sábado, 19 de noviembre de 2011

Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend [Doktor Faustus.  Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde] (Vintage International, 1999)
by Thomas Mann [translated from the German by John E. Woods]
USA, 1947

Doctor Faustus, a German novel written in sunny southern California exile but with the grim presence of World War II serving as the aging Mann's strumpet muse, is a sort of unholy trinity: part intellectual pseudo-biography exploring the link between creativity and madness, part Faust rewrite involving a composer who may have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of uninterrupted artistic greatness, part political allegory of Germany's rise and fall in the period comprising the two world wars.  How does one manage to tell such a tale?  In the hands of narrator Dr. Serenus Zeitblom, Ph.D., a lifelong friend of the composer Adrian Leverkühn, the answer seems simple enough: a biography/memoir.  It's clear from the outset, though, that this won't just be any ordinary biography as the scholarly Zeitblom here moves from a childhood reminiscence about carefree kids eating berries in the invigorating country air to drawing careful attention to the way that art and fate fought it out in Leverkühn's later life:

I am moved to look back not out of nostalgia, but for his sake and at the thought of his fate, which ordained that he ascend from that valley of innocence to inhospitable, indeed terrifying heights.  His was an artist's life; and because it was granted to me, an ordinary man, to view it from so close-up, all the feelings of my soul for human life and fate have coalesced around this exceptional form of human existence.  For me, thanks to my friendship with Adrian, the artist's life functions as the paradigm for how fate shapes all our lives, as the classic example of how we are deeply moved by what we call becoming, development, destiny--and it probably is so in reality, too.  For although his whole life long the artist may remain nearer, if not to say, more faithful to his childhood than the man who specializes in practical reality, although one can say that, unlike the latter, he abides in the dreamlike, purely human, and playful state of the child, nevertheless the artist's journey from those pristine early years to the late, unforeseen stages of his development is endlessly longer, wilder, stranger--and more disturbing for those who watch--than that of the everyday person, for whom the thought that he, too, was once a child is cause for not half so many tears...  I urgently request the reader, by the way, to credit what I have said here with such feeling to my authorial account and not to believe it represents Leverkühn's thoughts.  I am an old-fashioned man, stuck in certain romantic views dear to me, among which is the heightened drama of an antithesis between the artist and the bourgeois (27-28).

I've quoted from this passage at length both because it provides a representative sample of the narrator's voice and a measure of the gripping, philosophical way aesthetics and inspiration are engaged with as a matter of course in this work.  Leverkühn's life as a man of genius separates him from the pack artistically and socially, but his good friend Serenus is aware of the price that he's had to pay as the result of a life devoted to his music.  Is the tradeoff worth it to advance his craft?  While fellow Doctor Faustus readers will have to judge for themselves, Mann ups the metaphysical ante in Chapter XXV when the narrator introduces a "secret manuscript" bearing "Adrian's unmediated voice" (237).  The subject?  A purported dialogue between the composer and the Devil in which extravagant claims are debated at a feverish pitch that may anticipate the title character's looming mental illness and subsequent breakdown: "The artist is the brother of the felon and the madman" (252).  "What is art today?  A pilgrimage upon a road of peas" (254).  "Parody.  It might be merry if in its aristocratic nihilism it were not so very woebegone" (257).  "Psychology--merciful God, you still hold with that?  It is but a poor, bourgeois, nineteenth century thing!" (264).

Although the shaken Zeitblom--perhaps himself an admirer of that "poor, bourgeois, nineteenth century thing" in his role as a middle class traditionalist/scholar trying to understand the human psyche--resumes his narrator role for the rest of the work, his biography is increasingly marked by the way Leverkühn's downfall-in-progress mirrors Germany's turbulent war years.  Confronted with his old friend's guilt over a war caused by German aggression, for example, Leverkühn manically opines: "Germany has broad shoulders.  And who would deny that such a real breakthrough is worth what the meek world calls a crime!"  (325)  Later, while working on the score for an apocalyptic work to be performed under the title of The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, the obsessive composer prompts this reflection on the nature of German Kultur from a friend who has seen one man's road to madness parallel a nation's:

Meanwhile a transatlantic general has the inhabitants of Weimar file past the crematoria of their local concentration camp and declares (should one say, unjustly?) that they, citizens who went about their business in seeming honesty and tried to know nothing, though at times the wind blew the stench of burned human flesh up their noses--declares that they share in the guilt for these horrors that are now laid bare and to which he forces them to direct their eyes.  Let them look--I shall look with them, in my mind's eye I let myself be jostled along in those same apathetic, or perhaps shuddering, lines.  Our thick-walled torture chamber, into which Germany was transformed by a vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start, has been burst open, and our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world, of foreign commissions, to whom these incredible scenes are displayed on all sides now and who report home that the hideousness of what they have seen exceeds anything the human imagination can conceive.  I repeat, our ignominy.  For is it mere hypochondria to tell oneself that all that is German--even German intellect, German thought, the German word--shares in the disgrace of these revelations and is plunged into profoundest doubt?  Is it morbid contrition to ask oneself the question: How can "Germany," whichever of its forms it may be allowed to take in the future, so much as open its mouth again to speak of mankind's concerns?  (505-506)

