Doctor Faustus

by Thomas Mann

Hardcover, 1948

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

A Borzoi Book/ Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher (1948). First Edition

Description

A new translation of a 1948 novel based on the Faust legend. The protagonist is Adrian Leverkuhn, a musical genius who trades his body and soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of triumph as the world's greatest composer.

Media reviews

New York Review of Books
The career of Thomas Mann's modern Faust is intended to illustrate the political, artistic, and religious dilemmas of the author's time. Yet paradoxically, the story of a former divinity student who bargains his soul and body to become a "musician of genius" is set in the wrong historical era. And the book's major flaw as fiction— counting as minor blemishes the discursiveness, and the imbalance between theory in the first half, story development and human variety in the second—may be attributed to conflicts between Mann's symbolic and realistic intentions.

To compare Dr. Faustus and the realistic novels of, for example, Solzhenitsyn, is to recognize how much more limited in scope is the newer genre. In the sense of embracing the spectrum of humanistic, religious, and artistic themes, Dr. Faustus may be the last of its kind.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Mann's attempt at an elegy for German culture following Hitler and a postmortem to extract the inextricable elements in that culture that birthed the NS-zeit. Doctor Faustus doesn't fail, exactly, but it comes uncomfortably close to being an apologia at moments--not for Nazism, but for the abovesaid elements that combining volatilely permitted it. The pretext is a retelling of the Faust myth through the life of the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, who is presented as a kind of Schoenberg-analogue in music (the twelve-tone system is his) if not in life, and who makes a deal with the devil for 24 years of unparalleled creative power in exchange for forswearing the capacity and the right to love.

Leverkühn is then a symbol of the German genius. It is as ponderous and heavy a genius here as we know it to be of old, with some added convolution or perplexity perhaps from the need to talk around the central shameful act of writing a book about the German genius, in any wise, in the mid-forties. Like, just shut your mouth for a decade or two, Thomas Mann, and then let's talk about how the modern era's most subtle and capacious culture (as it perhaps even really was, for the non-relativists among us) was brought low by its own good and evil. You know? Like, in The Magic Mountain Mann's heart was in the right place and he didn't have an agenda--slowly, carefully, he aired out the chambers and inspected the sores of pre–First World War Europe, a civilization sick in body and spirit. In Doctor Faustus, though, he does have an agenda. He is subtle and capacious in the best spirit of his people, and he does not stoop to, say, decrying the Nazis for their destruction of German culture (because, like, "true" German culture?) as your average sad old guy in the gasthaus without Mann's artistic responsibilities might. But he does, often, evince despair that he has lost the right to do even that decrying. In short, Mann's narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, comes ever-so-close, often, to espousing that the real tragedy of the Second World War and the Holocaust are the stain they left on German honour and the fact that we can no longer hear Bach or read Goethe without an astringent aftertaste. Mann described Zeitblom as a pastiche of his author and of course he was aware of this problem. But I think the lexicon of the "new social movements" is really apt here: he is mansplaining and derailing and not being a good ally. Sucking up all the air in the room. White people.

I think this is part of why so many of the novel-of-ideas parts of this were hieratic and sterile to me (tho I love The Magic Mountain so much): Mann is going into contusions, chasing his tail. (Let it be said now for the record, he is also right, and if he had had his lawyers sit on this manuscript till 1975 it might feel different). It may also be that I'm just too stupid (dummkopf! I mention in passing here that Mann's vision of Germany is seemingly that of a nation of 75 habilitationisten and privatdozente and country doctors and bohemian violinists and philistine colonels who nevertheless keep salons and try to touch the gesicht des Gottes. Although he diagnoses the Nazis with acuity, this still reduces them to the nature of a brain fever suffered by the bourgeois guardians of--not only culture, but history! governance!--who were too too enamoured with a certain politics brut. Where in fact the Nazis were real dudes too. And then the stolid peasant and bürger don't even get a look in--if the Nazis are a condition or affliction, the non-intelligensia are a mere backdrop. It's quiet arrogance, through and through--the kind of pride that comes before a you know what.)

