The 1947 Club: Doctor Faustus / Thomas Mann

October 14, 2016

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.

The 1947 Club: The Path to the Spiders’ Nests / Italo Calvino

October 12, 2016

What a difference a pair of glasses makes. Philip Larkin and Italo Calvino shared a lifespan, born barely a year apart, in 1922 and 1923 respectively, and dying within three months of one another in 1985. That’s commitment. Larkin read English at Oxford, while Calvino studied agriculture at Turin and Florence, but when their countries came calling Larkin’s duff eyesight got him out of National Service, whereas Calvino joined the Resistance. It was Calvino’s wartime experience that formed the basis of his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno), which I read in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation, revised by Martin McLaughlin.


Calvino’s protagonist is Pin, a boy of indeterminate age (I’d have put him at about 12 or 13; other sources – OK, Italian Wikipedia – say 10). He has had a difficult life. His parents are dead and he now lives with his older sister who works as a prostitute. He spends his time in bars, cracking jokes and singing sexy songs he doesn’t really understand in the company of much older people. He’s full of pugnacity and bravado.

All Pin talks about is men and women in bed, or men murdered or put in prison, stories picked up from grown-ups, fables they tell among themselves.

Pin is desperate to be taken seriously by the regulars at the bar, and so when one of them dares him to steal the gun of Frick, the German sailor who is his sister’s most frequent visitor, he sees the chance of acceptance. Having stolen the gun, his first instinct is to play around with it (‘Your money or your life!’), but then he marvels at the power it gives him, the power he wants so badly.

Pin cannot resist the temptation any more and points the pistol against his temple; it makes his head swim. On it moves, until it touches the skin and he can feel the coldness of the steel. Suppose he put his finger on the trigger now? No, it’s better to press the mouth of the barrel against the top of his cheek bone, until it hurts, and feel the circle of steel with its empty centre where the bullets come from. Perhaps if he suddenly pulls the gun away from his temple, the suction of the air will make a shot go off; no, it doesn’t go off. Now he can put the barrel into his mouth and feel its taste against his tongue. Then, the most frightening of all, put it up to his eyes and look right into it, down the dark barrel which seems deep as a well. Once Pin saw a boy who had shot himself in the eye with a hunting-gun being taken off to hospital; his face was half-covered by a great splodge of blood, and the other half with little black spots from the gunpowder.

He hides the gun in a secret place he knows on the riverbank where some spiders have built their nests. This place, known only to Pin, acquires a symbolic significance. Throughout the book he looks for someone he can trust enough to share the secret of its location, someone who will understand its beauty.


At times I struggled with this book, not with the words (the translation reads very well) but with maintaining an interest in it. It’s partly the result of an ingrained apathy to war stories. Some years ago I exchanged my copy of A Farewell to Arms for a not very good ballpoint pen as part of a Rag Week swap thing. You were supposed to keep swapping and eventually end up with something incalculably more valuable than what you started with. I was happy enough with the pen.

People draw comparisons between this book and Italian neorealist cinema. Calvino, like Rossellini or De Sica, takes as his protagonists the downtrodden, the people uncared for by those in power, the people with no ability to help themselves. It’s admirable, if not always a great deal of fun. A late chapter introduces two new characters, the philosophical Kim and the practical Ferriera, apparently solely so they can have a polemical conversation about the motivations of Resistance men. It feels clumsy, and perhaps the older Calvino would have omitted it.

The theme of how easily people can be bought when they’re desperate recurs throughout: the group of partisans Pin eventually joins is betrayed by a renegade who defects to the enemy; Pin’s sister ends up consorting with the SS; even Pin himself considers joining the Fascist Black Brigade. More than once I thought of Louis Malle’s masterpiece Lacombe Lucien, whose antihero Lucien joins the Nazis when he is rebuffed by the local Resistance forces; more than anything else he wants to belong, even if it means turning his back on his own people. Pin, like Lucien, is bored of waiting for something to happen to him.

The effect of the indifference of the people around him is to make Pin’s mischievousness, which might otherwise be tiresome, amiable. When the sailor Frick arrives for an assignation with Pin’s sister, Pin informs him that she’s in hospital being treated for VD. His repartee is spontaneous and often amusing.

‘If you want to, you can get into the Black Brigade too,’ the militiaman says to Pin.

‘If I want to, I can get into that cow of a grandmother of yours,’ Pin replies readily.

Pin’s smart mouth is the catalyst for his departure from the Resistance. When the rest of the detachment goes off to fight a battle, he is left behind with the leader, Dritto, and Giglia, the wife of the cook, Mancino. Pin appears more interested in whether Dritto and Giglia will fuck than in watching the fighting, and when the others return he jokes about Mancino being a cuckold and is chased out.

The final chapter is the most beautiful. One last time Pin takes the path to the spiders’ nests. He walks past places where he should be playing, but has no appetite for play: the war has hardened him. When he reaches the spiders’ nests, he finds the place changed and the gun no longer there. It’s been so long since he visited. He’s at an impasse, unable to go back or forward, when Cousin (Cugino), a member of Dritto’s detachment, arrives unexpectedly. Might Cousin be the friend Pin has been looking for, the person who will understand the secret of the spiders’ nests?

