MANY MODERN WRITERS had agonizing relations with their disturbed children. Joseph Conrad’s son was imprisoned for embezzlement; James Joyce’s daughter became insane; Robert Frost’s son killed himself; Ernest Hemingway severed relations with his mentally ill son, who became a tormented transsexual. Thomas Mann fathered six children in symmetrical pairs—girl-boy, boy-girl, girl-boy—between 1905 and 1919. His three oldest children—Erika, Klaus and Golo—were homosexual; Klaus and Michael, the youngest, committed suicide. Klaus enjoyed the advantages of his father’s culture, wealth, fame, prestige, and influence, but found it difficult to free himself from his father and establish an independent identity.
Thomas Mann had had homosexual affairs before marrying Katia Pringsheim, and afterwards still had powerful, though repressed, yearnings for young men. His subtle homosexual themes appeared in Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice. In Mario and the Magician, the conjuror Cipolla hypnotizes the handsome young Mario, who is humiliated and forced to kiss him in public. Thomas recorded his homosexual experiences in his Diary, which he left behind in Munich when he later went into exile and was afraid that the Nazis would seize and use them to destroy his reputation. (The English translation of 1982 censored or suppressed many sensational passages.) Thomas chose to suppress his homosexuality by marrying and enjoying a secure life. Though he would encourage Klaus’ homosexuality, he expected the son to follow his respectable path.
ka918, when Klaus was eleven years old and struggling with the changes of puberty, Thomas seemed to possess an in-house Tadzio who matched Aschenbach’s idealized adolescent in Death in Venice. In his Diary he recorded, “I am really pleased to have such a beautiful boy as a son. … His naked bronzed body left me unsettled.” Two years later, from May to July 1920, Thomas revealed his forbidden feelings for Klaus. The normally undemonstrative Thomas described using physical gestures and soothing words about platonic man-to-man love to justify and make his son accept his own rash behavior: “I made Klaus aware of my inclination with my caresses and by persuading him to be of good cheer.” Continuing to stroke his son and attributing his own perverse feelings to the boy, he commented on Klaus’ youthful writing, their common endeavor, “while sitting on his bed and caressing him which, I believe, he enjoyed.”