Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend was a book I vowed to myself to read at the start of the year, and when the 1947 Club came along and I spotted the publication date of Mann’s book it seemed a pleasingly neat coincidence. I’ve loved Mann since discovering Death in Venice at 14, a book I’ve read more times than probably any other, and given it’s been five years since I was blown away by Buddenbrooks, it was high time to try another. I read the 1997 translation by John E. Woods, then Michael Beddow’s volume on the book in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series.
The book, ostensibly a fictional biography of the composer Adrian Leverkühn written by his friend Serenus Zeitblom, is Mann’s reimagining of the Faust myth. Leverkühn, perhaps in a hallucination brought on by syphilis, makes a pact with Satan: he will forfeit his soul in exchange for 24 years of success. Success comes, but at great personal cost. Leverkühn’s story is set against the rise of Fascism in Germany. Beddow:
The relationship between Mann’s novel and the history of Germany is in one sense simple to the point of crudity. Adrian Leverkühn is meant as an allegory of modern Germany.
I’ll get the apologies out of the way at the start: because my own understanding of the book is indeed at the crudest of levels, I will restrict myself to a handful of observations that occurred to me as I read it. This is very much a novel of ideas, and though my musical education enabled me to follow the musical elements (which, as you’d expect, are several), I floundered during the lengthy discussions of philosophy, theology and political theory.
Within the first few pages I was put in mind of a favourite book of mine, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, another fictional biography. Nabokov’s narrator, Charles Kinbote, is an egotist who sees himself represented throughout the work of his subject, the poet John Shade. I was pleased to see Beddow draw the same parallel. Did Nabokov, who detested Mann, intend the Kinbote/Shade relationship to be a travesty of Zeitblom/Leverkühn, he wonders. There are many similarities, and most of Mann’s humour (and he’s not a humourless writer, though next to Nabokov he can seem that way) comes from Zeitblom’s pomposity, enhanced by the occasional hint of passive-aggressiveness. On the subject of names:
Our use of familiar pronouns is rooted in those years, and he must have addressed me by my first name back then too – I can no longer hear it, but it is unthinkable that as a six- or eight-year-old he did not call me Serenus, or simply Seren, just as I called him Adri. It must have been during our early years at school, though the exact moment cannot be determined, when he ceased to grant me that intimacy and, if he addressed me at all, began to use my last name – whereas it would have seemed to me impossibly harsh to reply in like fashion. It was so – though far be it from me for it to appear as if I wished to complain. It simply seemed worth mentioning that I called him Adrian, whereas he, when not evading use of a name entirely, called me Zeitblom.
Mann and Nabokov must both have enjoyed the invention of fictional bodies of work for their creations. Mann also does it with Aschenbach in Death in Venice, devoting several pages of the novella to a description of the writer’s output, establishing his credentials as a man of letters. Zeitblom again:
It was my lot in life to spend many years in intimate proximity with a man of genius, the hero of these pages, to know him from childhood on, to witness his growth, and his fate, and to play a modest supporting role in his work. The libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, Leverkühn’s mischievous youthful composition, comes from me; I was also permitted some influence on the preparation of the texts for both the grotesque opera suite Gesta Romanorum and the oratorio The Revelation of St. John the Divine.
Nabokov goes so far as to present Shade’s poem ‘Pale Fire’ in its entirety as a preface to the analysis/biography. Leverkühn is a composer, and so isn’t accorded this luxury, though Mann describes certain works of his in detail. The violin concerto, untypically romantic, sounded bewitching to me in Zeitblom’s description, like the most beautiful piece ever written, and I wondered if any composer had tried to extrapolate any of the music from the book. Proust’s Vinteuil Sonata too: there are various pieces thought to have inspired it, but has anyone set out to compose the piece in real life? A thought that occurred to me in passing.
Theodor Adorno, scourge of music students throughout the world, advised Mann on the book’s musical content. Some readers equate Leverkühn with Arnold Schoenberg because Mann has Leverkühn invent twelve-tone composition. Schoenberg was a bit put out by this, and Mann was obliged to insert a disclaimer at the end of the book setting the record straight. In fact Leverkühn resembles no single real composer, but in some respects Stravinsky is a closer fit than Schoenberg. Around the time of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), Leverkühn composes a work, Marvels of the Universe, that feels very much its counterpart, and the changeability of his style recalls Stravinsky’s series of chameleon-like self-reinventions.
While Zeitblom’s laughableness is entertaining – the fact that as a student he misses his own lectures to attend Leverkühn’s, so convinced is he that he must observe everything his idol does, already certain that one day he will write this biography; the conviction (like Kinbote’s) that he sees cryptographic messages in the master’s work that no one else does – his political observations make for sober reading, perhaps because his horror of the rise of totalitarianism feels eerily current. There are innumerable passages about art as the antidote to extremism, about the anti-intellectualism of his society, about the ‘anti-humanity’ of the odious iconoclast Chaim Breisacher, misrepresenting Bach and Palestrina as hateful reactionaries who despoiled the glory of monophony, and about the scourge of nationalism, where I felt sharp pangs of recognition as I read. His shame at the moral bankruptcy of his country mirrors what I have sometimes felt about my own in recent months:
Our thick-walled torture chamber, into which Germany was transformed by a vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start, had been burst open, and our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world … 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?
In these passages, where (perhaps) we see ourselves reflected, this is a viscerally terrifying book, more so than any horror story I’ve read. Books don’t usually scare me, but I was glad to get to the end of this one. It’s brilliant, but profoundly unsettling. Part of the scariness, as my fellow blogger the Argumentative Old Git has observed elsewhere, is that Germany has such a rich cultural history. If Germany could turn to barbarism, what hope for the rest of us? Let us pray that we heed the lessons of history.
Back to the allegory: the political life of Germany in the first part of the twentieth century seems to correspond to Leverkühn’s own. He sells his soul and ends up killing the things he loves and descending into madness. But although the two mirror each other, their stories don’t seem inextricably linked, and the comparisons are not exact. Take Leverkühn’s music. Serialism – a democracy of tones in which no single note of the twelve is superior to any other – is a logical extreme, a dead end. There is nowhere beyond it to go, which is not to say that much great serialist music has not been written. With political extremism, when things are pulled down we have no option but to carry on, and good generally emerges from the wreckage. (I suppose I mean the NHS.) What came after serialism? Minimalism, blankness, emptiness? I think I’ll keep Schoenberg, thank you. The more I compare political with musical extremism, the more I see it can’t be done. For the reader of Doctor Faustus to feel tempted to equate twelve-tone music with Nazism is, I think, to misread the book. I just can’t say exactly why.