This book is sometimes talked of as a coming-of-age novel, but it seems to me the opposite is true. Pin has spent a long time trying to be a grown-up in a world that has no place for children, and his incipient friendship with Cousin seems to signal a return to childhood innocence. Pin’s interest in sex throughout the book is vicarious: he understands it as something that obsesses the grown-ups who surround him, and as the means by which his sister makes her living, but is not interested in it for himself. When Cousin embarrassedly asks Pin if he can meet his sister, Pin is deflated: if, like everyone else, Cousin is only interested in sex, their friendship cannot bloom; but Cousin returns to him having changed his mind, and they walk off together, hand in hand, like Pooh and Piglet.

‘Can you remember your mother, then?’ asks Pin.

‘Yes, she died when I was fifteen,’ says Cousin.

‘Was she nice?’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘she was nice.’

‘Mine was nice too,’ says Pin.

‘What a lot of fireflies,’ says Cousin.

‘If you look at them really closely, the fireflies,’ says Pin, ‘they’re filthy creatures too, all reddish in colour.’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘but seen from this distance they’re beautiful.’

And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.

The 1947 Club: A Girl in Winter / Philip Larkin

October 10, 2016


It’s 1947 Club time, and my first book is A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin. There are some spoilers in what follows. Jacqui has posted an excellent, spoiler-free write-up of the book here.

I’d been under the impression that Larkin’s two novels, written before he became established as a poet, were a kind of shameful secret, Philippa Martinez-style romances written for the mass market. It turns out I was misled. He wrote this book in his early twenties while working at Wellington Library in Shropshire ‘handing out tripey novels to morons’. You’ve got to do something to preserve your sanity.


The girl of the title is Katherine Lund, an émigrée from an unspecified European country working in an English provincial library during the war. She has a hateful boss, Mr Anstey, and no friends. Several summers earlier, following her participation in a school letter exchange scheme, she spent three weeks staying with her correspondent, Robin Fennel, at his family’s Oxfordshire home. In her present-day loneliness, she has reestablished contact with the Fennels, and the action of the book takes place on the day that she receives a message from Robin to say he is coming to visit her. The book is divided into three parts, the central one consisting of a flashback to Katherine’s visit to the Fennels’ before the war.

Let’s start at the very beginning, which strikes me as a very good place to start, with a description of the snow on that winter morning:

It lay in ditches and in hollows in the fields, where only birds walked. In some lanes the wind had swept it faultlessly to the very tops of the hedges. Villages were cut off until gangs of men could clear a passage on the roads; the labourers could not go out to work, and on the aerodromes near these villages all flying remained cancelled. People who lay ill in bed could see the shine off the ceilings of their rooms, and a puppy confronted with it for the first time howled and crept under the water-butt.

You might have guessed Larkin was going to turn into a good poet from his eye for the small detail. The way you can tell it’s snowed even before you look out of the window, from the changed quality of the light. Small details impressed me throughout. Katherine is delegated to escort an ill colleague home, and finds that her anticipation of hearing from Robin makes her more disposed to do this good deed, a labour of displaced love; when, in the flashback section, she meets Robin for the first time, having exchanged many letters with him, she finds the intimacy of their correspondence counts for nothing in person, and they effectively have to build a relationship from scratch.

Elsewhere Larkin has a nice line in pencil portraits of people, skewering them neatly. The delight present in Robin’s stand-offish sister Jane, for instance, when Katherine upsets a teacup: ‘Her gaiety still seethed quietly within her.’ Or Miss Parbury, whose handbag Katherine restores to her after a mix-up: ‘Rather tall, with a rosy complexion and fair hair, she looked like a large tea-rose gone well to seed.’

Many specific details, though, are shunned. Larkin creates a vivid sense of time and place, but exactly where Katherine is working isn’t at all clear, though we know it’s not London. And just who is she? Where is she from? Her being in England, it is occasionally hinted, is the result of an unpleasant incident, but no further information is given. Is she a Jewish refugee? She admits to Miss Parbury, ‘If there wasn’t a war, I shouldn’t be here.’ Her name, Katherine Lind, makes some readers think her Scandinavian; I think German is more likely, given that we know Robin can speak her language. (In a neat touch that made me smile, the passages where Katherine and Robin talk in her own language are notated not with speech marks as they would be in an English book, but with dashes, the convention on the continent, to differentiate them from the surrounding English dialogue.)

Katherine’s past is a blur, even to her. The middle section, although seen from her perspective, is narrated from its own time. When we return to the present day, we find that Katherine’s own memories of the period, which we have read about very closely, have deteriorated, so that she can’t be sure of the truth. Did she fall in love with Robin, and is that why she’s so worked up about his coming to see her? It’s easy to see why she might have done so. Before she comes to visit, he sends her a photo of himself so that she will be able to identify him when she arrives.