A profound and arresting work not least for grappling with these sorts of questions so soon after the war and from the vantage point of a justly defeated people in the narrator's eyes.  The fatherland, c'est moi, is it not?  (www.vintagebooks.com)

Thomas Mann (1875-1955)

Destiny--or at least a happy coincidence--led me to read Doctor Faustus in conjunction with the German Literature Month program that's now underway here and hereThanks to Sergio Pitol, whose specific raves about the novel in El arte de la fuga (Mexico, 1996) first led me to become interested in the work, and to Anthony and Caroline and Isabella for more general blogger motivation to check Mann out for the first time.

11 comentarios:

  1. Ah, brilliant conclusion (The fatherland, c'est moi, is it not? ) to a brilliant review, as always!

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  2. I'm really glad you reviewed Doctor Faustus. I don't think it is in any way the lesser work, compared to Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain. Maybe less accessible. I know I loved it, found it highly fascinating.
    Not an easy book to review but you captured it very well.

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  3. *Jill: Thanks, you're too kind once again!

    *Caroline: I don't mean this as a slight to Mann, but I enjoyed Doctor Faustus more for its ideas than for its prose. Would you say that's at all typical of Mann's novels or style? Whatever the case may be, thanks for the extra push to read this title for German Literature Month; I agree that it was "highly fascinating," of course, and I look forward to reading at least one of those two other chunksters by Mann in 2012.

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  4. I knew you didn't "like" it and despite my saying, I loved it, I didn't "like" it either, as it is very intellectual. When I say I like a book I mean it did move me emotionally. That's not the case here but I found the ideas fascinating. It's incredibly rich. Yes, I would say, it's pretty typical Mann. Felix Krull is a bit different and so are the first two but all in all, the sytle is often similar. I find his prose flawless and very analytical but witty.

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  5. This novel could need a new translation and is very much a counterpart to the redemption of German literature with Hesse's 'the glass Bead Game'. Both novels are 'difficult' to read, as you indicate in your review but also quite rewarding.

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  6. the gripping, philosophical way aesthetics and inspiration are engaged with as a matter of course in this work

    This is definitely one of the things that impressed me about The Magic Mountain—that, and the fact that it was so often surprisingly hilarious. I haven't ventured any further into Mann since reading that one, but I'm intrigued by what you say here about the role of the artist as well as the playing with the bio/memoir/"found documents" form. Thanks for the reminder about an author I definitely want to investigate in greater depth.

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  7. I've read a few by Thomas Mann, but not this one. It sounds like a challenging read, but then that's what reading quality literature is all about :)

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  8. *Caroline: Although I found Mann's ideas more compelling than his prose overall, I was actually moved emotionally at times (especially toward the end)--just maybe not to the same degree as I am with other authors of his stature, I guess. Wasn't sure if that was due to Mann himself or the pseudo-biographical aspects of this work as set forth by the guilt-ridden but old-fashioned narrator. In any event, I admire Mann's intellectualism and look forward to more by him. "Incredibly rich," indeed.

    *Hydriotaphia: I don't have anything to compare it to not knowing any German, but I thought Woods' translation was fine overall; at the very least, it read well and sounded "authentic" in terms of the narrator's voice/persona. The novel itself is definitely "quite rewarding" in caliber. Thanks very much, by the way, for the comment and for the recommendation of that Hesse title, with which I had been unfamiliar; however, I checked it out online and then in a bookstore yesterday and will try to make time for it next year if all goes well. Cheers!

    *Emily: Doctor Faustus was witty at times but far from hilarious (a notable exception: the chapter featuring the bombastic theory pronouncements by the Devil and Leverkühn), but I imagine that has something to do with the subject matter and the backdrop of a defeated and devastated German countryside and culture. Look forward to reading more by Mann to see how his intellectualism and aesthetic concerns play out in slightly less forbidding territory, so I can understand your desire to explore his work in greater depth. Makes sense to me!

    *Tony: Welcome to the blog and thanks for this comment in particular: "That's what reading quality literature is all about." Agreed! Seriously, Mann gives you a lot to chew over here, so I'm very excited to hear so many raves about his other works. Very promising. Cheers!

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  9. How about making a trip to my blog and having a look at my Sunday's post.... Hint, hint, hint..... :) !!!

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  10. I read this years ago ,I like mann but unlike others I don't go over board on him ,but this is good at the think german literature does so well and that is using a story to say something about something else whilst telling another story ,all the best stu

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  11. *Caroline: Thanks again!

    *Stu: Interesting to hear your thoughts on German literature and what it does well--I guess I associate Argentinean lit with a certain type of narrative and Amateur Reader (Tom) has written a series of posts on Weird France as well. Will prob. read Mann's Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain next year. Cheers!

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