Even if you have never read anything by the great German novelist Thomas Mann, you will almost certainly have come across Visconti’s film of his most famous novella, “Death in Venice”. Thomas Mann is the best known member of one of Germany’s most celebrated literary families. Several of his children also had literary careers, but it is the family of Thomas Mann’s elder brother Heinrich, born in 1871, that is the focus of this week’s Czech Books. Also a novelist, he had close associations with Czechoslovakia. David Vaughan explores the Czech branch of the Mann family.
Born in Prague in 1948, Jindřich Mann is Heinrich Mann’s grandson. In fact they even share the same first name, as Jindřich is the Czech equivalent of Heinrich – Henry in English. Yet Jindřich Mann grew up in post-war communist Czechoslovakia without ever having met his grandfather or any of his other Mann relatives. His is a typically complex 20th century Central European story and, true to family form, Jindřich Mann has written a book drawing from his own and his family’s experience. “Poste Restante” was first published in German in 2007 – and has just appeared in Czech, an intriguing combination of novel, autobiography and family history. You only have to read the first paragraph to understand that this is not a standard work of genealogy. We enter a world of imagination and even dream. Here is my own rough translation of the first three sentences:
From time to time I dream about my parents. They died twenty years ago. For the first time in ages I happened to dream about my father. It was a strange dream. But then, every dream is strange. And there is even a theory, albeit not universally acknowledged, that our whole life is nothing but a dream.
I met Jindřich Mann amid the high ceilings and fin-de-siècle swirls of the Topič Salon, an art gallery built in the 1890s in Prague’s National Avenue just across from the National Theatre. The building is very much a survival from a lost era, and would not be out of place in a Thomas Mann novel. But when we met, Thomas Mann’s great-nephew Jindřich was anything but fin-de-siècle. Dressed in an old sweater, he was relaxed, informal and matter-of-fact. And we spoke Czech.
“I was asked to write the book by the German publishers Rowohlt, and I wrote it in German before writing the Czech version. They wanted me to write about the Mann family, but my problem was that I didn’t actually know much about the family. So you could say I escaped into my own autobiography. The commissioning editor at Rowohlt, Uwe Naumann, became a good friend. I’m still not quite sure what he was expecting of me. Perhaps he was just inquisitive and wanted to see what I’d come up with. The result was my book, and he seemed quite happy with what I provided.”
The reviewer in the German paper Die Welt hits the nail on the head, when she writes that “in the book, family history becomes the history of the time, not through some deliberate plan, but because it cannot be avoided. It makes the book more than a memoir, it becomes a Prague panorama of the 20th century.”
“Looking back, I’d say that the book is a journey through an epoch on the basis of a series of stories of varying lengths, it’s made up of lesser known episodes from the life of my relatives, but at the same time of my own memories or impressions, and by putting them together I try to describe an time that we lived through. You could even describe it as a collection of short stories, connected to one another, but also self-contained.”
Jindřich Mann was born in the year when the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. His grandmother Marie was from a Czech Jewish family, and as an actress she ended up in Berlin before the First World War. It was there that she met and married Heinrich Mann, who was already well established, famous for his novel “Professor Unrat”, which was adapted in 1930 as the legendary film “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich. They had a daughter, Jindřich’s mother Leonie, and when Hitler came to power, the mother and daughter returned to Czechoslovakia. Jindřich himself picks up the story.
“My mother came back to Czechoslovakia in 1933, but did not manage to leave Czechoslovakia in time when Hitler’s troops invaded. Her parents had already divorced, my grandfather Heinrich Mann was living with his new wife in France and then went on to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life. That’s just how things are in life and war. It meant that I never met my grandfather, because I was born in Czechoslovakia and the Iron Curtain came down. I didn’t meet any of my relatives till I was in my mid-30s. In fact I didn’t really have any relatives. My parents themselves didn’t have roots in Czechoslovakia, my grandmother died not long after returning from Terezín, and all my other relatives had either perished in the Holocaust or were living on the other side of the Iron Curtain.”
