Book Review: Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus

Quick Look

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend

Author: Thomas Mann

Genre: Fiction, Literature (unofficial classification: dense literature)

Recommendation: It’s a classic of literature, but very tough to get through.

Amazon Link here.

In Depth

I first heard about this book nearly eight years ago, in a philosophy of science class at university, of all places. My instructor, a brilliant if eccentric man, highly praised this book. This man didn’t mince words: if he didn’t like something he said it. Conversely, a recommendation from him usually meant something was very good. He recommended this book.

After I did a bit of research, I became very intrigued. It’s based off the Faust legend, in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for something. In this particular case, it is a composer selling his soul for 24 years of unparalleled artistic and creative output. What could drive a man to do such a thing? How bleak must the future look for this to seem like the best possibility? This novel is set in the period just before World War II, and indeed it serves as a metaphor of that tumultuous period.

This whole premise sounds captivating, and when I found Doctor Faustus at a bookstore, I bought it without any reservation. Six years later I finally finished it. Yeah, that took a long time. Let me explain.

This book is incredibly dense. It is over 500 pages of relatively small font. I think the average sentence size is over 20 words. Thomas Mann writes in an incredibly convoluted way. Sub-clauses spawn other sub-clauses, and sometimes a single sentence will spiral halfway down the page before finding a period. I had to reread sentences constantly, for I was forever losing the train of thought.

This appears to be a trait, or perhaps symptom, of German writing, or at least German writing translated into English. I studied philosophy at university, including some of the big German philosophers. Reading Mann often reminded me of reading Hegel, which is perhaps a very fair assessment. Both wrote works that, when reading, you knew were trying to say something incredibly important … but you sometimes couldn’t figure out what that was.

Also like Hegel, Mann has periods of sudden lucidity. You will read a sentence or a turn of phrase and you literally stop to marvel. For this one idea, there literally is no better way to say it.  It’s like poetry, powerful images conjured up in your mind or delightful play on words. It makes you want to keep on reading, even as you slosh through pages upon pages of less than lucid prose.

In all honesty, I likely tried to read this book too fast. This is not a fast book. This is something you will likely read over months, and ideally you do it as part of a book club or university class. There is so much going on, so much packed in, it demands the reader’s complete attention for every word. Stray even a little and you will be lost. I did not understand that when I first started reading.

This book is also perhaps the type of literature I like the least. That is to say, it is a novel with barely any dialogue. Nor is there much action. Or even exposition. Very little happens over the course of each chapter. More than once I have stopped to wonder, ‘Why is any of this relevant? Where is it going?’ There is almost no plot to speak of, nothing to hook the reader to keep going. This is why I continually stopped, and why it took me six years to finally read this book through.

Going in, you must understand that this is a metaphor for Germany’s role in World War II. Specifically, it shows the intellectual development that transformed pre-World War I Germany into a nation that accepted, expected and even demanded fascism. If you don’t understand this, it won’t make sense.

The book does this by showing the intellectual development of two people, the relatively unimportant narrator and the novel’s tragic hero, Adrian Leverkuhn. These two are constantly discussing, either amongst themselves or with other members of high society, various intellectual pursuits or opinions. At the beginning, they discuss virtually everything, from natural philosophy to music and harmony to theology. Everything is discussed, often down to the most unimaginable detail. For most readers, likely way too much detail. At times it reads like a philosophical essay or, even more often, a commentary on musical theory.

I studied a bit of musical theory in high school, but Thomas Mann goes far deeper than I ever learned. He goes into roots and harmony and counterpoint in musical history and so much more, and I’m not completely sure it’s necessary. Yes, his tragic hero is a composer, but do we really need to learn all of this? Sometimes my eyes glazed over for pages upon pages, as it just never stopped.

For 200 pages this novel was just that: some sort of discussion about either ethics or nature or musical theory. Finally, after 200 pages, we get to the Faust element. Now we have something interesting, a character literally debating with the devil. Interesting, engaging, and yet also full of the same philosophical musings and incredibly long sentences.

It’s after this I started to understand what the novel was truly about, and it’s only here I really started to appreciate it. I noticed now, as the narrative shifts from during World War I to immediately after it, how the shift in philosophical points really mattered. Before we had an intellectual curiosity, almost naivety, but then it changed. It became darker, more sinister. In short, it became more fascist. I saw how a nation could start thinking like this, and how it would inevitably spiral downwards into something terrible, something like Hitler.

This is the true power of this novel, if we can really call it a novel. It goes into so much detail precisely so you can see the shift that happens in these intellectual talking points. The reader can now understand how Germany was led to do the atrocities they did during World War II. It wasn’t just one guy showing up and suggesting this. It was an entire intellectual environment primed for this, primed for someone to come and take it down a dark path. It became quite chilling, actually, the more I realized it. Again, we know what happens in history, so it’s almost as if we know what will happen, because of course we do. It’s almost a subtle dramatic irony.

I enjoyed the book more when I finished it then when I started it, but I’m still not completely sure I understand it. I did a bit of research online, and it suggested that there was so much more in these words. Many of the characters, for example, had names that were subtle jokes that you would only understand if you were a German reader, or how references to local German history or archaeology had certain ironic or dramatic points that could easily be missed if you weren’t aware of them. Needless to say, all this flew over my head, and I wish now my copy of the book came with some footnotes or perhaps an introduction by the translator. That would have really helped.

I read an online review that suggested this is the type of book you need to read once, digest it, let it sit, and only then when you reread it will you fully understand the power and importance of it. I do not doubt that, but I also have very little desire to go through these 500 pages again. It’s a lot of work. Maybe in a few years.  Maybe.

I don’t want to not recommend this book, but it’s very hard. It’s certainly not a pleasure read. Also, if, like me, you were deeply intrigued by the Faust Legend, I suggest looking elsewhere first. For example, Goethe wrote a classical and much more accessible version of Faust, and indeed it is his version that Thomas Mann basis some of the parallels off of in his book. Reading Goethe will enhance your understanding of Mann, but the inverse is not necessarily true. Perhaps start with him, because you can find it for free online, and if that intrigues you and World War II interests you and you are willing to put in the work, then perhaps take a look at Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

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