Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann

As far as reviews go, I feel it is appropriate to mention that a critic's knowledge of an artist's entire oeuvre is certainly indispensable when situating a work in a greater context. In the case of Thomas Mann, I have yet to read (and I greatly look forward to) The Buddenbrooks, or The Magic Mountain, or The Confessions of Felix Krull, or "Mario and the Magician," but I have read a collection of his early short stories and I did read Doctor Faustus, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of this current American populace. Little does it matter that Mann composed Faustus in California in the mid 1940's after escaping Nazi Germany. What Americans read German authors, even if they are amongst the all-time greatest, and only removed little more than a hundred years from Generation Y2K? Ambitious, literary Americans will embrace a Fitzgerald, a Hemingway, a Salinger, and they may even be brave enough to embrace a Kafka, but Mann is in different territory. To be sure, Kafka is far more famous, but to be sure, Mann is far more decorated. The Magic Mountain earned him the Nobel Prize when he was 54 years old. Faustus was published shortly after his 70th birthday. After reading only 750 pages or so of Mann's prose, I feel compelled to review his final book, so excited (and intimidated) I am to move forward into the rest of his oeuvre. I plan to read The Buddenbrooks next, immediately upon completion of my second novel, and to finish it before I begin my third. If you do not already realize that Mann has seriously changed the way I thought about writing, then you probably do not understand why I am writing anything at all in the first place.

I have read that Dr. Faustus was originally conceived as a short story, and then expanded into the 530 page epic it became. I have also read that in the first sentence of the novel, Thomas Mann meant to be providing a parody of his general syntax. Regardless of its parodic elements, I read the first chapter in a bookstore in Nantucket and decided that I must at once own this paperback novel. I would not finish reading it for another six or seven months, but once I made it through the 200th page, nothing else seemed to matter except finishing the book to see how it would end. And what an ending!

The novel concerns one Dr. Serenus Zeitblom, who has been moved in his elderly age to write a biography of his lifelong (and long deceased) friend, Adrian Leverkuhn, the famous German composer. The first 200 pages describe their early years together, and goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of one of their instructors, Kretzschmar, apparently very influential to the young Leverkuhn. The beginning is extremely difficult because it often dissolves into lengthy discussions by the youthful characters on philosophy and Nationalism. Whether this sort of dialogue is believable or not, I cannot tell, but one thing for sure that I know is that people today are about one hundred times stupider than any single one of the many intimately-felt characters in this novel. I mean that they are incapable of communicating on the level of these characters. To look back on Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise and consider the philosophical discussions in that text is to witness a century of reduction happening by a mere 20 years difference in age, and a different country in the midst of prosperity, as opposed to another country building towards a terrible climax.

As soon as Leverkuhn finishes his studies and begins living in boarding houses and going around with his new friend Rudolf Schildknapp, the novel begins to pick up and the scenes seem more carefully chosen. By the last 150 pages, barely anything is contained that is not absolutely essential and revelatory. In the first chapter, Zeitblom briefly mentions genius, and attempts to come up with a tidy definition of it. As the novel evolves, genius becomes its principle theme, and to get to the heart of why I find this book so essential, so classic, so deserving of canonization, to read Thomas Mann's reflections on genius is to sit before someone you can actually believe rather than thinking them boring and pointless. Genius may go unnoticed by peers and genius may be good for little in this age of great technological equalization (not!), but it still requires genius to be a successful artist, and Mann's portrait of Leverkuhn, as special a circumstance as it may be, gives one hope that greatness is not unreachable so long as all the elements are in their appropriate place.

Notable is Zeitblom's self-consciousness as a narrator. I do enjoy his digressions about how hard the book is to write, and about how he has been unfair to the reader by making some chapters too long, and his musings on the present condition of his home-state, which are obviously, chaotic and dismissive. The way he sets up the reader for what they are about to see is not only hilarious, but also very accomodating for all future readers of his, because these are really the only parts that don't require a degree to begin to understand. That said, most of the general plot of the novel is also rather simple--it is in the intricacies of Mann's language that most readers will be left in the dust.

Consider Chapter XXV, which Zeitblom opens up bombastically, stating that now, in this important 25th chapter, he will reveal Adrian's secret manuscript which he has kept concealed from the reader until the appropriate time. (It may be important for me to note that I have not read Goethe's or Marlowe's version of the same fable, and those familiar with it will intuit what the 25th chapter contains). Zeitblom exits as narrator, and Leverkuhn takes the reader on a 30 page fevered-dream/vision/hallucination which will directly lead to his artistic dominance over the following twenty-four years of his life. What Adrian must give up is not only his soul, but also the ability to love anyone else.

The final requirement of his agreement becomes responsible for arguably the most beautiful sections of the book. He begins courting one Inez Rodde, through the violinist friend of his Rudi Schwerdtfeger, and becomes part of a circle of artists, intellectuals, and bourgeois dilletantes interested in the pose of appreciating art. My personal favorite character is Frau Knoterich, who, besides sharing the same suffix as my surname, is a morphine addict who eventually converts her entire circle of friends to that same illicit practice. Mann's brief description of her practices in the throes of addiction alone show the kind of sensitive detail that all too many modern novelists would shelve in favor of shock value. But to return from the digression, the ending is arguably one of the saddest and most beautiful in all of literature.

It begins with the entrance of Neppo (or "Echo" as he calls himself), Adrian's four-year-old nephew who stays with him and becomes a cherished object to him and everyone that meets him. A tragedy slowly develops, and Adrian's exclamation to Zeitblom after everything has happened remains the only time I can recall that he shows any sort of emotion whatsoever. The effect is undeniable to any reader adventerous enough to stick with Mann through all the seemingly boring episodes of Adrian's sheltered emotional life. I wanted to cry, and I still want to cry when I think about that exclamation.

But the book would have no ending without the presentation of Leverkuhn's final symphony, the eponymously-referential "Lamentation of Dr. Faustus," which Zeitblom believes is his greatest work to date. Adrian invites all of his friends, nearly every major character in the novel to appear, to his home for the presentation of this magnum opus, and he "makes a scene," to put it simply. I tried to tell a friend of mine what happened in the scene but he stopped me, saying he didn't want me to ruin it for him. Yes, I do not want to ruin it for anyone, but it is such a good ending! It is hilarious, it is horrible, and it is totally perfectly the way the novel should end.

But it goes on even another chapter, to describe the circumstances of Adrian's later life. This too, must not be ruined, but I must admit I was suprised to see it continue on the way it did. Regardless, the final page of the novel was excellent, and Mann doesn't finish before he gets in his final word about Germany, which, considering the timing of the novel, seems rather accurate, but in hindsight, appears rather extreme, though not without its obvious point. On the back of the novel, the publisher states that Adrian's rise mirrors that of the Third Reich in Germany, but honestly I could not see the parallels, except for Zeitblom's personal musings on the status quo.

There are few times one has to read for absolute pleasure anymore, and while an ordinary reader may not derive much pleasure from the beginning of Dr. Faustus, if they are able to stick with it, to see the value in it, they will be vastly rewarded upon completing it (and perhaps may be forfeiting more than they realize).

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