The Mann family in Travemünde and Lübeck

Extracts from Part One: Now That It’s Broken, House of Exile – The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann (Giramondo, 2009)

The brothers were tied by bonds of love and jealousy. There were fallings-out, short and long periods of not speaking to each other, followed by peace. Tidal forces of affection. During one of the family’s summer holidays in Travemünde, a seaside resort 15 kilometres from Lübeck, to cut the ice, Heinrich raced Tommy to the shore and deliberately fell over in the sand to let his brother win. Then they both dipped their toes into the blue-green water – measured in degrees of coldness, even on the hottest day – and daring one another, they both plunged into the waves.

Two hundred fifty rivers drain into the glacial basin of the Baltic Sea; as the largest volume of brackish – in some parts almost fresh – water on the planet, it contains only about a quarter of the salt of oceans. It was once a lake and has been a sea for a scant 7,000 years; now it is related to the North Sea, and distantly, to the North Atlantic, via narrow straits. Sudden wind changes and violent storms have always made it hazardous for ships; on its bed there are more rotting, rusting wrecks than in any other sea on Earth. Heinrich told his younger brother, as they dived into the viridescent waves, about a marine landscape of ships’ hulls, broken masts, treasure chests and cannon balls, crusted with shells, flagged with fluorescent algae. He said that the Baltic was a cemetery. That swimming further out, they must be careful not to touch the bottom with their feet, for fear of kicking up old bones. That the water of the Baltic tastes like blood.

In Los Angeles, in the not yet broken darkness before dawn, Heinrich cast pencil markings across a new page of his sketchbook: 1886, he calculated, May or June, when their mother began to read Anna Karenina to them, for soon afterwards they were on holiday, and the book, unfinished, had been left at home.

Travemünde in July and August was a place of milk-washed skies, sand like silk against the skin, shells picked up and left randomly on windowsills and gateposts. Everyone rose early and retired late; with a Nordic thirst for light and warmth, accumulated over too many months of winter, they lavished themselves with sun. At the water’s edge was the familiar line-up of bathing machines which one entered clothed and exited by a short ladder, temporarily amphibian, for health from sea water and sea air. From the promenade, and from a pathmaze of manicured gardens, with the crunch of pebbles underfoot, came bursts of laughter and sounds of calling to acquaintances, in a great variety of dialects and languages. Holidaymakers wearing mostly white, men with straw hats, women twirling parasols, strolled, or gathered with contagious leisure, against the backdrop of the hardly incongruous row of picturesque Swiss chalets, or the Musiktempel, or the Kurhaus where one sipped salt water. On the beach children chased raucous seagulls, and with Lilliputian spades built forts and castles; with their bare hands they dug wet sand, urgently, to make channels and as the water rushed in and out, and the walls threatened to collapse, they hurried to secure them; if someone wilfully destroyed these masterworks, there were slaps, kicks, howls, tears.

A youth carrying a book might slink towards the dunes to read or daydream, unsure of his status in society, while others of his age rehearsed the arts of courtship in every little way. Two or three young people walked in the direction of the lighthouse and the Brodtener Steilufer, a cliff from which great chunks, trees even, sometimes fell into the sea; at its base was a narrow strip of sand, a renowned treasure trail for fossil hunters, leading between Travemünde and the fishing-village of Niendorf.

Along slowly darkening paths some who stayed out late followed the rituals of glow worms – wingless female beetles, Lampyris noctiluca – that lit up their bodies to attract the unilluminated flying males.

Like many others, the Manns probably hired an open carriage for excursions to villages further along the coast, Niendorf, Timmendorf, Scharbeutz, where they would eat freshly smoked fish for lunch, herring, sprats, or eel. They stopped to buy berries from a farmer’s stall, and the old coachman took a nap while they picked great bunches of blue lupins that grew beside the road, and strawflowers from a whitegold carpet covering the dunes. As they headed back to Travemünde for dinner, fields on one side, sea on the other, Lula coughed from the dust kicked up by the horses, and Heinrich noticed that Carla was almost asleep against his chest, that Tommy was sunburnt.

