Doktor Faustus is – besides Zauberberg and the Josef novels – one of Thomas Mann’s great novels (and yes I’m aware that most people would add Buddenbrooks to that list or even have it solely consist of that novel – for my part, however, I think it is very overrated and one of Mann’s lesser efforts) – and has a reputation of being inaccessible even by his standards. This reputation is not completely undeserved, it is a complex and difficult book and takes some effort to get into – on the other hand, however, the rewards for making that effort are exceptionally great.
One reason for this difficulty is that Doktor Faustus is not really a novel but a fictional biography, and Thomas Mann takes this form seriously, presenting us with a proper biography (albeit on a fictional subject) and not just a thinly disguised novel. As a result, there is no unfolding plot, no overarching narrative, no colourful descriptions, making this even more abstract than Thomas Mann’s other works; and it does not help that there is (also in keeping with the biography form) a marked prevalence of telling over showing. And, as a biography, it is not even a good one – Serenus Zeitblom, the biography’s author, gets far too easily distracted from his supposed subject, the life story of his lifelong friend, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, pushing it into the background and instead telling the reader about himself, and the circumstances under which he is writing his book.
But (and any reader of Doktor Faustus had better get used to twist and turns like this one, as the novel is full of them) what makes for a bad biography makes for an excellent novel, and the reader of the latter watches as Thomas Mann unfolds the parallel stories of the life of Adrian Leverkühn and of the downfall of the Third Reich as experienced by Serenus Zeitblom several decades later, not only mirroring the two stories in each other but also showing how the seeds for the German crimes were already being sown during Leverkühn’s lifetime. And Germany is as much at the centre of this novel as Leverkühn is, the Faustian pact with the devil is one that was not made by just an individual but by a whole nation.
As all of Mann’s major works, Doktor Faustus is a novel of ideas, and the idea, or rather the problem that drives it is how – and if – it is possible to reconcile a deep and lasting love for German art and culture with the atrocious crimes committed by Germans during the Nazi reign. The easy way out of this dilemma is to claim that the Third Reich was a regress into “barbarism” that had nothing to do with the “real” Germany and was nothing but a deviation from pure and unsullied German culture which doesn’t really have anything in common with those people. Apart from the rather striking similarities this argument bears to the antisemitic rhetoric of the Nazis by presupposing a supposedly “pure” Germany, it also neatly exculpates Germany and the German from any relation with National Socialism (which, in the context of this way of thinking, very often tends to shrink down to evil Hitler and a handful of his followers) – undoubtedly the reason why this way of thinking has been consistently popular from 1945 until today (in fact, I seem to see it pop up more frequently again in recent years).
This is emphatically not the road Thomas Mann takes, however. Even though he used to be a right-wing nationalist himself in his youth (he wrote something of a manifest of that movement with his book-length essay Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen), by the time he wrote Doktor Faustus (while in exile in the United States) he had come to the conclusion that something must have gone wrong with Germany and German culture in general if it led up to the Nazis. Hence, there is one level in Doktor Faustus where Mann explores the genesis of national socialist ideas from the intellectual debates at the beginning of the twentieth century and the early Weimar Republic, showing meticulously how moral standards are becoming eroded under the weight of arguments that originally are put forth just for the sake of appearing intellectually audacious and unconventional but take on an increasingly sinister turn when people get used to them and start taking them seriously. One can assume that Mann was familiar with similar debates first hand, and even if Doktor Faustus did not go beyond this, it would already be a brilliant depiction of the intellectual atmosphere in pre-fascist Germany.
But of course the novel does not stop with this, this is barely the beginning of what Mann is undertaking here. The subject of the novel’s fictional autobiography is the composer Adrian Leverkühn, and while it is never explicitly stated, it is very obvious that his fate mirrors that of Germany. Any lesser writer would probably have focused on drawing a parallel between Leverkühn’s life and the rise of Nazism, and not bothered much with the music, maybe used the works of some other composer as model.But again, Thomas Mann shirks the easy way and instead makes Leverkühn’s compositions an essential part of the novel. Drawing on Schönberg’s Zwölftonmusik (the theory, mind you, not specific works) and the musical philosophy of young Adorno (who he had met in the US where he also was in exile), Doktor Faustus is at the height of musical theory of its time and presents the reader with a very detailed (and very demanding) description and analysis of Adrian Leverkühn’s fictional oeuvre (and some actual compositions by actual composers – mainly Beethoven – along the way).
