Doctor Faustus

Thomas Mann

Book cover

I am giving this book four stars instead of five, but I think the shortcoming is in me rather than in the book.

After reading the 700+ pages of “The Magic Mountain”, I read a short lecture by Mann on the book in which he advised that readers should read it twice. It may take me a while to build up the strength of will to do that, but I think I understood exactly what he meant, and I think it applies to “Faustus” as well.

I can’t judge directly since I’m reading in translation, but having read two Mann novels translated by two different people, I think I can reasonably say that he is not a particularly impressive prose stylist. Oddly enough, I also don’t think he creates especially compelling characters–most of them play fairly well-defined roles, and only the protagonists (Hans Castorp, Adrian Leverkuhn) seem to change at all. But somehow I still think Mann is a fantastic author. I’m not quite sure that I can articulate why, but my best attempt would be something like: his mastery comes in the way that he places characters and situations in relation to one another, and allows those relations to change subtly over time.

That sounds extremely abstract, I realize. I think Mann’s treatment of the Faust story in this book is a good example. In the world of the book, the Faust story exists–Goethe, Gounod, etc. On top of that, we have Adrian making his own Faustian bargain, and we are left some leeway in how literally we would like to interpret it. Thirdly, we have the story of the rise of Nazi Germany, which occurred before the writing of the book, but in the book is contemporaneous with the narrator’s recording of the story and to some extent with the end of the story itself. What’s more, Mann’s narrator makes these connections explicit, discussing the Faustian nature of the Nazi rise to power. In this sense Mann as an author is very much like a musical composer–and that is not an original observation; it is a thesis that Mann himself advanced–creating a theme and developing it by repeating it in various forms.

It also, I think, largely accounts for my feeling that these books deserve more than one reading. With classical music, I find I can almost never really enjoy a performance unless I have listened to the piece several times and know what to listen for. In the book, in fact, I think Mann has Leverkuhn speak this argument through his position that a musical composition need not be performed to be recognized as a masterpiece, and indeed, that performance may be detrimental to that judgment.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars