The ‘Doctor Faustus’ Case

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as told by a Friend

by Thomas Mann, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter
Vintage, 510 pp., $2.75 (paper)

The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of "Doctor Faustus"

by Thomas Mann, translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston
Knopf, 242 pp., $4.95

Faust as Musician: A Study of Thomas Mann's Novel "Doctor Faustus"

by Patrick Carnegy
New Directions, 182 pp., $9.25

Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann; drawing by David Levine

The career of Thomas Mann’s modern Faust is intended to illustrate the political, artistic, and religious dilemmas of the author’s time. Yet paradoxically, the story of a former divinity student who bargains his soul and body to become a “musician of genius” is set in the wrong historical era. And the book’s major flaw as fiction—counting as minor blemishes the discursiveness, and the imbalance between theory in the first half, story development and human variety in the second—may be attributed to conflicts between Mann’s symbolic and realistic intentions.

Pacts with devils in human form, complete with “cold winds” and changing guises, are more appropriate to the sixteenth century than to the twentieth. Not that similar bargains with “the forces of evil” are uncommon today, being in fact the rule rather than the exception, but the agencies with which the contemporary kind are negotiated have been non-personal. And, apart from the Mephistophelian contract, the primacy in the novel of the theme of “sin,” the importance of theology, and the space given to the subject of witchcraft belong more to the age of Martin Luther than to that of a “hero” dying in 1940.

Moreover, at the core of the book is the “German question,” Mann’s belief that the seeds of National Socialism existed long before Hitler, and the recommendation to reject “the myth of a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ Germany, the bad [being] at the same time also the good.” This postulate might have been presented to advantage in a more remote period; in any event, the portrait of a moderately “conscientious” German inside the Third Reich in 1943-1945 is totally unconvincing, though the same character, Serenus Zeitblom, narrator and spokesman for the author, is credible at other times.

Mann, in California, writing in Zeitblom’s name, is simply unable to arouse any sympathy for his fictional counterpart in the Germany of the latter part of the war. In a novelist so skilled at creating atmosphere and background, the failure to establish the sketchiest sense of what life must have been like in the collapsing Germany of 1945 is astonishing; Zeitblom’s complaints about the aerial destruction of German cities, his fears of retaliations from the Russians, and his “consternation” at the Allied landing in Sicily are all unreal. Nor does he mention any privations, or the presence of soldiers and movements of war matériel, or even the effects of casualties on the families of friends. Furthermore, the voice behind his reflections on the German soul is transparently that of Thomas Mann, who provides Zeitblom with what are too obviously hindsights about the conclusion of the war. Finally, what could be more farfetched than a middle-European provincial’s reference to occupied Paris as a “Luna Park” for New Order Germans?

Though Mann superbly evokes the main periods of the book—the decade in Munich before the 1914 war and, to a lesser extent, the 1920s, both…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.