may not cover everything; only a handful cast real doubt on its explanatory force, suggesting that it leaves a small, decisive something unillumined—a moon that rises, night after night, but never quite waxes full.

A critical entry comes in the spring of 1933, when Mann found himself in utmost danger. Trapped abroad in sudden exile as the Nazis came to power, his diaries were left behind in Munich where, for long weeks, the authorities had them at their fingertips. Mann had dispatched his son Golo there, to pack the diaries in a suitcase and forward them to Lugano. The family chauffeur who had kindly offered to take the case to the station for Golo turned out to be a Nazi spy. This was the start of an agonizing wait: Mann knew the material was in the hands of his mortal enemies. ‘In their unfathomable stupidity,’ Erika Mann wrote of them later, ‘the suitcase was soon released, quite intact, and TM, by now fully prepared for emigration and unwilling to risk the same experience again, burnt a quantity of paper at the first opportunity . . . Were they “compromising”, these modest notebooks? Maybe so, after all. No mansion without its “Bluebeard’s chamber”.’

Mann wrote of the feeling of ‘having escaped a great, even unutterable danger’ when the suitcase reached him unscathed. Never, Erika and Golo reported, had they seen their father in such a state of agitation and despair as during the weeks before. They could scarcely have guessed how serious that condition was. At the height of his panic, on April 30th, 1933, Mann wrote in his diary: ‘My fears are now concentrated first and almost exclusively upon this assault on the secrets of my life. They are heavy and deep. Something terrible, even deadly, could occur.’

This is a passage to make one pause. What else can it mean but that, in the event of the Nazis exploiting his diaries, Mann was contemplating suicide? But what secrets did he have, so heavy, so deep, that their revelation could drive him to his death? The existing scholarship has seldom explicitly addressed this question but has an answer ready at hand: it was boys. For a long time, this fact of Mann’s life had been politely ignored; earlier commentaries preferred not to know. But having shaken off such inhibitions, many now feel they have found the open sesame to his life and work in a guilt-laden homosexuality, concealed behind the bourgeois façade. In recent biographies, the boy prostitutes Mann may have encountered in Italy saunter freely to and fro. It was a lead he pointed to himself when, visiting Naples in 1896 at the age of twenty-one, he wrote to his friend and confidant, Otto Grautoff, about the hissing pimps who offered to take him to ‘supposedly “very beautiful” girls . . . and not only to girls . . .’; and who did not know that he was thinking of restricting himself to a ‘rice diet’, to subdue his inner drives. Mann had struggled quite openly with homoerotic temptations in Naples. What would gainsay his having had some encounter with one of these boys, which the nearly sixty-year-old author now considered so catastrophically compromising that its revelation would force him to kill himself?

It is the later diaries that tell, in a quiet way, against this hypothesis; a closer reading of them reorients the direction of any research. They make two things quite clear. Firstly, that Mann never achieved more than a shy kiss with any of the young men he loved. The single kiss he exchanged with Klaus Heuser seemed, in retrospect, his love-life’s summit and fulfilment. Then again, he was full of indignation about active homosexuals: ‘Sexual things, affairs with different gentlemen, are simply incomprehensible to me. How can one sleep with gentlemen?’—à propos Gore Vidal. And à propos Gide: ‘I, impose anything on a beloved boy! Unthinkable! To disturb his admiration with turpitudes! Extraordinary!’ Then, too, there is a striking conditional. Half asleep, the old man dreamt that he bade farewell to the waiter, Franz Westermeier—his last love, and ‘representative of the whole beloved species’—with a kiss. ‘Whether reality would ever have found me fit for service’, he noted afterwards, ‘is a question in itself’.

Which can only mean that, in reality, a kiss was as far as he was tested. Which also means that the early diaries, at least so far as beloveds were concerned, would have described reveries and day dreams, not bodily acts. And these fantasies, in any case, had been public at least since 1912, when Death in Venice depicted an author—only too clearly Mann’s alter ego—in the thralls of blind passion for an adolescent; it was not just those around Stefan George who read this as an open admission. In a letter to Carl Maria Weber, Mann emphatically protested against the idea that in depicting Aschenbach’s fall, he had somehow wanted to denigrate homoeroticism: for Weber—and others—to persist in such a false impression would be most unwelcome. Quite the contrary: Aschenbach’s manner of feeling was accessible to him in a ‘scarcely mediated way’; and when Weber responded obtusely, he hastened to repeat unambiguously: ‘“Scarcely mediated” means: almost unmediated’.

At the very least, this hardly seems the most sensible way to keep a secret whose revelation might leave no choice but suicide. Later, too, Mann rarely missed an opportunity to take up homoerotic themes, insistent and quite unbidden, even when the official topic was modern marriage or the republic. That in 1933, then—a year before the Röhm putsch, when the criminalization of homosexuals was first set in train—the discovery of a kiss, long the subject of open reverie, should be enough to drive him to suicide does not seem too plausible; especially in light of the second theme that emerges from the letters and diaries which survive. Mann was no puritan to think such daydreams worthy of damnation; nor, for all his Protestantism, so inhibited as to feel ashamed of his errant desires. There is not a scrap of evidence to base such a sense of guilt on these homoerotic inclinations, seen by recent scholarship as the burning heart of his work. On the contrary, Mann wrote that he all but despised insensibility to ‘divine youth’—hardly the voice of mortified contrition; rather, of a secret pride in being part of such an elite, however stigmatized. That he suffered throughout his life from his predilection is one thing; but guilt, self-reproach and deadly taboo?