Funny enough for a so frequently forbidding novel, with a high bar of entry and all that, what kept me reading and what accounts for the quite-high-in-the-great-scheme-of-things rating I'm giving the book wasn't the ideas, it was the writing. I don't think of Mann as among the most trippingly beautiful writers, but this is up there with Death in Venice in terms of staging and lyricism. I will remember characters--both Zeitblom and Leverkühn, the unrequited love of the former for the latter, and the greater psychosexual web that humanizes the hieratic--Rudi Schwerdtfeger who finally got Adrian to call him du; Rüdiger Schildknapp who was the only one who could make him laugh; Kretzschmar and Kumpf and divers others of his teachers; poor little Nepomuk or Echo (weep for the beautiful child in fiction, my friends!)--and scenes (operatic influence here, I think)--Kretzschmar's lectures, Leverkühn's fateful trip to the brothel in Bratislava, the ill-fated marriage of Inez Rodde and Helmut Institoris, the campy, magisterial entry-stage-left of der teufel, and Leverkühn's final hideous crescendo, where he hauls himself down to hell like Don Giovanni or somebody only cursed to solitude even to the extent of having to show himself out. They made this a significant experience perhaps best compared to going into your first music lesson, being handled the most beautifully crafted instrument and densely orchestrated score, and expected to keep up with a quartet of virtuosi as they run through the inscrutable last string quartets of a twentieth-century master who fled in ' 39 and ended up teaching composition and theory to prematurely balding young American men with very thick glasses at oh let's say Brown.

(Listening to the Brandenburg Concertos as I write this, and it does seem clear how their smooth Apollonianisms, filtered through two hundred years of German cultural DNA, might give rise to a sense that something like the twelve-tone system was a supremely rational, and not a complexly alien, next step, in politics as well as music. No one who speaks German could be a bad man! I think Hitler's love of Wagner covers up a lot of complexity regarding the input of modernity into national socialism--an atavistic Kulturismus that sounds a bit like special pleading, of a sort that the Heidegger of "The Question Concerning Technology" would have approved. It's not that anything monstrous was going on or that the Nazis would have transformed Germany and Europe into a twisted surveillance technocracy avec bonfire parties, it's that the Jews and gypsies and communists and homosexuals were totally littering on the pristine mountain paths and we just really care about keeping the mountain paths clean and also they peed in the pure white snow. What I'm saying is that too much listening to Bach could make a certain kind of person at a certain kind of time value mountain paths more than non-German lives and then also see the imposition of twelve tones on music and death camps on Europe as an organic extension of the patternization in Bach. I know that's probably a fucked-up false equivalency, and I can see why Schoenberg hated this book (also because Mann borrowed part of Nietzsche's backstory for Leverkühn too and Schoenberg didn't want the world all thinking he had the syphilis).)
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LibraryThing member thorold
When I was about sixteen, I had one of those moments of mad inspiration and decided that I was going to sort out German literature once and for all. I got a pile of German books out of the library, made it as far as page 5 of Doktor Faustus, and gave up in despair before even starting on Broch...(*) So, there's a feeling of relief at finally having overcome that hurdle. It took me seven months, on and off, this time, but I think it was worth it.

It is, definitely a difficult book. Mann's prose is beautiful to read, but you have to keep your wits about you to follow the winding path of his long sentences. And he's not someone to use an image where a concept will do: there are more abstract nouns here than in a moderate-sized philosophy library. You have to be ready for long, theoretical discussions about aesthetics, musicology, cultural history, theology, and all the rest. But there is a story under all that, and it does have enough purely narrative interest to carry you through the theory and start to get an inkling of how it all fits together.

It's clearly a book you can read on different levels. It's looking at the Faust legend, it's delving into what we mean by artistic creativity, it's investigating the transition from humanism to modernism, it's playing around with the boundaries of madness and inspiration, it's trying to find a Mercator system that will project music onto literature in a meaningful way. All of those things (and no doubt a lot of others I failed to pick up explicitly) are interesting and important, but the thing that comes over most vividly to me is the way that the book acts as a kind of colloquium on what "Germanness" means to someone living in 1947, at a time when Germans should expect the whole world to be condemning Germany and everything associated with it. Mann, or rather his narrator, Serenus, seems to be addressing the rest of the world, not really being able to envisage a time when Germans will be printing and reading books again. Mann, of course, is writing from exile, but he puts Serenus in the middle of the destruction. Seen from that point of view (and oversimplifying Mann's complex structure almost to the point of absurdity) you could see the story of Serenus and Leverkühn as a confrontation between the reasonable, ordered, liberal-humanist side of German culture and its wilder, more intense and creative, but also vastly more dangerous, self-destructive gothic aspects. Leverkühn buys 24 years of spectacular creativity from the devil (or from an untreated syphilis infection, according to which reading you prefer) and destroys himself; Serenus never explicitly draws the parallel, but I think we are supposed to work out for ourselves that the Nazis get the same amount of time (offset a bit) from their Faustian bargain and end up destroying Germany.