The photograph showed him looking at the camera with his hands on his hips, lit by brilliant sunlight, wearing a cricket shirt. There was a swing in his body that suggested he had been called and had turned momentarily back while the picture was taken. He was dark and slight, with long eyelashes. The expression on his face was evasive in the sense of not being fully captured by the camera. Rather to her surprise, she had shown it to nobody except her parents.

Reading that, I’m a bit in love with him myself. The thing is, though, that love doesn’t seem to be on the cards. The flashback section reminded me very strongly of a book from a few years later, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Katherine, like Leo, is an outsider in a world of unaccustomed privilege where people behave according to a different code. It’s a hot summer, there are games to be played and walks to be taken, everything’s beautifully repressed. A scene where Robin frees a moth from the house is like the scene in The Go-Between where Leo dries Marian’s hair with his bathing suit, a fuss over nothing, with the maintenance of appearances the main consideration. Towards the end of Katherine’s stay, a group photo is taken. In some novels a photograph would serve as a nostalgia-creating device, something to give the episode an idyllic haze, but not here. Katherine’s not happy with the photo, and indeed, unlike Leo, she doesn’t seem to have been bewitched at all by her hosts, who have been polite but often not much more than that. It certainly doesn’t appear that Robin has designs on her. And then, just before she leaves, something happens.

It’s the final section of the book that’s the most interesting, and where the Larkin familiar from the poems is most in evidence. Katherine has a bad day at work, Mr Anstey having been particularly foul to her, and feels disillusioned. Her misanthropy, her disgust at the sordidness and emptiness of human existence, feels like Larkin’s. It was in the passages of despair that I felt closest to her myself. Panicked at the prospect of seeing Robin again, Katherine contrives to miss him, then regrets it, and finally, unexpectedly, finds him waiting for her when she gets home. They talk, she cooks him some food, and they go to bed together.

Larkin’s plot springs a few surprises along the way, so much so that I occasionally thought, is this supposed to be a suspense novel? because if it is there surely ought to be some suspense, not just the revelation. The going to bed is very much a surprise, but (I thought) a happy one.

Afterwards, Katherine and Robin talk. My thoughts turned automatically to Larkin’s poem ‘Talking in Bed’.

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Except that the rest of Larkin’s poem is about how people eventually fail to talk together in bed, whereas Katherine and Robin’s conversation might be the most intimate they’ve had. Sex is a watershed in several Larkin poems, such as ‘Annus Mirabilis’ and ‘High Windows’, though Larkin invariably places himself on the outside. Living is something that other people do. Most pertinent, perhaps, is his marvellous poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’, where he passes through Coventry on a train, ‘where my childhood was unspent’, and proceeds to catalogue the many things he didn’t do in his youth. Katherine’s concerns are Larkin’s, are all of ours, I suspect. She’s missing something. For the moment, Robin will do. Tomorrow, who knows? We carry on. Larkin’s poem ends, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ In some circumstances, that thought can be a consolation.

I remember 4

September 18, 2016

I remember being scared of going on downward escalators when I was about nine or ten, and being ashamed of it as I knew I’d been able to go on them when I was younger.


I remember light pink fluoride pills.


I remember hearing Chopin’s Funeral March on the radio when I was ill and thinking how beautiful it sounded but wondering if it might just be delirium.


I remember making a boiled egg for my father, perhaps because it was his birthday, and dropping it into the pan, under the impression that it would float, never having done it before, and the egg cracking on the bottom of the pan and the albumen emerging from beneath, and him being angry.


I remember a Year 5 Music lesson where I became aware I couldn’t see the board because I didn’t have my glasses and hoping desperately that I wouldn’t be asked by Dr T to read anything out because it would have meant admitting I couldn’t see.


I remember wrinkled fingertips.


I remember my little tin of blue Humbrol enamel paint that I bought to paint a model perhaps but ended up just opening every so often, prising the lid off with the end of a teaspoon to see the magical blue inside.


I remember visiting Hinkley Point and being given blue plastic earplugs which I kept for ages afterwards.


I remember eating and enjoying tongue, without acknowledging to myself what it was.


I remember assuming ‘several’ meant at least seven or so, and coming only slowly and stubbornly to the realisation that it might mean, say, three or four.


I remember praying for God to kill me.


I remember the big yellow metal train in Welshmill Park with the graffito on saying PENIS LOVERS MEET HERE FRIDAY 8PM, and wondering what went on at such meetings.


I remember an awful assembly at St John’s in which I was part of a presentation on hair, explaining that people had straight hair because of flat follicles and curly hair because of round follicles, and not understanding why flat and why round, which I still don’t. And then saying of Charlotte M the line ‘Her perm won’t last long,’ not really knowing what a perm was or why anyone would want one, and dimly sensing, perhaps, the absurdity of parroting words I didn’t comprehend written by some teacher who had no idea what children were.


I remember Mr P saying it was always worth having a go during oral exams even if you didn’t know the word, as a pupil of his had once had his Brummie-inflected ‘a bee’ taken as ‘abeille’ and accepted.


I remember feigning that I’d expected Gianluca Vialli to be sacked as Chelsea manager, though I hadn’t and it upset me.


I remember Maths Circus.