Book of a Lifetime: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

From The Independent archive: Sean O’Brien on ‘Doctor Faustus’ by Thomas Mann

Friday 19 November 2021 21:30
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<p>Thomas Mann returned to Germany in 1949 after more than 15 years away</p>

Thomas Mann returned to Germany in 1949 after more than 15 years away

Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is a work of exile, written in the US (1943-47), 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 a 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 overreacher may well fall for his wiles.

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