Doktor Faustus thus becomes a novel about music as much as it is one about Germany. However, Thomas Mann was not content with this either, but added another turn of the screw by making those two subjects mesh with each other, and the link between them is the satanic pact. Corresponding to the two temporal strands of the novel there are also the dual characters of their respective protagonists – Serenus Zeitblom is a rational humanist, who believes in reason and moderation in all things, while Adrian Leverkühn is very Nietzschean, a driven genius, believing that true excellence can only be achieved in extremes (any readers of Der Zauberberg will of course be very familiar with this opposition, and indeed Mann reprises here one of his earlier themes). And it is this which drives Leverkühn to make a pact with the devil (or get himself infected with syphilis – the novel leaves it open what exactly happens, in fact this very ambivalence is part of the dichotomy between humanism and the irrational) as the only means he can conceive of to transcend his limitations and become a great composer – just like Germany thought it had to leave the limitations of ethics and morality behind to become a great nation.
However, as the reader proceeds through the novel and follows the development of Adrian Leverkühn as a composer, it becomes increasingly clear that his compositions follow a consistent inner logic, that they are highly intellectual affairs which follow a strict systematics and that there does not appear to be any need for any outside intervention – whether it is ascribed to demonic forces or disease, possibly not even inspiration, in any case, the irrational – at all. One might see this as a weakness of the novel, because it threatens to make the whole plot around the devil / syphilis and Leverkühn’s descent into madness if not superfluous, then highly unmotivated. For my part, I think that this was intentional on Thomas Mann’s part, that this very superfluousness even constitutes the tragic turn for Leverkühn (and, by extension, for the German people): that he does not need to strike a deal with the devil, but only thinks he does because of a misguided belief that true greatness simply has to be irrational – or that he possibly even wants to ally himself with the demonic because he is secretly in love with his own downfall, wishes for his own personal Götterdämmerung.
And it is no surprise that this is what both Germany and Leverkühn get in the end. I wrote above that Doktor Faustus is very abstract even for a novel by Thomas Mann, but this is only true for the first three-quarters of the work. The last 200 pages or so, comprising the fate of Rudolf Schwerdtfeger and even more so little Nepomuk Schneidewein, however, might very well be the most emotionally intense and harrowing piece of literature to have been produced by literary modernism. Even at the fourth reading of the novel, that final part left me not only in tears but quite shaken as well. And it does take the many hundred pages of intellectual debate and abstract thought (which, don’t get me wrong, are fascinating reading – but not what anyone would call emotionally engaging) to build the momentum which then comes crashing down in an overwhelming emotional rush in the novel’s final parts.
But what is probably most astonishing about Doktor Faustus, is the way that for everything that happens in the novel in the way of plot there is not only some corresponding literary formal element, but a musical one in the fictional oeuvre of Adrian Leverkühn as well. So it is an often reiterated theme in Leverkühn’s musical theory that one needs to pass through the strictest formalism to regain free expression in music, and it is easy to see how this corresponds the emotional payoff I just described and to the novel’s movement from debating abstract ideas to narrating deeply emotional events. The reader can follow this kind of correspondence and interpenetration on almost every single plot or thematic element and this is what makes this such a dense novel – it is impossible to just pick up a just single thread from its texture, but one always finds it interwoven with many others that seems to form a confusing tangle at first sight but upon closer scrutiny turn out to form an intricate pattern. And, almost needless to mention at this point, of course this has its correspondence in Leverkühn’s music, too, when in his later work all elements relate to all other elements in some way and everything becomes a theme. I can certainly why some people have difficulties with Doktor Faustus even if they enjoy other works by this author beyond Buddenbrooks – it is a difficult work and still poses a challenge even almost 70 years after its publication, but I for one think it remains one of the most exciting novels of the twentieth century and is well worth the effort it demands.