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(*) Fortunately, I then took advice, and started again a little later with something more approachable.
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LibraryThing member Pianojazz
This is a massive novel, comparable in scope and difficulty to anything from Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps I have become enamored of it because music--specifically Schoenberg's 12-tone system--forms the heart and soul of the book. Or perhaps because the book evokes a time when scholarship and literacy were marks of the well-educated person. Or perhaps it's because Mann is such a fine writer, and John Wood a felicitous translator.
Mann re-works the old legend of Faustus, who sold his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for unlimited knowledge. Here, Adrian Leverkuhn, a young German composer, afflicted with syphilis which has begun to affect his reason, may have had a similar encounter (or it may have all been in his fevered mind). Either way, he becomes the greatest composer of his age, but finds himself unable to love and ultimately perishes with that knowledge.
Many read Dr. Faustus as a metaphor of the rise, spread and fall of Nazi Germany. Certainly Mann does nothing to dispel that, as allusions to Nazism and World War II permeate the book. But the novel has many levels of meaning, and resists facile comparisons. Mann questions the German social mores of his time, the rigorous education that its intellectuals underwent, the rigid stratification between the social classes, the German exaltation of nationalism as the single primary virtue. There is much to savor in this book, and much to disturb the sensitive reader.
Given the current American political climate, I wonder if a new generation might not profit from a careful and considered reading of this book. There is no doubt that it is Mann's masterpiece; there is no doubt that it is one of the great novels of all time. But it demands a devoted reader . . . and if the reader is musically literate, so much the better. Lengthy discussions of Beethoven sonatas and string quartets go down much easier if the reader is already conversant with those musical masterpieces, or at least is willing to learn.
A great book, by a great author.
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LibraryThing member kant1066
There are classics – and then there are Classics. These are the books that you can really pat yourself on the back for finally putting behind you – or should I say “completing,” since books like this never really leave you. This is definitely one of the latter. It is full of everything we associate, good or bad, with the word: meditations on philosophy, art, mortality, music, and everything else under the sun. Needless to say, this isn’t for everyone. In fact, if you even have the slightest hesitation about reading something like this, don’t. If you think you might like it, read the first fifty pages and if you like it, you’ll love the rest because the stylistic pace never changes. I happen to be one of those readers who doesn’t mind traveling glacially if I’m given a lot of things to think about, and in that respect, Thomas Mann never fails to deliver.

“Doctor Faustus” takes the form of a biography of Adrian Leverkuhn, the most illustrious German composer of his day, written by his lifelong friend, Serenus Zeitblom. Adrian’s intellect and capacity for ideas are truly astounding, making one wonder whence his interest in the bright yet otherwise rather not very noteworthy Serenus. At a very young age, Adrian makes a pact with the Devil in return for a promise of many years of heightened creativity and inspiration. After purposefully contracting syphilis to add to the allure of romantic genius associated with insanity, he becomes obsessed with the themes of Apocalypse, damnation, and Schoenberg’s achromaticism in his music. In the final scene of the book, Adrian summons all his friends and acquaintances he has made throughout the book and shares his lifelong secret about his satanic pact; the reactions range from revulsion to denial to undying support. Adrian lingers in a syphilitic paralysis for several years until the onset of World War II, at which point Serenus visits him one last time, and he finally dies.

