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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Decision

Britta Böhler

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To purchase The Decision

Title: The Decision
Author: Britta Böhler
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 169 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Decision - US
The Decision - UK
The Decision - Canada
The Decision - India
La décision - France
Der Brief des Zauberers - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: De beslissing
  • Translated by Jeannette K. Ringold

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Our Assessment:

B : fine if limited Thomas Mann-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 11/12/2015 Jonathan Gibbs
Sydney Morning Herald . 12/2/2016 Kerryn Goldsworthy
TLS . 6/4/2016 Scott Esposito

  From the Reviews:
  • "Britta Böhler’s old-fashioned, well-crafted biographical novel, by contrast, could almost be used as a dictionary definition of what’s not hip. (...) It’s safe, and it’s very well done, but its casualness with regards to its processes makes it problematic." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "It seems a strange exercise, especially since it's hard to reconcile this fearful petit-bourgeois mind, preoccupied with physical comfort and mild inconveniences, with what we know of Mann and his work. It's an unconvincing portrait of a great mind dithering about massive ideas in a dangerous time." - Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Böhler is at her best when exploring the trials of exile, the mixture of outrage, nostalgia and impotence with which Mann watches his chances of reclaiming his German life shrivel up. In efficient prose Böhler pleasingly combines the mundane and the exalted: Mann frets" - Scott Esposito, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Decision is a weekend-in-the-life novel, imagining what was going through the author Thomas Mann's mind 31 January to 2 February 1936. The decision of the title revolves around an open letter Mann wrote (in response to an article by Eduard Korrodi in the 26 January issue of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung), with Mann having submitted the piece but then vacillating about whether or not to withdraw it; given that we know the piece was published, there's only so much suspense regarding the decision itself .....
       Mann realizes that publication of the piece would mean a final and complete break with his beloved Fatherland. He appears unwilling to abandon all hope, despite what he knows is happening in Germany under Hitler -- and despite the treatment his books and his property have been subjected to. The German audience is his audience, and to become persona non grata there -- and to be unread there -- is almost unthinkable for him. With this letter he would literally be writing off Germany.
       This is basic historical fiction, Böhler presumably closely relying on Mann's own detailed diaries -- indeed, among the obligatory scenes she has him writing about his day in his diary ,,, -- as well the fill of available biographical material about Mann, as The Decision also fills in much biographical detail about Mann's life to that point. It's all quite well done, and certainly easily digestible; if not quite a substitute for an actual Mann-biography, it's an enjoyable overview of his life for those vaguely familiar with it and his work. Böhler covers a fair amount of ground: trips to America (and Mann's opinions on Einstein and FDR), what the kids get up to, Francophile brother Heinrich's success, Thomas' changing attitudes before and after the First World War (and how he survived the (not-quite-so-)hardships of those times), his leery (and leering) interest in pretty boys and young men (and his concern about those notebooks he left behind speaking to his secret lusts being discovered by the Nazi regime and used to embarrass him). Bonus: a late-night telephone chat with Blanche Knopf, with Alfred A. in the background ..... It's Thomas Mann 101 (through 1936, anyway) in less than 200 pages -- and with its intimate and domestic (complete with complaints about food, walking the dog, and shattered glass) perspective the sort of portrait that is easy to enjoy.
       Of course, Böhler wants to make it weightier, too: there's that decision Mann is making. Abandoning his country -- it's a huge step. (Even if most of that step has already been taken: at this point Mann has lived in exile for several years already, and knows he can't return to Germany.)
       Böhler presents it as a difficult decision for him, one that's tearing him apart:

