Book Review of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
I don’t find Thomas Mann’s books, such as Doctor Faustus at all easy to read. They are both long and highly complex, written not as a novel as such but to transmit a message, in this case, the similarities between the Faustus legend and the rise of Nazi Germany.
However, I have been fortunate to read both this book and another major work of Mann, The Magic Mountain, in new translations by John E Woods which bring a clear and smooth passage through these undoubtedly great works of literature.
Dr Faustus is on the face of it, a fictional biography of Adrian Leverkuhn, a brilliant composer who came to fame in the 1920s and 30s. The biography is recorded by his life-long friend Dr Serenus Leitblom, who happens to have possession of Leverkuhn’s journals including a secret manuscript, which comes to light about half way through the book, which gives an account of the terrible evening when Leverkuhn entered into a pact with the devil, to exchange his soul for 24 years of brilliant musical composition.
Dr Leitblom has a hard time of it with Adrian Leverkuhn, the friendship never achieving an easy intimacy, and several times there are references to Leverkuhn’s refusal to use the personal pronoun with even his closest associates.
He is unapproachable and isolated, and takes private rooms in a farmhouse, some distance from Munich. His almost hermit-like existence is relieved by train journeys into the city where he takes part in musical and philosophical soirees, described in some detail by Mann and showing his command of the most complex musical ideas.
Leverkuhn’s music is rarely well-received, being appreciated by only a select band of critics, the message being that it is too rarified for the common concert-goer, but will eventually be vindicated by generations to come. The implication is that only listeners similarly in league with the devil would be able to appreciate its complex abstractions.
Dr Leitblom writes his biography during the dark days of 1944 when Germany’s collapse was seen as inevitable, and the tragic destiny of Leverkuhn is contrasted with occasional short accounts of the unfolding disasters caused by allied bombing of the great cities of Germany and the breaches of its borders by invading armies.
This gives the whole book an atmosphere of burning cities and the inevitable doom which awaits Leverkuhn all who sup at the devil’s table, the final chapter being a revelatory denouement which shows the dark forces which have worked through Leverkuhn’s music throughout his life.
By the time Mann wrote this book he was living in America and broadcasting radio messages into Germany criticizing the Nazi regime. Dr Faustus is in some ways Mann’s ultimate critique of Nazism, something he had been fighting since its first appearance in the 1920s.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.