Mann interlards his narrative with German political history from between the wars. He began his life as an ardent conservative, but by the time he wrote this novel in the late 1940s, his faith in the goodness and purity of the German spirit qua German spirit was severely diminished, and he lets this show through the voice of Serenus. He has, as he should, seering words for Hitler, the Third Reich, and what they were doing to his beloved country. One of Mann’s main points, however, is that this political decadence doesn’t remain wholly within the political sphere; it seeps into cultural, philosophical, and aesthetic life. Mann was horrified by the direction Germany was taking in the thirties, but he very well have been more horrified the ramifications this had for the possibilities of German art and thought. As Gyorgy Lukacs mentioned in his book of essays on Mann’s novels, the historical standpoint from which the novel is written – Serenus writing right after World War II – gives the novel a particularly striking sense that German history, maybe History itself, is running headlong into a catastrophe from which even it cannot save itself.

It cannot be stressed enough the degree to which this is truly a novel of ideas. Mann’s knowledge of philosophy, theology, and especially music are on full display. At one point earlier in the novel, he goes on for several pages about why Beethoven’s last piano sonata, No. 32, Op. 111 has only two movements, and the profound philosophical implications this has for the history and direction of music. This is my manna, but I realize it is an acquired taste. For those who love humoring the playful intellect of someone like Mann for over 500 pages, this is pure mind candy.
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LibraryThing member tomcatMurr
Mann's explanation for the rise of the Nazis lies in an imbalance in the forces of objectivity and subjectivity - a gradual tilting towards the former away from the latter - inherent in German-European humanism.
LibraryThing member stillatim
I read this when I was an undergrad; you remember, back when it was great fun to torture yourself by reading 500 page books you could barely understand? Loved it.

I flatter myself that I understood much more this time round: the way that the two levels of time interact (the narrator writes in the closing year of world war two, the story takes place in the twenties); the music theory and, much more importantly, modernist aesthetic theory; the reflections of those theories in the book (two characters discuss pastiche as a means of restoring expression to modern art, then the narrator tells us a more or less pointless love story involving two minor characters); the surely ironic extended descriptions that remind you of Mann's older realistic style but fall completely flat and seem pointless when placed next to Leverkuehn's demonic genius; the nods to German literary history (obviously Goethe's Faust, but also the bildungsroman); the skill with which Mann shows that the narrator's 'humanism' is open to the Fuhrer-principle even while he remains antipathetic to Nazism; the levels of irony as the 'point' floats between the genuine appeal of the modern Faust, the narrator, and the implied author.

Thing is, it's not as affecting as Buddenbrooks, not as funny as Magic Mountain. It comes off as a bit of a tour-de-force, full of fascinating seminar-room discussion material but lacking any real sense that there are people in the story rather than ideas. Now, I love books that are full of seminar-room discussion material. And I'm willing to believe that this lack of emotion and humor (the narrator reminds us constantly that he has no sense of humor, although that in itself gets pretty funny) is the final twist of Mann's irony: Leverkuehn is a genius whose works will never be listened to by any except a tiny minority who can compute what he's doing, and Doctor Faustus is a novel which can't be read properly except by a tiny minority who can compute what it's doing. The fact that it falls flat tells us something about the dangers of modernist art and its incessant reflexivity. At the same time it tells us a lot about the glories of modernist art and its incessant reflexivity.
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LibraryThing member KromesTomes
Some hard-to-get-through passages, especially about music, but certainly worthwhile ... Mann's insights on WWII were very affecting.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This novel was written between 1943 and 1947 by Thomas Mann. The full title is Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend. The narrator/biographer is Serenus Zeitblom who becomes the best friend of Adrian as a boy, a relationship that continues throughout Adrian's life. Serenus, with asides commenting on his work, details the life and career of Adrian Leverkühn, a preternaturally gifted man who is born into the Germany of the Second Reich in the generation following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The novel follows Leverkühn’s life and career until his death in 1943. Leverkühn is born into a provincial middle-class farming family and has conventional parents, though his father harbors some eccentric scientific interests. Originally attracted to both mathematics and music, Leverkühn goes to college to study theology, a course of study that he eventually abandons in favor of music. Leverkühn’s musical ability is evident from the first and he becomes an accomplished composer.

