Book of a Life: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

TManns homas Dr. Faustus is a work of exile, written in the United States (1943-47), a bold and at times frightening retelling of the Faust legend through the life of a composer, Adrian Leverkuhn. When I first read the book 30 years ago, it had a revelatory power in its pressing complexity. It is an idea novel of a kind rarely found in English, but sees thought and art as inseparable from character. It is in a way the story of the early 20th century in the light of fascism and modernism, yet neither history nor the individual is sacrificed to the allegory. A former theology student, Leverkuhn, clearly modeled after Nietzsche, breaks away from the late Romanticism to pursue 12-tone composition (like Schoenberg, who was dissatisfied with the association).

Leverkuhn’s work shows great formal brilliance, but also seems contemptuous of its human sources (the book’s descriptions of music are among its many treasures). A supreme parodyist, in his relationships he exerts a tremendous attraction, but in Shakespeare’s words he himself is, with tragic exceptions, “untouched, cold, and to temptation slow.” Others destroy themselves by lack of him, not knowing that he has long ago devised his own destruction. The novel reaches into the mysterious folkloric Germany, where the Devil is a well-known presence, and the gifted presenter may very well fall for his lists.

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