Tobias Boes


On his book Thomas Mann's War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters

Cover Interview of November 20, 2019

The wide angle

Although Thomas Mann’s War is primarily a book about the 1930s and 1940s, I embarked on the project because of my interest in contemporary literature. This connection came full circle about halfway through the writing process, with the Brexit referendum, the rise of right-wing populism throughout Europe, and the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, a lot of the historical phenomena were tremendously relevant again!

Back in 2013, when I first conceptualized my book, I attended a talk by the Rutgers English professor Rebecca Walkowitz, in which she presented research that would eventually form the core of her 2017 study Born Translated. Walkowitz argues that successful contemporary novelists write their fiction with full knowledge of the fact that it will be consumed globally, rapidly translated, and published in many different country-specific editions. In anticipation of this, these writers consciously alter their style to suit global markets.

A lot of what Walkowitz was saying seemed to me immediately applicable to Thomas Mann, about whom I had already written in my first book, Formative Fictions. Separated from his German readership by the censorship of the Nazis, Mann was a master manipulator of his global reputation, who knew that his work would primarily be received in translation. And he had skillful allies in the form of his publisher, his translator, and so on. His case thus seemed to provide a perfect opportunity to study how the contemporary global publishing industry was born from the pangs of World War II. This was, after all, a global conflict in which culture and media were deployed in hitherto unimagined ways.

At the same time, the example of Thomas Mann seemed to complicate some of Walkowitz’s theories in ways that also allowed me to engage a second scholarly influence of mine, the French literary sociologist Pascale Casanova. In her influential study The World Republic of Letters, Casanova argues that writers who want to rise to the highest levels of global literary esteem inevitably need to avoid becoming overly associated with any national literary tradition. But this was manifestly false in the case of Thomas Mann, who ascended to celebrity status in the 1930s largely because of his carefully cultivated reputation as a representative of German culture. And it wasn’t hard to find contemporary writers who imitated this pattern. The Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, for example, or the aforementioned Khaled Hosseini.

Then Brexit and all those other events happened. Suddenly, the question whether global or national forms of cultural validation are more “authentic” was the stuff of front-page opinion pieces. At the same time, fascism, which Mann had so valiantly opposed in the name of liberal democracy, made a comeback. I wish some of the things Mann said back in the 1930s (for instance, about the great difficulty of giving democracy an emotional rather than merely intellectual relevance) weren’t so topical nowadays, but there you have it.