Monday, 13 July 2015

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann - book review

After thoroughly relishing two of Thomas Mann's novels, The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, I decided to move on to Doctor Faustus, published in 1947.

Doctor Faustus tells the life story of a fictional composer, Adrian Leverkuhn, through the narration of his friend Zeitbolm. The narration itself is delivered against the background of the unfolding horrors of the Second World War, allowing much scope for parallels with the time in which the events of the story actually occurred, and with the fate of Leverkuhn. The composer's fate or destiny are not blatantly employed as a direct metaphor for those of Germany, or vice-versa, but the implied comparison adds depth and lustre to the novel.

In the earlier chapters there is much musing on intellectual, cultural and socio-political matters. At first reading, these can seem like tangents or diversions, but they make sense in the end, both in terms of how the plot develops and in providing some background context on the times in which Leverkuhn, Zeitbolm and their contemporaries lived and worked. They serve too as indicators of how the composer was beginning to stand out from the crowd even in his formative years, in his outlook on life and culture.

In stating the above, I must confess to having found Doctor Faustus quite heavy going up until around the halfway point. Certainly when compared to the more "fluent" and accessible delights of The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, it can feel like this one takes an inordinate amount of time to "happen". The writing style and language are more impenetrable and less flowing.The passages which abound with musical technicalities, theory and jargon may not be to everyone's taste. Concentration and persistence are required, but one is rewarded towards the conclusion, as the fog disperses.

My impression, rightly or wrongly, was that Mann (via the narrator) left the main aspects of the story, namely Leverkuhn's mental afflictions and his supposed pact with sinister supernatural forces, ever so slightly ambiguous, and up to the reader to weigh and interpret.

As with the other Thomas Mann novels which I have encountered, the characters have depth and plausibility, and the author goes to great lengths to illustrate and convey their traits and characteristics. As this story progresses, the social circle of the composer and his associates becomes more familiar and intriguing, more central to the narrative,  and there are a few notable sub-plots, which enrich and augment the picture considerably by vividly depicting the social mores and hang-ups of this artistic and academic "community".

So, not as immediately enjoyable as the other Thomas Mann novels which I have read, but an imaginative and stimulating piece of work, displaying all the hallmarks which make him such an important and powerful writer.

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