The most significant aspect of the novel is the use of the Faust legend of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, best known in the dramatic versions by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. This is portrayed through a dialogue between Leverkühn and the Devil, which occurs in chapter 25. Central to the Faust legend is the contract, the quid pro quo, between the Devil and Faust. The Faustian contract for Leverkühn involves his contracting syphilis from a prostitute. At the price of the loss of his physical and mental health, the syphilis unleashes untold powers of creativity within Leverkühn. One might question whether all artistic geniuses enter into a similar bargain if only metaphorically. Most importantly the Devil requires that Adrian give up the ability to love anyone. This intensifies a solitary life that was already present with Adrian.
The syphilis from which he suffers is, in turn, can also be seen a symbol of the “disease” of extreme nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that eventually led the Germans to embrace Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In both cases—Leverkühn’s contraction of syphilis and the coming to power of Hitler—Mann makes it clear that the parties involved have entered into their “agreements” by their own volition, just as the original Faust entered into his demoniac pact of his own free will. Significantly, Leverkühn’s final composition of his creative career is a cantata titled “The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus.”

Disease was a theme that ran through all of Mann's great works of fiction. Examples include the fate of the author Gustave von Aschenbach in Death in Venice; while in The Magic Mountain, Mann uses physical disease as a symbol for spiritual and cultural decline. Another reference suggested by the presence of syphilis is to Friedrich Nietzsche who contracted the disease and whose life in many ways is mirrored by that of Adrian Leverkuhn. Mann also uses syphilis symbolically to suggest the inevitability of the decline of German civilization. Another connection to Nietzsche is the presence of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy (Both the sons of Zeus, Nietzsche distinguished the two as opposites: Apollo the god of reason and order, and Dionysus the god of irrationality and chaos.) with Adrian's austerely hyper-rational music symbolizing the rejection of the Dionysian passion of Eros in which he cannot participate.

The narrative relayed by Zeitblom intersperses Adrian'slife events with historical events occurring simultaneously in German politics and society. Leverkühn’s lifetime roughly approximates that of Hitler, the suggesting that the same historical forces that brought the Nazis to the fore had a similar effect on Leverkühn’s art. Leverkühn’s final physical and mental collapse occurs in 1933, the year in which the Nazis came to power in Germany. Leverkühn dies in 1943, a year in which the war in Europe turned decidedly against the Axis Powers, leading to their eventual defeat.

The selection of a composer as the symbol of Germany’s moral and cultural decline is significant in that music is generally regarded as the most German of the arts. One composer, Richard Wagner, held a particular fascination for Mann. Mann had an ambivalent attitude toward Wagner; he greatly admired the composer’s music but was repelled by the man himself. It was Mann’s essay “The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner” that ultimately led to Mann’s public denunciation and eventual exile to America.

Adrian Leverkühn’s daemon, the catalyst whose function it is to see that the protagonist’s fate is fulfilled, appears in many guises, but perhaps never more significantly than in the being of Wendell Kretzschmar, the American expatriate music master and Leverkühn’s only real teacher of composition. Kretzschmar’s significance as a daemon extends not only to Leverkühn’s choice of a career as a composer—it is Kretzschmar who ultimately supplies Leverkühn with the justification to abandon theological studies and return to music—but also to the course that Leverkühn’s musical career will follow.

Leverkühn’s years of theological study at the University of Halle led him to be influenced by several other characters. Professor Kolonat Nonnenmacher instructs Leverkühn in Pythagorean philosophy and reinforces Leverkühn’s long-held fascination with an ordered cosmos, particularly one susceptible to mathematical reduction. Nonnenmacher’s lectures also deal with Aristotelian philosophy and stress the philosopher’s views on the inherent drive to the fulfillment of organic forms—in other words, the urge toward the unfolding of destiny. These lectures have a profound impact on Leverkühn, who comes to the realization that his personal destiny is not necessarily of his own making. Leverkühn finds a different and more subtle version in the form of Ehrenfried Kumpf, Mann’s caricature of Martin Luther. Kumpf’s theology rejects humanism and reason and embraces a rather lusty appreciation of life, including its sensual pleasures, of which music is but one facet. Although Kumpf is a minor figure in the novel, his influence is long-lasting on Leverkühn, who adopts the former’s archaic German phraseology and syntax and who eventually abandons the rationality and “coldness” of theology for the “warmth” of music. Of all Leverkühn’s professors at Halle, none leaves a more permanent impression on Leverkühn’s than Eberhard Schleppfuss, the mysterious theologian whose very difficult lectures combine the tenets of Christianity with a blatant Manichaeanism. Schleppfuss views evil as a necessary concomitant to good and posits a sinister interpretation of the nature of creativity.

