By Caille Millner, The Paris Review Daily, Aug. 25, 2016
Thomas Mann’s home in Pacific Palisades, California, is up for sale. The news came as a surprise: the house, designed by the modernist architect J. R. Davidson, was believed to have a reliable owner with Chester Lappen, the lawyer who bought it from Mann in 1953, and his heirs. As late as 2012, they’d expressed no interest in selling.
Things have changed. Mann, who escaped the Nazis for America in 1938, had the home built to his cultured specifications. Davidson, Mann’s fellow countryman in exile, called the style “nostalgic German.” Photos of its flat roof, grand windows, and unadorned pillars offer an effect that’s warmer than the era’s Southern California Modernism. But for the few who can afford it, 1550 San Remo Drive may have more worth as an address than as a building. The home has been marketed as a potential teardown.
“Create your dream estate,” the real estate listing reads, with no mention of Doctor Faustus (1947) and The Holy Sinner (1951), the exquisite nightmares Mann created there. Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic, spoke to Joyce Rey, the seller’s real estate agent. She said the home’s value was in its land, not its history or architecture.
Germany has greeted the sale announcement with consternation—and shock at Los Angeles’ lack of interest in protecting cultural patrimony. Some have demanded that the German government purchase the property. The emotional response is understandable: while most of Mann’s existing residences in Germany have been protected and restored, options for protecting historic buildings are restricted in Los Angeles. And clearly, as a group, the Angelenos don’t share Germany’s passion for discursive, symbolic novels.
Mann himself would’ve been devastated by the news. Though he wrote powerfully about the dangers of romanticism and nostalgia, he suffered from those same forces. After he moved back to Europe in 1952, he was known to long for his California sanctuary. The patio, the ocean, the seven palm trees on his property—“the house was so completely my own,” he said.
Still, he may not have been surprised. Mann had already lost one grand estate by the time he arrived in California, and Doctor Faustus, the late great novel of his exile, is haunted by the loss of homes both past and present.
Born into a well-off family and gifted with early literary success, Mann was able to commission a luxurious villa on Poschingerstrasse in Munich in 1913. He lived there with his family until 1933, when accusations that he was an enemy of the state overtook him. When the Mann family left for a lecture tour (in honor of Richard Wagner), the German police seized his home and expropriated everything inside—art, furnishings, Mann’s many creature comforts.
From abroad Mann watched in despair as his own dispossession became the self-imposed fate of his country. Faustus is written under literal fire: the narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, relates the story of the composer Adrian Leverkühn while the Allies are bombing around him.
“I sat here in my study, turning ashen, shaking like the walls, doors, and windowpanes of my house—and writing this account of a man’s life with a trembling hand,” Zeitblom says.
By Faustus’ end, Zeitblom is huddled in a “hermit’s cell,” like Dostoevosky’s underground man. Domesticity has been eradicated; the comforts of a grand home and culture are no longer possible. “The war is lost, and that means more than a lost campaign, it means that we in fact are lost—lost, our cause and soul, our faith and our history,” Zeitblom says. The country’s glittering cities, birthplaces of Goethe and Schiller and Heine, lie in waste.
Part of what makes Faustus so powerful is the way Mann delineates the social and cultural devastation of these cities and these homes. More than any of his other novels save Buddenbrooks, Faustus is obsessed with interiors: rooms, floor plans, furniture. An example is the loving care with which Mann inventories the Schildknapp home’s study in Munich. It’s “wainscoted, with uncarpeted plank floors and stamped leather covering the walls beneath the beamed ceiling, and with pictures of saints in the low-vaulted embrasure.”
The dining rooms, villas, and castles abound in Faustus, at least until the bombs start to fall. And once the bombing begins, the overwhelming destruction will go unmourned. “[Leipzig] is, I sadly hear, only a heap of rubble and an immeasurable wealth of literary and educational material is now the spoil of destruction—a heavy loss not only for us Germans, but also for a whole world that cares about culture,” Zeitblom writes. “That world, however, is apparently willing—whether blindly or correctly, I dare not decide—to take that loss into the bargain.”
Now Los Angeles is willing to place another of Mann’s losses into the bargain. It may be tempting to draw parallels to our current political climate—and it’s difficult to imagine Mann, who abandoned the U.S. during McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt, approving of Donald Trump’s proposals for a Mexican border wall and Muslim travel ban—but the hunger for real estate, and its flattening effect on culture, is a global phenomenon. In 2015, the reconstructed villa on Mann’s former Munich plot sold for more than 30 million euros. The novelist’s former address in Munich has passed through a series of celebrities, heiresses, and now, entrepreneurs and financiers. The German press described the latest buyer as an unknown quantity—a business heir and freight-car investor whose name just happens to be Thomas Mann.
Caille Millner is the author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic, Zyzzyva, and Joyland, and she contributed to Greil Marcus’s anthology A New Literary History of America.