Joseph and His Brothers

Thomas Mann

Book cover

This is a truly wonderful book. I would be very inclined to recommend it to others, except for the fact that it is almost 1500 pages long. It is divided up into four “books” that are more like the length of a normal novel, and I originally thought that I might read them somewhat separately, taking breaks in between to break it up. But they really aren’t stand-alone, and anyway, once I was reading it, I didn’t want to stop to read other books. All I can say is that if you are feeling up for a long read, and probably if you have read something by Mann before (maybe The Magic Mountain), I heartily encourage you to try “Joseph.”

“Joseph” is a retelling of the biblical story of Joseph the son of Jacob. It was interesting to me to follow along with the story in the Bible as I was reading Mann’s version. He seems to stick very closely to the original storyline, but of course adds in a great deal of elaboration. The Bible story itself is very factual, and you can barely get a sense of the characters by reading between the lines. Mann’s genius is to see the deep characters that must lie behind the story, and to fill in their motivations and characteristics so that the events actually told in the Bible make more sense. I also give Mann credit for taking some of the very few female players in the Biblical narrative and making them into rounded characters (Mut-em-enet, Tamar). Both Joseph and Jacob are great characters. I would almost say that the book is more about Jacob. I basically disliked Joseph for the first fourth or third of the book, but he ends up being a very relatable, flawed character.

As with most books I really like, it is hard for me to describe exactly what I liked about it, and even more so with this one because it is so long. Perhaps the best I can say is that Mann’s writing gives a very rich sense of what it is like to live in that time and place (though of course I don’t know whether it is accurate). There is a complex blend of Jewish, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures and religious beliefs, with most of the characters subscribing to some amalgamation thereof. Mann also gives a sense of the characters’ lives being deeply immersed in the stories that make up their culture, so much so that people see their identities as fluid and often blended with historical or legendary characters. My sense is that this is in reality a characteristic of some human societies, and I have read other attempts to portray something like it–“Watership Down” comes to mind. But this is a very successful and compelling portrayal.

The last thing I’ll say here is that the best comparison I can think of is “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” (and that reflects well on JdZ). In fact, there are so many superficial similarities between the narrative arcs that I wonder whether David Mitchell was influenced by “Joseph.”

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars