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 – orThere 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. ...more