Book 25 – Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

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Also bought for 20p at the same charity stall as the dreadful Da Vinci Code, this behemoth of a novel could not be more different. I hardly know where to start in writing about it; this has been the most intense reading experience I have had in a long time.

Mann wrote Doctor Faustus soon after the end of the Second World War and it is his literary lament for the calamity that Germany brought on itself and on the rest of the world. The main plot is a fictional autobiography of one Adrian Leverkuehn, avant-garde composer and creator of the 12 tone notation system (actually created by Schoenberg). He is portrayed as the finest flower of German culture; however he sells his soul to Satan in exchange for 24 years of unparalleled creative output, after which he is overcome by madness  and dies in 1939. The narrator (Leverkuehn’s lifelong friend), who is writing between 1942 and 1945, intersperses his story with his (Mann’s) reflections on the war, its effect on Germany and ponderings about what may come next. The reader is never asked to judge the credibility of  Leverkuehn’s behaviour and condition; everything that happens in the novel could easily have a material/psychological or supernatural explanation.

This is a long, intense, hefty read. Mann guides us slowly through his story, adding in various subplots and generously extended scenes of dialogue. A very German novel it covers many themes; the cult of nationalism in the early twentieth century, the relationship between aestheticism and barbarism and of course it is about music.

I think it matters quite a lot which translation you read, assuming of course, like me, you need to read it in English. The edition I have is translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter and came out only a year after the novel’s original publication in 1947. Translation studies weren’t a “thing” in those days but my edition is prefaced with a short essay by the translator on some of the concerns and difficulties of her art, which I found very interesting. There are a couple of long sections in the novel that Mann wrote originally in Early New High German from the 15th/ 16th Centuries; one a letter, the other a dialogue. Both passages deal with the crucial stages of Leverkuehn’s binding to his satanic contract. Lowe-Porter has translated these using a medieval English vocabulary, which I really appreciated (though it made reading harder still). There is a more recent translation available by John Woods. According to the interwebs, it makes for a much easier read overall, but it doesn’t bother with the medieval bits, which I think is a shame.

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