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Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man


When the Great War broke out in August 1914, Thomas Mann, like so many people on both sides of the conflict, was exhilarated. Finally, the era of decadence that he had anatomized in Death in Venice had come to an end; finally, there was a cause worth fighting and even dying for, or, at least when it came to Mann himself, writing about. Mann immediately picked up his pen to compose a paean to the German cause. Soon after, his elder brother and lifelong rival, the novelist Heinrich Mann, responded with a no less determined denunciation. Thomas took it as an unforgivable stab in the back.

The bitter dispute between the brothers would swell into the strange, tortured, brilliant, sometimes perverse literary performance that is Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, a book that Mann worked on and added to throughout the war and that bears an intimate relation to his postwar masterpiece The Magic Mountain. Wild and ungainly though Mann’s reflections can be, they nonetheless constitute, as Mark Lilla demonstrates in a new introduction, a key meditation on the freedom of the artist and the distance between literature and politics.

The NYRB Classics edition includes two additional essays by Mann: “Thoughts in Wartime” (1914), translated by Mark Lilla and Cosima Mattner; and “On the German Republic” (1922), translated by Lawrence Rainey.


Reflections′ makes for a grimly fascinating read. Mann discloses as much of himself in its pages as in any of his autobiographical fiction.
—Alex Ross, The New Yorker

Nationalist, patriotic, conservative, and spiritually autobiographical . . . it is a strange, enormously, clever (also foolish) and (in an alarming sense) fascinating piece, of sustained, often anguished and sometimes contorted eloquence.
—D. J. Enright, Times Literary Supplement

Reflections helps us to understand the problem that has not gone away: the dilemma of the intellectual (the writer, the artist) in politics.
—Walter Laqueur, The New York Times Book Review

At long last, a magnificent full translation of Mann’s untimely masterpiece . . . an obviously complex and profound work.

Without the impassioned patriotic document it is impossible to see Mann’s artistic and political development in the right perspective.
—Erich Heller

[Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man] feels not just worthy of our attention but somehow indispensable. . . . The idea that we do damage to life’s most important elements when we use them instrumentally, for political ends, poses a real challenge to our moment, obsessed as it is with the political responsibility of the artist.
—Christopher Beha, New York Times Book Review


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