Leverkühn’s involvement with music is made permanent, however, only after the liaison with a prostitute named Esmeralda, which, interestingly enough, occurs after Leverkühn has witnessed the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (based on Oscar Wilde’s visionary Decadent drama). This liaison is a curious phenomenon in that neither lust nor intellectual curiosity appears to be its root cause. In many ways, Leverkühn is as irresistibly drawn to the prostitute Esmeralda as the symbolic butterfly hetaera esmeralda (chapter 2) is susceptible to visual or olfactory stimuli. There is a certain inevitability in both cases in which moral laws and the individual will are transcended by reflex actions firmly based in the instinctive domain. Additionally, Leverkühn’s brief sexual encounter permits the appearance in rapid succession of two other influences, namely Dr. Erasmi and Dr. Zimbalist, both of whom are thwarted from treating Leverkühn’s syphilis in its incipient stage.

Leverkühn’s fall is akin to the fall of Adam; both are terrible yet necessary for the evolution of the human condition. One can no more imagine a Christian view of history without Adam’s transgression than a continuation of musical evolution beyond Wagner without the imposition of a seminal figure such as Leverkühn. The connection between Leverkühn and Adam is further strengthened by the fact that one of Leverkühn’s first mature works is a setting of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” with its references to the poisoned fruit and the serpent who despoils an altar. In the end, however, as Mann always makes clear in his writings, untempered creativity ultimately consumes its creator. All knowledge, all fruits of artistic genius carry with them a terrible price in the imaginary world of Mann’s fiction.
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LibraryThing member ElenaDanielson
This is not a beach book. The literature on Thomas Mann's "Doktor Faustus" is huge, and I'm glad I didn't try to master it all. I tackled the novel (actually re-reading it after 40 years) with an untutored but relatively open mind. However, I needed a reading group to get through it, and here goodreads really came through for me with an international group of 14 close readers on the same schedule. They helped enormously.

Thomas Mann wrote his fiction in response to a heartbreaking reality: his beloved Germany committed such atrocious crimes in World War II that, from his exile in the US, he felt obligated to broadcast, in German, into Germany. He explained to his compatriots that total defeat was the only honorable way out. Germans who secretly listened to his illegal radio broadcasts, as the bombs were demolishing their homes, say they found his message comforting. I don't know that an American like me can fully understand.

There are a couple naive questions that get asked a lot, and of course don't have answers. One is "How can the culture that produced Bach and Beethoven also produce Auschwitz." A second naive question is "Can there be poetry after Auschwitz." I think about the novel "Doktor Faustus" as a response instead of an answer. For all the unique aspects of this tragedy, there are other cultures with a similar paradox. Japanese artists produced some of the most gentle, peaceful artworks ever created, even has the military of that same culture brutalized their neighbors. I think the shorthand for this is the title "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" used by Ruth Benedict. But Mann himself does not even think of relativizing the catastrophe with comparisons. He confronts the good and the bad sides of German genius as something totally intertwined, without trying to distinguish between "good Germans" and "bad Germans" as some commentators have done. Culture is an interwoven tapestry.

The Faust legend arose when the invention of the printing press was revolutionizing a society that still believed in devils. The sudden access to knowledge was seen as something dangerous. That's pretty much biblical too. Somehow sex inevitably gets into the mix in all these myths. Mann expects his readers to be familiar with Goethe's take on the Faustian pact, but he doesn't reference it directly. Since music has served as a source of great national pride for Germany, starting long before the country actually existed as a unified nation-state, Mann revises the deal with the devil. The brilliant composer Adrian Leverkuehn trades his soul, not for knowledge, not for happiness, but for musical talent, specifically talent for composing modern music. The genius is undeniably powerful, but it destroys his soul. What a metaphor for the political and human disaster. But this theme is also an opening for Mann to introduce a cluster of colorful characters who discuss music in great detail,--all about polyphony and counterpoint and twelve tone composition....These discussions somehow lift the text out of the swamp. Mann's richly detailed story, drenched in quirky irony, becomes oddly comforting. It's pretty much impossible to explain.