Light and shade flickered hypnotically as the carriage rolled through a forest of beech trees. The coachman told stories. Not only amber washed up on these shores, he said, but people too, the living and the dead. He recounted the terrible storms he’d experienced in his lifetime. The worst by far were the winds that caused the great flood of November 1872, when it seemed as if in the wild black of night, the sea would altogether claim the land. Trees bent like straw, buildings were destroyed, others filled with sand, people and animals drowned, those who had managed to climb onto rooftops felt walls collapse below and were set adrift. As the water subsided, survivors were found in treetops and boats were stranded on meadows far from the shore.

Going further back in time, the coachman thought it was the summer of 1837, he was a young man then, courting the innkeeper’s daughter, and he remembered that travellers on their way by ship to other Baltic ports had to wait for the wild weather to abate before continuing their journeys. The wind was so powerful that a beehive was tossed high into the air, and with its swarm intact it was carried to an island. For days the inn was full of restless people, pacing, smoking, drinking; not a rowdy bunch at first, but they grew irritable as the weather worsened. The storyteller remembered one man going to Riga, who was increasingly impatient with the delay, intolerant of the crowded space, red with anger; how the volume of his voice rose from his chest, producing rapid streams of curses; how he slammed the wooden benches with his fist. To calm him, the innkeeper showed him a book which absorbed the man so completely, he was seen musing, making notes, tapping rythms on the table, and when the storm passed and it was time to continue their journey, his wife had trouble rousing him from his concentration. The fellow’s name, the coachman revealed as he pulled up at the hotel entrance, was Wagner.

And the book the innkeeper had brought him was Till Eulenspiegel, which he’d immediately thought would be a perfect subject for a quintessentially German comic opera. Richard and Minna Wagner were going to Riga, where he was to take up the position of musical director at the German Theatre. The Wagners’ return journey in 1839, with their Newfoundland dog, was even more eventful. Minna was pregnant, and having lived beyond their means in Riga, they were travelling in a great hurry across borders, without visas, to escape their creditors. At one point their coach overturned, and as if the trickster Eulenspiegel himself was at work, Wagner landed in a pile of dung. Man, woman, and dog crawled through high grass to reach the dinghy that would take them to their ship. Minna later found she had miscarried. They expected to be in London in a week, but the trip took almost a month. Tempestuous weather blew the small merchant vessel far off course; it was driven onto rocks that tore off its figurehead, and the sailors, familiar with the legend of the fleeing Dutchman, suspected that the Wagners might be the harbingers of great misfortune. The opera based on this experience premiered in 1843. It was a great success.

In early September 1886 the Manns arrived back in Lübeck, bright-eyed and tanned...


.... 1889 or 1890, only a few steps from the Holstentor – via the Puppenbrücke, the bridge of dolls – Lübeck’s Lindenplatz became a site of yearning for Thomas Mann. This neighbourhood was the home of his schoolfriend, Armin Martens, the son of a timber merchant. In the novella Tonio Kröger (1903), portraying Martens as Hans Hansen, Tonio (who was Thomas) named what he loved best: the fountain, the old walnut tree, his violin and the sea in the distance, the dreamlike summer sounds of the Baltic Sea. He loved his dark, fiery mother, who played the piano and the violin so enchantingly. And he loved Hans Hansen, and had already suffered a great deal on his account. For it seemed that whoever loves the most is at a disadvantage and must suffer...


... Thomas Mann later claimed that he and his brother were strongly influenced by the shadowy atmosphere of Lübeck, where twisting Gothic alleys and hidden corners seemed to be haunted by something very old and pale, emotionally deformed, spiritually diseased, a remnant of the hysteria of medieval times. He said Lübeck was the city of The Dance of Death. Hans Christian Andersen, who visited St. Marien in 1831, thought he detected ironic smiles on the skeletons’ faces, and was moved to write a story about a boy called Christian who asked for paper reproductions of figures from The Dance of Death to play with. Most likely, for the Mann children, those images in all their tricky ambiguity would have provided rich material for theatrical productions and night terrors. The church fresco was destroyed in the bombing of 1942 ...

© Evelyn Juers, 2009