What I’m Reading: Thomas Mann – Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus

Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus is a novel in the form of a biography about a fictional composer and contains among other things detailed descriptions of that composer’s equally fictional works, but all embedded into the very real historical background of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Obviously, this is not nearly enough mingling of the real and the fictional and so in 1949 Mann released this Genesis of Doctor Faustus where he describes, based on his diaries of the period, how the novel came into being – not as a simple report, mind you but, as the subtitle of Die Entstehung points out, “Der Roman eines Romans”, the novel about a novel.

The immediate cause for writing this addendum to the novel was that both Schönberg and Adorno were more than a bit disgruntled on finding that the first published version of Doktor Faustus did not mention their contribution to the novel with a single word. For Schönberg, Mann remedied the situation by adding a brief afterword to all later releases of Doktor Faustus acknowledging his conceptual debt to Zwölftonmusik. For Adorno, who had a much greater influence on the novel, he apparently thought something more elaborate was in order, and that finally grew into Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus.

Personally, I think that even though Mann is quite profuse in his praise for young Adorno, he still downplays the weight and extent his thinking had on Doktor Faustus; anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Die Philosophie der Neuen Musik will discover its traces all over Mann’s novel. It seems both Schönberg and Adorno were mollified by Mann’s efforts, however (Adorno later even defended Mann when he was accused of plagiarism in his novella Die Betrogene), and Die Entstehung, while in no way an essential work, still ended up being much more than a belated acknowledgment of intellectual debts.

What it chiefly does is add yet another layer to the original novel – another viewpoint and another timeline that is set slightly later than Zeitblom’s in Doktor Faustusnamely the time after the downfall of the Third Reich, after its Götterdämmerung, which would make Die Entstehung a post-apocalyptic text. Kind of. It also means that this “novel about a novel” does not only describe the genesis of Doktor Faustus, but is, in a certain way, its sequel – where the original novel described the origin and downfall of national socialism, Die Entstehung describes its aftermath, telling about the time after the end of the Second World War, about how people – in particular the Americans and, rather unsurprisingly, the Germans – almost immediately begin to bury, repress and dismiss the horrors perpetrated by the Germans during the Third Reich. There are also, on a more personal level, Germans crawling out of the woodwork to attack Thomas Mann as one of the leading figures of German emigration, trying to deny him the right and competence to judge or even write about Nazi Germany because he was not there, the implication being that he behaved like a coward by leaving the country instead of staying to heroically collaborate with the Nazis like everyone else. It is all quite unpleasant and makes it very understandable that Thomas Mann did not feel much inclination to return to his home country after the war and finally settled in Switzerland instead.

Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus does not provide any great insights on the novel it is about and certainly does not make reading it any easier, but provides an interesting epilogue to one of Thomas Mann’s major works, shedding some light on the author’s creative processes (although the facts it presents should be taken with a pinch of salt) and extending the scope of the original work to include postwar Germany.

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