The book is long. It is narrated by a fuddy-duddy friend of the composer, with the nutty name of Serenus Zeitblom. Mann has a lot of fun with his long-winded narrator. The chapters shift radically from one mood to another, like movements in a symphonic piece of music. Themes and images, like the butterfly and the little mermaid, are introduced early on, then dropped, only to reappear hundreds of pages later in unexpected variations, a verbal Wagnerian Leitmotiv effect. Adrian's communications with Lucifer are completely logically explained by his medical and psychiatric conditions. But the highly ornate way Mann presents it all--with fleeting images that appear and disappear, and with shifting moods--seduces the readers into his dangerous world. And everyone's soul is in danger. Without the lengthy build up, I don't think the book would work at all.

Adrian comes from a farm, where his life begins and ends. His musical talent comes from his beautiful mother, but she is wise enough not to develop her talent. His other introduction to music comes from the simple milkmaid, who teaches the country children charming folk songs, including a hauntingly beautiful "round." After selling his soul, he finds a refuge on a monastery turned farm estate, where he rents a beautiful studio from the generous farmer's wife. And there he writes amazing music that goes out into the world. These two farms are the "real" Germany, the source. When Adrian has his final nervous breakdown in front of a gathering of friends, the noble farmer's wife, Frau Schweigestill, comforts him and sends the guests away, because they (like me) could never understand. Heneke's film "Das weisse Band," addresses the question of collective guilt among the peasantry in a relentlessly depressing way. Mann's take is totally different, and more nuanced. Something indigenous, that is beautiful and magical, has a dangerous internal logic...I don't think Mann asks us to read this as a universal, but that is how I read it. We Americans need to deal with certain aspects of our culture and its internal logic...

The other simplistic question, the one about poetry after Auschwitz, is implicit in these discussions. Mann's close friend and adviser on the book, Adorno, famously examined this issue. I see Mann's response in the poetic passages of his writing. I think poetry may be the only way to come to terms with some aspects of human history, think of Paul Celan or Nelly Sachs. (Myself, I'm not so sure whether other arts like music, painting, or architecture ever recovered from the brutalization of 20th century.) The poetry in Mann's prose emerges very slowly, in baroque sentences and page long paragraphs. Like an unfolding flower, you just can't rush it. I went to a Buddhist mediation class where we sat on the floor for four hours chanting and visualizing a lotus slowly blossoming. At the end I felt like I was levitating. I asked afterward if there might be a more efficient method that we could do in say 20 minutes. Nope. Mann's way with words gradually lifts off the ground. A more concise reading exercise could not build the same spell. This all by way of partly explaining why a novel about such a horrifying history can be oddly beautiful. I will never really understand, of course, but language can in itself be comforting.
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LibraryThing member FMRox
Don't sell your soul to the devil.
LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Read 150 pages, and felt I had the measure of it. Some fantastic characterization, but the writing was frequently convoluted and flowed poorly (it might be a translation issue). Primarily though, without a profound interest in the daemonic and theology, I found it hard to retain the interest that the book warrants.
LibraryThing member V.V.Harding
What a book! Some comments will follow when I get my thoughts together and the multitudinous related materials in order.
LibraryThing member rdm666
This is my second favorite book of all time. It's a portrait of a driven genius coping [as well as he can?] with amoral anomic despair, with German 1940s culture in the background. It is as deep as hell, literally. And it almost leads me to understand music.
LibraryThing member bodachliath
A daunting masterwork which I feel hopelessly unqualified to describe, this is in part a retelling of the Faust legend, in part a meditation on the nature of classical music, genius and creativity, and part an inditement of Mann's Germany at the time of its creation, in the latter stages and immediate aftermath of the Second World War, centred on the life of an imaginary radical German composer of the early 20th century, told by a friend who knew him from his schooldays.

I was prompted to read it by an almost throwaway review comment that described Richard Powers' Orfeo as "the greatest novel about music since Mann's Doctor Faustus". I can't pretend that this was an easy read, and it is full of lengthy and erudite digressions, but it is a powerful, compelling novel of ideas, and a worthy but much darker successor to Mann's masterpiece The Magic Mountain.
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