But if he breaks definitively with his own country with that letter, what then ? What will happen after that ?
       She frames it as a question of his books and readership, suggesting:
     As long as he remains inconspicuous, doesn't rant openly against the regime, and Bermann manages to stay in Germany, his books will be published there -- and be read. [...] Writing for Germany, that's most important, all the rest is incidental. That his books appear in the rest of the world is no more than a bonus, totally meaningless without the essence. Even though he can no longer live in his homeland, as long as he is read there, as long as he can write for his own country, he is still somewhat at home there.
       Given how his foreign-currency royalty payments had made life a lot more comfortable in hyperinflationary Germany (where those German royalties hardly amounted to anything) one would imagine he might have a bit more appreciation for being published and read abroad ..... (Of course, investing the Nobel winnings abroad (Mann's patriotism could be selective when it had to be; once burned by war bonds was apparently enough ...) was also a good move; Böhler does address the financial aspects repeatedly, but allows Mann to pretend to more or less stand above it (leaving wife Katja to pay more attention to these matters).)
       The subject of the writer in exile, and at a remove from his natural or intended audience, is an interesting one -- but Mann was hardly the first or last to face it. At such close remove, too -- not too far across a single border, and in a country where the same language was widely spoken (if, perhaps, with an annoying accent), it's hard to see this as the devastating break Böhler wants to make it out to be -- especially in comparison to many modern-day examples of writers-in-exile. (Indeed, even Mann's later stages seem more promising in this respect: Mann in Pacific Palisades, now there's a disconnect to work with.) Problematic too is that the entire Mann story is known -- and while Mann returned to Europe after the war, he settled right back here in Switzerland, rather than the Germany that had supposedly meant so much to him, an outcome this telling doesn't really prepare readers for. Similarly, it's hard not to recall that two years after publication of the letter he had (at least publicly) embraced an attitude that already seems a huge leap from the man Böhler presents, writing in The New York Times in 1938: "Where I am, there is Germany. I carry my German culture in me".
       If publishing the letter was apparently not as easy for Mann as it arguably should have been, this perhaps isn't surprising given his fundamental conservatism (recall his attitudes during the First World War), and his difficulty in believing Germany could really go to the dogs like this. That he'd eventually come around was also not surprising -- over the years he had tended to align himself the right way, given enough time (though in contrast to brother Heinrich, and children Erika and Klaus, he rarely was ahead of the curve in speaking up). It apparently took a while to sink in, and to rouse him, but surely the writing was on the walls and everywhere else: as long as Hitler was in power, there was nothing left for Mann in or of Germany -- and surely it was clear that even being read there would soon not even be much consolation any more.
       The Decision is an artfully crafted and constructed book, from its musical movement-arrangement to the sheer amount of information about Mann Böhler packs into this relatively short novel. The author has done her homework, and while some of this (really) shows, for the most part it's well woven into her story. There's a nice attempt to show Mann at these crossroads -- working on the next Joseph-volume, and then, at the end, the seeds of Doctor Faustus just beginning to show -- even if it all does feel a bit more forced than actually momentous, with 'the decision' at the heart of The Decision not quite such a big deal but rather just one more of many small steps before and after.
       The Decision is perfectly fine, and readers who enjoy this sort of historical fiction and/or have a modest (but not too great) interest in Mann will surely enjoy it. But one wonders what purpose such presentation serves: the extensive historical record -- notably Mann's own notebooks -- cover this ground in great(er) detail (and without the dubious fictional frills), while Böhler shies back from the liberties fiction allows her. The basic issues, of Mann standing up to the Nazis and of an author concerned about what it means to cut himself off entirely from his (natural/intended) readership, are fascinating, but a more creative approach surely would have been able to get to more than just the scratching of the surface Böhler manages here. (An interesting contrast is Maxim Biller's Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz, which imagines Bruno Schulz writing to Mann about a Doppelgänger impersonating Mann, a much more nuanced (and creative) engagement with Mann's relationship with Germany (and the regime of that day).)
       Finally, it's disappointing that the open letter itself (and, indeed, Eduard Korrodi's article provoking it) are not reproduced here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 January 2016

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The Decision: Reviews: Thomas Mann: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Britta Böhler was born in 1960. She also practices law.

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