Reading Doctor Faustus is like trying to read a political and cultural history of twentieth century Germany as told by a rather wordy and digressive narrator, Serenus Zeitblum. He states his task is to tell the life story of his much admired friend, the composer, Adrian Leverkühn. That is his declared task, but he cannot resist excursions into stories of odd people, into his views of philosophy and most of all into speculation about the character and genius of his beloved friend.
This is my first time of reading, unlike others who profess to have read this book five times, so I will just give a brief sketch of my first impressions .
The book was written in America 1943, where Mann was living after having moved away from his early support for Germany during World War 1 and publicly denounced Nazism in 1930. In Doctor Faustus his characters debate the nature of the German spirit, religion and humanism, and the nature of art. I found some of these discussions heavy going indeed, especially when they were voiced by young students of theology, Leverkühn’s first course of study.
Mann’s writing has several registers; the philosophical discussion, the simpler accounts of the early life of Leverkühn and his family, detailed technical accounts of the structure of music, descriptions of people in the life of the hero, often in great detail, only for them never to appear again, humourous anecdotes about characters, and Leverkühn’s own narrative, couched in his version of Old German.
So, a novel of many ideas, and many voices, all filtered through the voice of the narrator and devoted friend, Zeitblum.
Their early life in Kaiseraschen is idyllic and beautifully narrated. Zeitblum is closely involved with his friend’s family; the father with his enquiring mind and great love for science, and the calm and wise mother, the people of the town who love to climb the hill and sit on the wooden seat under the great linden tree and talk, the boys’ first singing experiences with Hanne the stable girl.
…she loved to sing and used to do little exercises with us children…this creature smelling of her animals made free with it, and sang to lustily…she had a strident voice, but a good ear; and she sang all sorts of popular tunes, songs of the army and the street; they were mostly either gruesome or mawkish and we soon made tunes and words of our own. When we sang with her, she accompanied us in thirds, and from there went down to the lower fifth and lower sixth, and left us in the treble while she ostentatiously and predominantly sang the second.
This stable girl, her feet ‘caked in dung’ is their first experience of music. It is a tendency of Zeitblum (?Thomas Mann) to refer to the lower orders as ‘creatures‘. This young women, obviously highly talented in a completely untutored way, is a servant, lower than a servant, one who sleeps with her animals, but she is not a ‘creature’ like an animal with no feelings or consciousness. The word ‘creature’ is also used to describe the young woman with whom Zeitblum has his first sexual relationship, and of the young woman who is the prostitute who is Leverkühn’s downfall (not without warning him first). Given that women don’t really rate in this tale (Zeitblum’s wife Helene is chosen by him as a sensible no-fuss bride) there are still some wonderful and tender depictions of male characters. It is also fair to say there are also some rather enjoyably crazy women that cross Adrian’s path; the two sisters, one of whom commits suicide, the other who kills a man in a jealous rage.
Another favourite section for me, was the description of the Leverkühn’s uncle’s music warehouse. For all that he is a genius who is somewhat aloof from the world, Adrian always tries to recreate the circumstances of his early life in future living places. Always the quiet village with the big tree. But through his uncle, with whom he goes to live when he needs to further his education, he is exposed to a wider world of music.
Nikolaus is a violin maker, and he has a music warehouse above which they live and where rehearsals often take place.
…everything was here spread out: all that sounds and sings, that twangs and crashes, hums and rumbles _ even the keyboard instruments, in the form of the celesta, the lovely Glockenklavier….the charming violins, varnished some yellower and some browner, their slender bows with silver wire round the nut fixed into the lid of the case…
And in yet another register is Adrian’s account of his bargain with the devil
‘…Do you strike with me? A work-filled eternity of human life shall you enjoy. When the hour-glass runs out, then shall I have good power to deal and dole with, to move and manage the fine-created Creature after my way and my pleasure, be it in life, soul, flesh, blood or goods for all eternity.’
And the bargain is struck. And we are barely half-way through this mighty work. I do not have the space here to follow Adrian’s great worldly success, the loss of his most beloved five- year-old nephew, Nepomuk, followed by his decline into madness.
This is the first of my Great Books for this year and my first Thomas Mann. His themes are mighty, his writing and research for this book was enormous; the detail about composers and musical composition alone is huge, to say nothing of Shakespeare, Blake, French poetry and so much more. Not as much about Beethoven as I would have liked, the voice of the devoted friend can be irksome at times, the philosophical discussions between theological students can be tiresome, but overall definitely worthy of the description of a Great Book.
And I haven’t even touched on Kretschmar, Adrian’s music teacher, another wonderful character. Although Hanne, the stable girl, his first teacher, is also unforgettable.
If you are in a country still under lockdown and have a few weeks to spare this could be the book for you. I read the John E Woods translation which is excellent, but I would love to read it in German. That would be a whole different experience. I wish I’d paid more attention in class. I fear it’s too late now.
If you would to read a longer review, check out johnpistelli.com where he has an excellent review entitled, Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus and dated 12-1-2019.