Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus is a work of exile, written in the US (1943 -1947), a bold and sometimes terrifying retelling of the Faust legend through the life of a composer, Adrian Leverkuhn. When I first read the book 30 years ago, it had the force of revelation in its urgent complexity. It is a novel of ideas of a kind rarely found in English, but sees thought and art as inseparable from character. It is in a sense the story of the early 20th century in the light of Fascism and modernism, yet neither history nor the individual is sacrificed to allegory.
A former theology student, Leverkuhn, clearly modelled on Nietzsche, breaks away from late Romanticism to pursue 12-tone composition (like Schoenberg, who was unhappy with the association). Leverkuhn's work exhibits great formal brilliance but also seems contemptuous of its human sources (the book's descriptions of music are among its many treasures). A supreme parodist, in his relationships he exerts immense attraction but in Shakespeare's words is himself, with tragic exceptions, "unmoved, cold and to temptation slow". Others destroy themselves for want of him, not knowing that he has long since contrived his own destruction.
The novel reaches into the mysterious folkloric Germany where the Devil is a familiar presence and the gifted over-reacher may well fall for his wiles. Mann's choice of narrator is both brilliant and, in artistic terms, supremely challenging. The Lutheran Leverkuhn's boyhood friend Zeitblom, a Catholic, is a classics teacher, anxious to do justice to his dead friend. He is fastidious and pedantic, but these mundane limitations help to dramatise the encounter with the demonic.
Franz Seitz's 1982 film, though well performed, misses the mediating narrator's sensibility, for Doktor Faustus is to a great degree about language, its power to consider what might be as well as what is. Zeitblom waits faithfully on the human shore as his friend moves indifferently out of reach, and then sees to his welfare when disaster occurs. His very limitations give this novel of ideas a questing urgency.
Written in the shadow of Hitler, Doktor Faustus observes the rise of Nazism, but its relationship to political history is oblique. One problem for non-German readers is to grasp that German culture precedes the existence of the nation, which lends cultural life an extraordinary definitive significance. What Mann regards as artistic heresy – that aesthetic obligations can outbid morality – may not simply be a symptom, but a contribution to the climate in which disease can flourish and come to power. The texture of the narration forbids simple summary, for Zeitblom, like many another, both knows and cannot entirely credit what is going on until it is too late to prevent disaster. In a tragedy, the act of will and the hand of fate may prove difficult to distinguish. Why can I never persuade anyone else to read this book?
Sean O'Brien's novel 'Afterlife' is published by Picador
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies