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 of which he knew well—the 1930s are largely ignored. The reason for this is that the subject of Zeitblom’s biography, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, could not have functioned in Hitler’s Germany, and is therefore rendered non compos mentis during the entire decade. And since the tragic destinies of the Vaterland and of Leverkühn are bound together, neither-could Mann’s composer have joined all those German-refugee film-studio musicians in Hollywood. Because Leverkühn and Germany succumb concurrently to their respective insanities, and because the time gap between Leverkühn’s mental collapse (ca. 1930) and the inception of Zeitblom’s biography (1943) is not adequately covered, the plight of the artist confronted by Nazism does not arise and the novel is the poorer for having excluded it.

Then, too, music, the representative German art, as well as a symbolic and actual subject of the novel, might have been treated more advantageously in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. For Leverkühn, music originates in theology:

With Beethoven…music is a manifestation of the highest energy…almost the definition of God.

And in those earlier centuries not only did music derive inspiration from theology, but also its expressiveness was integral to its structure, which was itself theological. Jacobus Obrecht’s Sub tuum praesidium Mass, for instance, exploits various doctrinal correspondences—in its twelve imitations of the cantus firmus, and between the seven voices of the Agnus Dei and the seven Marian chants, to mention only two details from the quadrivial (arithmetical, geometrical, musical, astronomical) aspect of the composition’s inexhaustibly meaningful constructions. Mann, who was attracted to intellectual1 contrivances of the sort, would have found more challenge in this number mysticism than in Schoenberg’s comparatively simple “method of composing with twelve tones,” a method governing only pitch, while Obrecht’s Mass also includes the geometrization of tempo and rhythm. An objection to this translation to an earlier era would probably be that, following Schopenhauer’s definition of music as a nonconceptual art, one of Mann’s aims was to show that its mysterious power can be dangerous, as with Wagner; but Plato understood the potential subversiveness of music as well as did the nineteenth-century philosopher. Still another of Mann’s intentions was to pillory a society’s decadence in its music, but was this not also a purpose of the Council of Trent?


A further reason why an earlier century would have been preferable as a setting of Mann’s Faust story is the belief that disease as a path to illumination has less validity in the scientific age than in that of saints and stigmata; and though syphilis was one of the typological diseases of the Romantics—Nietzsche and Hugo Wolf were among Mann’s models—the death of a famous composer from it in 1940 seems somewhat anachronistic. Yet another argument for placing the narrative in an earlier century is Mann’s predilection for archaic language, which then, at least, would have been appropriate. Both Leverkühn and the Devil speak a twisted scriptural tongue which is not only a tiresome affectation but also a considerable impediment to intelligibility—and which, readers be warned, makes another appearance in that cornucopia of incest, The Holy Sinner.

Mann’s twentieth-century framework also leads to impossible complications when his fictional composer mingles with actual people living at the time. The idea is intriguing, and Mann’s choice of which ones to include displays a real familiarity with the musical life of the age; Otto Klemperer, for example, would have been the perfect conductor for the première of Leverkühn’s oratorio, Apocalypsis cum figuris, Maia de Strozzi-Pecic the ideal singer for his Lieder, and Paul Sacher quite obviously the outstanding musician with whom to deal in Switzerland. To a fanciful reader, the matching of these people with Leverkühn’s music might suggest something of its qualities.

But when Leverkühn attends the performance of Salomé in Graz in 1906, Mann does not mention that Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg were there—naturally, for how could there be a great German composer who was not Mahler, not Schoenberg, and not Berg, or not Webern, not Pfitzner, and not Strauss? Leverkühn would either have to be a composite of all of these men, or he would have had to discover new musical territory unexplored by any of them. True, he does introduce experimental effects, including “howling glissandos,” but his pieces depend on borrowed features. Thus the instrumentation of two songs for voice and string quartet, as well as of another chamber work, recalls Schoenberg’s opus 10 and opus 29, and the “speaking choruses” suggest other Schoenberg pieces, though Mann had not actually heard them. The instrumentation and narrator-device in Leverkühn’s puppet play are borrowed from Histoire du Soldat, while some of the Apocalypsis threatens to sound like Theodor W. Adorno’s2 idea of Stravinsky:

the parody of the different musical styles…Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz….

But the impingement of the actual on the imaginary must have become unmanageable, and therefore Leverkühn’s public appearances had to be rare—surely a secondary reason why Mann crippled him with migraines as well as tertiary syphilis.

Besides the question of its misplacement in historical time, other features of Mann’s vast novel demand criticism beyond the scope of this article. For example, something should be said of the many characters who enter the story at a late date, and who, though absorbing in themselves, are irrelevant to the development of the central theme. Frau von Tolna, Leverkühn’s Madame von Meck, is one such, and so is the impresario Saul Fitelberg, “Représentant de nombreux artistes prominents,” whose analysis of career-making in Paris is diverting, but of whom Leverkuhn and the plot have no need. Marie Godeau, on the other hand, does advance the story, precipitating a break between Leverkühn and one of his two principal male attachments (both far closer to him than any woman); but Marie disappears as soon as this plot function has been accomplished, Mann apparently forgetting all about her even though at one time Leverkühn had intended to marry her.

Mann’s propensity for devoting separate chapters to the stories of each character may be responsible for the structural effect of a piling up of building blocks. Certainly this is true of his treatment of Leverkühn’s biography, which is divided into the family background chapter, the discovery of musical talent chapter, the understanding teacher chapter, the Italian sojourn chapter, and so forth. And it is no less true of the discourses—on osmosis; on the Devil’s casuistic argument that “in these irreligious times, in whom will you recognize theological existence if not in me?”; on the theory that the likeness of a certain two children to their father is greater than that to their mother “because her psychological participation when she conceived them was so slight”; on Kierkegaard’s notion that genius is ipso facto sinful, and on Dostoevsky’s that “the artist is the brother of the criminal and the madman”; and, above all, on Aristotle’s “The acts of the person acting are performed on the one previously disposed to suffer them,” this being part of the rationale for Leverkühn’s deliberately contracting syphilis as “a means provided by the Devil to induce creativity.”


As for the book’s digressions, Mann deflects criticism by having Zeitblom anticipate them, not only mentioning his tendency to ramble but often reminding himself that he is writing a biography and not a novel. (But surely novels and biographies—Marius the Epicurean, for one—can be the same thing!) And, finally, for a digression by this reviewer, as far as critical perspectives are concerned it might be interesting to examine Leverkühn, the remote and abstract, and Zeitblom, the humanistic, as extensions of their prototypes Naphta and Settembrini.

The Story of a Novel divulges nothing of the actual writing of Doctor Faustus but simply collects Mann’s comments on the people, the books, the journeys, the speech-making, the illnesses that otherwise occupied his time while he was working on it. He refers to one excursus into public activity as “a visit to the world of humanity,” as if the world of those who only stayed at home and wrote were not human. But in fact Mann did seem to consider artists, himself included, as somehow removed from “the world,” which in his case the evidence in The Story of a Novel refutes. Yet the book is of greater interest to readers of the novel than the twelve-year delay in publishing the English edition would indicate. It reveals some of Mann’s sources in literature, life, and even death—for the suicides of the fictional Clarissa and Inez were based on those of Mann’s sisters, although he identifies only one of them.

Still another family suicide, that of Heinrich Mann’s wife, occasions the first mention—nearly halfway through the book—of the older brother. This is all the more remarkable in that the two Mann’s were now Santa Monica neighbors. Thomas’s account of the tragedy is distinctly chilly.

A telephone call from my brother informed us of the death of her who had shared his life for so many years. The unfortunate woman had made repeated attempts to escape from life by an overdose of sleeping pills. This time she had succeeded. We buried her on December 20…. [Heinrich] spent the rest of the day with us and it goes without saying that, after the loss he had suffered, our ties became even closer.

But if the brothers had spent very many days together, and if ties had really been close, would Thomas have spoken in this way? A few lines later, describing a reading by Heinrich from his new novel, Thomas remarks, somewhat contemptuously it may seem, that it came from a “tireless pen.” But then, he is unable to convey, and no doubt even to see, anything significant about his brother.

The Story acknowledges the large collaborative role of Mann’s “Privy Councillor,” Theodor W. Adorno, but in musical matters only, although his influence on Mann’s thinking, and even on his vocabulary (“niveau”), in social and political ones is apparent throughout the novel. Adorno’s personality, however, remains as nearly impenetrable as his style, which Mann extravagantly euphemizes as “pithy.” At the opposite extreme, Arnold Schoenberg is vividly delineated in even the smallest scrap of conversation. When Mann asked the composer whether it is possible for a capella choruses to sing in “untempered tuning,” Schoenberg answered affirmatively but did not add that most choruses achieve this simple feat quite regularly!

An innate sense of form enables Mann to novelize his public and social life, even to constructing a climax around his lung surgery in Chicago in the spring of 1946. And as if to prove his thesis about illness, in this episode his powers of observation—on doctors and nurses, the effects of medication, himself as a patient—are exceptionally acute:

overfastidiousness of the senses is characteristic of…[a certain] tender state of convalescence; sickness finds itself much too fine for many things that are quite acceptable to coarser conditions.

Told that when coming out of the anesthesia he complained of having suffered during the operation, and then, realizing that this must have been impossible, he wonders if

there still exist some vital depths in which, with all the senses shut off, one nevertheless suffers?…No one knows how dead [the organism] is before the actual dissolution; that fact might serve…as an argument against cremation. To put it in English once more, “It may hurt.”

What apparently did suffer, and throughout a lifetime, was Mann’s ego; or at any rate this part of the psychic apparatus seems often to have been in dire need of bolstering. And although he was quick to detect malicious motives behind unfavorable criticisms of himself, terming them “plainly impelled by private rancours,” he accepts at face value the favorable ones that naturally follow his numerous public recitations of portions of the novel:

…The reading made an extraordinary impression; Adorno came up to me and said, “I could listen all night.”…I expounded the plan of the novel to Neumann, who was stunned to amazement…. Read aloud from Doctor Faustus, the first three chapters. Was deeply moved…. [My] reading of the lecture chapter. Intimacy with music gloriously confirmed…. “That is fascinating…. This may well be your greatest book.”

No less concerned with posterity’s view of him, he notes on the subject of people with striking personalities: “I think I am none. I personally will be as little remembered as Proust” (as if Proust’s personal idiosyncrasies had not generated some of the interest in his work). Finally, should the Saint Peter at the portals of literary immortality fail to perceive the supplicant’s minor virtues, he points out one instance:

I think I may well call myself a good colleague who does not look grudgingly at the good and the great things that are being done alongside him.

Turning to The Story of a Novel after Doctor Faustus itself, the reader is struck by the naïveté of the man in comparison to the sophistication of his work. The erudition, the irony, the psychological understanding, the self-mockery all seem to evaporate when the writer leaves the world of his imagination. For example, after registering his surprise that musicians do not recognize the Prelude to Act III of Meistersinger in his description of a piece modeled on it, Mann nevertheless fails to see that this throws into question the value of all verbal descriptions of music. And with breathtaking ingenuousness, after calling a young man “good-looking,” he then deems it necessary to inform the reader that “good looks are a pleasure, whether in men or women.” Finally, in view of the complexity of mind exhibited in the dialogue with the Devil, most dismaying of all is the narrowness, in The Story of a Novel, of Mann’s criticism of Flaubert’s Saint Anthony:

A long review of the insanity of the religious world—and then, at the end, the countenance of Christ? Dubious.

But is it not a commonplace even among scientific positivists, and at least since William James, that the insanities, crimes, and cruelties of the Church do not invalidate the teachings of Christ?

Since its publication six years ago, Gunilla Bergsten’s thesis on Doctor Faustus has established itself as an authoritative as well as pioneering work on the subject. Though in no need of review, Mrs. Bergsten’s book deserves to be re-recommended for its documentation, which presents excerpts from the novel, and, in parallel columns, the passages from which they were derived. The latter range from musicological literature to Nietzsche’s correspondence and Frank Harris on Love’s Labour’s Lost. Mrs. Bergsten explores such subjects as “further diseased geniuses,” pursues countless clues to existing musical works in those of Leverkühn, and unearths many new links, including the novelist’s markings in his copy of Stravinsky’s autobiography, from which Mann borrowed some features for his Leverkühn portrait. But the definitive study of Doctor Faustus is still to come, and it is not the one by Patrick Carnegy.

The title, Faust as Musician, is misleading, since the book is merely a brief general interpretation and commentary. Mr. Carnegy does not concentrate on the extensive musical aspects of a novel which, after all, is to music what The Magic Mountain is to TB. Nor does he investigate in sufficient detail Mann’s claim that the book’s structure contains analogies to music—in the use of leitmotifs, for instance, and in the emulation of musical time. The very first sentence is confusing:

Doctor Faustus is the imaginary biography of the German composer, Adrian Leverkühn, as told by his friend, Serenus Zeitblom.

In fact, it is the actual biography, in 510 pages, of the imaginary German composer, etc. Confusing, too, is the chapter which should have been the book’s highlight, “Schoenberg and Leverkühn.” Here the author observes:

Mann certainly did not enjoy Schoenberg’s music and would seem instinctively to have distrusted its revolutionary aspect.

In truth, Mann had not heard enough of Schoenberg’s music to know whether or not he enjoyed it, and of the revolutionary pieces—those composed with the “twelve-tone method,” at least—he had heard none at all.3 Though Schoenberg and Mann were Los Angeles neighbors,4 the novelist was far more intimate with Bruno Walter, whose opposition to Schoenberg’s music doubtless affected Mann. In short, Mann was not interested in the music of Schoenberg but only in his “twelve-tone method,” and this through the proselytizing and intermediation of Adorno.5

Mr. Carnegy observes that

Leverkühn’s musical system and the use he makes of it differ considerably from those [sic] of Schoenberg…one reason for this being that Mann deployed his ad hoc version to air reservations about twentieth-century music….

The latter part of this statement is true: Mann does give the “system” a significance totally different from Schoenberg’s. But that has no bearing on the “system” itself. In essence the Leverkühn-Mann “system” is Schoenberg’s, and Mann’s account of it, as far as it goes, is correct:

[It consists] of the twelve semitones, series of notes from which a piece…must strictly derive. Every note of the whole composition, both melody and harmony, would have to show its relation to this fixed fundamental series. Not one might recur until the other notes have sounded…. In addition to…a fundamental series…every one of its intervals is replaced by its inversion…. One could begin the figure with its last note and finish it on its first, and then invert this figure as well. So then you have four modes, each of which can be transposed to all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, so that forty-eight different versions of the basic series may be used in a composition….

Even today, almost thirty years after Doctor Faustus, this shows more of a grasp of Schoenberg’s idea than many professional musicians have attained. Where Mann misrepresents Schoenberg is in the statement, deduced from Adorno, that “There was no longer any free note,” which suggests a limitation that is not real, the individual notes, even after satisfying the condition that they follow their established position in the row, actually being freer than they are in tonal harmony and counterpoint. Moreover, Mann did not understand the true extent to which the Schoenberg method involves—as Zeitblom apprehends it—“composing before composition.” In fact this phrase is Adorno’s, and it constitutes his chief criticism of Webern, not of Schoenberg, to whom, in Adorno’s view, it applies scarcely at all.

Not Schoenberg, then, but his disciple, Adorno, explained the workings of the “twelve-tone method” to Mann. And Adorno’s exegesis was heretical: it contained built-in criticisms of the method’s consequences that provided the basis for Mann’s false analogy between the musical principle and totalitarian ideologies. Thus Doctor Faustus animadverted on Schoenberg, and may continue to do so as long as the novel is read, which explains Schoenberg’s shocked attack on Mann when it appeared. Nothing, however, will ever explain or excuse Mann’s failure to acknowledge from the first that the method he had appropriated was Schoenberg’s, a plagiarism which the broadest interpretation of literary license is unable to justify and which remains one of the strangest incidents in modern literary history. No less mystifying is Mann’s subsequent declaration that

there is no point of contact, not a shade of similarity, between the origin, the tradition, the character, and the fate of my musician…and the existence of Arnold Schoenberg.

But is the “twelve-tone method” not a “point of contact” between Leverkühn and Schoenberg? And is chapter thirty-seven’s famous description of Leverkühn’s rhythmic style not transparently based on that of Schoenberg? And did both men not come from the same Germanic tradition, similarly choose religious subjects for their largest works, compose music of initially almost unperformable difficulty, and suffer alike from neglect?

In later editions the novel contained a note that begrudgingly identifies Leverkühn’s method as Schoenberg’s, a note that bears witness to a highhandedness scarcely conceivable in someone of the stature of Thomas Mann. But fortunately this stain on his reputation does not detract from the great achievement of the book, whose données may be overambitious, but whose perspectives are both larger and deeper than those of his other books. But to compare Dr. Faustus and the realistic novels of, for example, Solzhenitsyn, is to recognize how much more limited in scope is the newer genre. In the sense of embracing the spectrum of humanistic, religious, and artistic themes, Dr. Faustus may be the last of its kind.

(This is the second of two articles on Thomas Mann.)

This Issue

August 7, 1975