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Doctor Faustus

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.

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9 comments to Doctor Faustus

  • DCN

    I am reading “Buddenbrooks” right now and it is very different. It is very plot and character based–all of the promissory notes remind me of “Madame Bovary”–and less heavy on the philosophy. Or at least by page 212 it appears that way to me.

  • You might be interested to know: Alex Ross uses the writings of T. Mann – but especially Doctor Faustus – as a counterpoint in his history of 20C music, The Rest is Noise. Ross shows a lot of parallels to the actual composers and intellectual debates that were going on at the time.
    Man, you set the bar pretty high with your reading!

  • Stephen Hill

    Dr. Faustus from all the Mann novels I’ve read is his most difficult.
    I think “Magic Mountain” is the stand-out, swirling with ideas, “Buddenbrooks” his first is also very good, and the closest Mann gets to covering the quotidian in offering the downfall or degeneration of a family line.
    I’d also recommend “Felix Krull: Confidence Man” which is proves just how playful and raucous Mann can be (as there is a sort of stereotype of the author as an austere intellectual). Krull was Mann’s last unfinished work (we only get Part 1) and it’s such a tragedy that we will never know what was goign to happen in the latest parts of Mr. Krull’s life as it is a novel of such infectious energy. Some of his novellas are also excellent.

  • Death in Venice is a foundational text, you should return to it sometime. Mann was a master.

  • Garth

    Scott-
    I think Buddenbrooks is the place to start; it’s a wonderful novel, rich with character. The Magic Mountain is even better – it’s probably the book I would write, if I could – but is more ruminative. I think Dr. F. has a reputation for being cerebral…I’m going to try it in the winter, not being able to read Germans in the summer. I guess it’s winter where you are?

  • All,
    Well, now I’ve finished reading it. It is very cerebral, but, my God, certainly worth the effort. Mann’s ideas on art are good enough on their own, but then the way he ties them to German culture and Nazism . . . this is some great stuff.
    Yes, I’m aware that Alex Ross uses Mann liberally in TRIS. Actually, what surprises me about Faustus is how much of a musical education it is . . . I suppose I thought Mann’s discussion would be a little more . . . academic . . . but it really gets at the heart of the experience. I’m listening in new ways now.
    I think The Magic Mountain is next for me, if only because that’s the only other one I own. But, yes, winter down here (thanks for noticing!), though not that cold and not for long (I’m leaving soon).
    It’s rather funny the way these things work, but the Bakhtin that I started reading to get away from Mann for a bit is the essay in which he discusses parody as the means by which narrative fiction escaped the epic. What’s funny about this is that parody is precisely how Adrian tries to escape classical music from its own calcified forms . . . I’m wondering if it was coincidence, of if these two were reading one another, or influenced by similar thinkers.

  • This is a great book – I named a blog Road of Peas in honor of his genius.

  • Mary Ann Whipp

    I’ve read “Buddenbrooks” and “Magic Mountain” (both of which I enjoyed), but “Death in Venice” is one of those books that I refer to as a perfect jewel. Thank you for your follow-up comment. At first I thought I had finished my “Mann thing” (when you’re intimidated, how could I muster the courage?) , but now I will add it to my list. Challenging is good!

  • I’ll join the chorus: Buddenbrooks is a good alternative, a full-on novel telling the story of a family. But I say that as someone who found Doctor Faustus impossible to put down–though I was 22 at the time, which might make a difference?

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