I’ve been slowly making my way through Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Despite recently reading proust, Grass, and Kenzaburo Oe, I can pretty easily say that this is the most challenging read I’ve embarked on in a long time. I’ve found myself retreating to the safe harbor of Bakhtin just to take on something a little less bracing.
Other than a too-early read of Death in Venice, this is the first Mann I’ve read, and I’m wondering if all of his books are this intellectual. By that I mean that here Mann is pretty explicitly working out ideas regarding art and culture (obviously, most pointedly as they relate to classical music) and how they parallel the "renewal" of German society brough on by the Nazis.
I think Mann can get away with this because of the form of Doctor Faustus; that is, the book is a biography of a classical composer penned by his friend (an academic), so it makes sense that this book is going to give character and plot short shrift and be more caught up in the ideas at play, and giving us a surprisingly-often rarified discussion of them.
It’s a kind of strange novel to read. You can’t help but marvel at the level of ideas being brought to the table and how Mann integrates them into the wider plot of Germany in the modern period, but I’m not entirely sure if I feel okay with Mann creating this mock-biography framework to work out his ideas novelistically. I suppose the continuity of the narrator is what holds this book together as a novel (as opposed to just a bunch of ideas strapped onto a fictive body)–that is to say, Mann nails the narrative voice right from the beginning, and he hasn’t lost it yet.
Reading Faustus does make me wonder about some of Mann’s other big books–whether they’re more fundamentally constructed as stories with people, or if the ideas there also predominate to the same degree as in Faustus.