Jindřich Mann bears his mother’s surname as his parents only married after he was born. His father was Ludvík Aškenazy. A veteran of General Svoboda’s campaign to liberate Czechoslovakia with the Red Army, Aškenazy started as a young journalist here at Czechoslovak Radio just after the war. He became a prolific and successful writer. During Jindřich’s childhood In the late 1950s and early 60s, Aškenazy was one of the most published and widely read writers in Czechoslovakia, managing to keep on good terms with the regime. He remains popular to this day, not least because of the huge appeal of his books for children. Jindřich recalls that his parents rarely spoke of the traumas of the past, or of their broader families. Instead, the pre-war world was more like a shadow, as this short extract from “Poste Restante”, again in my own working translation, reminds us.
At the time of my socialist childhood, twenty or more years after my mother and grandmother had first stepped from the train in Prague, the pre-war republic was a lost world of Atlantis. Yet you could see its traces everywhere. Prague streets were still filled with cars from the First Republic, makes that had long since ceased to exist: Praga, Tatra, Walter, Aero… Their owners took great care of these messengers from a more flamboyant past, there was no prospect of a replacement in the foreseeable future.
One of the great strengths of the book is the vivid atmosphere that Jindřich Mann evokes of Prague in the 1950s. Through anecdotes and stories, we get to know both his family and the period through the prism of childhood. Like his father, Ludvík Aškenazy, Mann has a gift for conjuring up images from a child’s point of view, and his rich prose, described by more than one reviewer as “Baroque”, has more in common with the Mann side of his family.
We left the Smetana Theatre in high spirits. Thrilled by our shared theatrical experience.
We crossed the broad street. Through the branches and leaves of the old trees the lights of the hotel and café Esplanade were sparkling.
The Number 11 drew close, our tram. Whenever the trolley touched a spot where the electric wires were damp, a spark would leap out. Into the darkness it would burn the over-exposed outlines of the world around. The flash would bathe me and my mother in a pale blue glow.
It reflected on the cobbles, the tramlines and my mother’s hand. She clasped mine in hers. We climbed on board. The conductor tugged on the wire that stretched above the seats along the line of the windows and rang the bell. I fell asleep.
From time to time, as we went round a sharp bend or stopped, I opened my eyes for a moment, and squinted sleepily into the sky. Right in the middle of its arc, the stage designer had painted a little crescent moon.
In 1968, after the Soviet invasion, Jindřich Mann and both his parents left for West Germany. At the time he was just twenty, and he assumed that he was leaving the world of his native Czech forever, and with that, any chance of writing as a career. He studied film and has since had a successful career in television. But the urge to write always remained and for German TV he has written numerous screenplays over the years. Since the fall of communism, he has divided his time between Germany and Prague.
Then came his book “Poste Restante”. Its success in Germany – a remarkable achievement given that he was writing in his second language – gave him a growing sense of literary self-confidence, and it was only logical that sooner or later he should turn his hand to his native Czech.
“When the book was first published in German, there was an article about it in the Czech paper Mladá fronta Dnes. The publishers Labyrint approached me, saying that they’d be interested in publishing it. I said I’d be delighted and would put it into Czech myself. So I translated it, although it would be more accurate to say that I rewrote it. I would look at the page I was translating and then completely rewrite it. I made a few other changes, because it was a chance to edit things that I didn’t like in the original, and of course I left out a few bits that I’d had to explain to German readers but which would be clear to a Czech reader, and sometimes it was the opposite. I actually prefer the Czech version of the book. I see it as a little triumph at my age – I’m over sixty – to have published a book in Czech – a novel, although you can’t quite call it a novel. And so far I’ve been surprised by the positive response and the amount of interest.“
Czech critics have been unanimous in saying that “Poste Restante” is beautifully written, as well as providing a missing piece in the complex mosaic of the Mann family history. I hope that it will be translated into English. Jindřich Mann is a worthy heir to the literary legacy of his famous Mann forebears, and also of his father, Ludvík Aškenazy, who deserves to be far better known outside the Czech Republic. Perhaps we can put that right in a future edition of Czech Books.