I was not planning to read yet another book about you, nor anything related to the Mann family, but Gunna Wendt’s Erika und Therese: Erika Mann und Therese Giehse – Eine Liebe zwischen Kunst und Krieg (2018, ‘Erika Mann and Therese Giehse: a love story between art and war’, not translated yet) inadvertently caught my eyes. Could it have unearthed some new piece of information from the scattered puzzle of Die Pfeffermühle? Does it address the discussion over the responsibility of the artist during dark times? The short answer to these questions is – No, not really.
Wendt’s dual biography opens when you and Therese Giehse are facing separation, and then it jumps back to the time when you had not met each other yet. It goes on to set the background of your lives: first, a brief sketch of Thomas and Katia Mann, your close relationship to your brother Klaus – whom you often described as your twin brother -, your marriage to Gustaf Gründgens, and your affairs with Pamela Wedekind and Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Wendt recounts, more or less in detail, your school years, yours travels, and your writing career.
Running in parallel to these events in your life, we have alternating chapters surrounding the German-Jewish actress Therese Giehse: her background, her school days, her acting career, and her success at the Kammerspiele ensemble in Munich. From the moment you two met, in Munich, in 1927, to the collapse of your relationship in 1937, in the United States, the narrative is brought together by your common artistic project – your work at the anti-Fascist, literary cabaret Die Pfeffermühle, which you both founded in 1933.
The book is told in a series of alternating chapters, going back and forth between you and Therese, and this structure mirrors Wendt’s premise: it succeeds at highlighting the deep differences in your lives, family backgrounds, and personalities. The book also does a good job at portraying some cultural elements of Weimar Germany, as well as the cultural collapse the country went through at the rise of Nazism.
I also enjoyed the chapters on Die Pfeffermühle, the common project in which you two seem to have truly found each other: an artistic and political collaboration that marked your first troubled years after Hitler’s rise to power and your exile in Switzerland and, later, in the United States.
However, I must admit that, for me, the book was very superficial: it works well as an introduction to your biography, but it brings no new information, nor any fresh perspective on the subjects it addresses. Furthermore, differently from what it may seem to promise at first glance, the book does not focus as much on your affair with Giehse – in fact, it does not even focus as much on Giehse’s life itself. Most of the narrative centres on you and the rest of the Mann family – and it is even through the Mann’s perspective that Therese is presented to us.
It feels very much as if we were looking at a blurry image: we can distinguish its colours, shapes and contours, but there is a smudgy stain where the details should be.
“Das Leben betrachtete sie als eine Expedition ins Unbekannte, irgendwie war sie immer auf einer Art Weltreise.” – Gunna Wendt, Erika und Therese: Erika Mann und Therese Giehse – Eine Liebe zwischen Kunst und Krieg