Mann considered Joseph and His Brothers his “pyramid,” the monument that would withstand the decades and centuries as smaller works were ground to dust. Indeed, it is enormous: sixteen years to write, 1500 pages, four volumes, and it recounts one of the central stories in all of Western civilization.
Yet it is probably the least-read of Mann’s major books. I myself had read almost everything else of Mann’s of similar status before I got around to it this year, and I only did finally come toward it because of a fascination of the ancient world and its religions.
Although the story of Joseph is a central story in the Judaic and Christian religions, Mann did not write this book out of a religious fervor (his spirituality seemed to be more attuned to “peaceable homoeroticism“). Rather, Mann here is interested in the status of myth in our culture, how these religious stories came to dominate all life in the West, and how Western culture discovered its god. He is also utterly compelled by the ancient world, reading countless books to master its details so that he could render this alien landscape as precisely as possible.
Needless to say, this is not the Bible you may have been taught in Sunday school. The book’s 40-page prelude (“Descent into Hell”) is Mann at his most Borgesian, pondering just how much of our own history we can possibly know, and where exactly history descends into rumor and folktale before it stops entirely at the boundaries of the written record. He also wants to know how these stories have come down to us, and why in this form. Throughout the tetralogy, Mann draws freely from pagan and gnostic belief, as well as his own bizarre, 20th-century imagination.
This is a massive, deeply intellectual work, although the storytelling is brisk and vivid, and Mann’s sharp sense of irony is evident throughout. Which is to say, Joseph and His Brothers is as much as a bizarre old page-turner as are all of Mann’s large books. It fascinates, and jabs, on every page. It is indeed a pyramid: climb to its heights and you will see new things.