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Doctor Faustus : The Life of the German…

Doctor Faustus : The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told… (1947)

by Thomas Mann

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This novel was written between 1943 and 1947 by Thomas Mann. The full title is Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend. The narrator/biographer is Serenus Zeitblom who becomes the best friend of Adrian as a boy, a relationship that continues throughout Adrian's life. Serenus, with asides commenting on his work, details the life and career of Adrian Leverkühn, a preternaturally gifted man who is born into the Germany of the Second Reich in the generation following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The novel follows Leverkühn’s life and career until his death in 1943. Leverkühn is born into a provincial middle-class farming family and has conventional parents, though his father harbors some eccentric scientific interests. Originally attracted to both mathematics and music, Leverkühn goes to college to study theology, a course of study that he eventually abandons in favor of music. Leverkühn’s musical ability is evident from the first and he becomes an accomplished composer.

The most significant aspect of the novel is the use of the Faust legend of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, best known in the dramatic versions by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. This is portrayed through a dialogue between Leverkühn and the Devil, which occurs in chapter 25. Central to the Faust legend is the contract, the quid pro quo, between the Devil and Faust. The Faustian contract for Leverkühn involves his contracting syphilis from a prostitute. At the price of the loss of his physical and mental health, the syphilis unleashes untold powers of creativity within Leverkühn. One might question whether all artistic geniuses enter into a similar bargain if only metaphorically. Most importantly the Devil requires that Adrian give up the ability to love anyone. This intensifies a solitary life that was already present with Adrian.
The syphilis from which he suffers is, in turn, can also be seen a symbol of the “disease” of extreme nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that eventually led the Germans to embrace Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In both cases—Leverkühn’s contraction of syphilis and the coming to power of Hitler—Mann makes it clear that the parties involved have entered into their “agreements” by their own volition, just as the original Faust entered into his demoniac pact of his own free will. Significantly, Leverkühn’s final composition of his creative career is a cantata titled “The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus.”

Disease was a theme that ran through all of Mann's great works of fiction. Examples include the fate of the author Gustave von Aschenbach in Death in Venice; while in The Magic Mountain, Mann uses physical disease as a symbol for spiritual and cultural decline. Another reference suggested by the presence of syphilis is to Friedrich Nietzsche who contracted the disease and whose life in many ways is mirrored by that of Adrian Leverkuhn. Mann also uses syphilis symbolically to suggest the inevitability of the decline of German civilization. Another connection to Nietzsche is the presence of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy (Both the sons of Zeus, Nietzsche distinguished the two as opposites: Apollo the god of reason and order, and Dionysus the god of irrationality and chaos.) with Adrian's austerely hyper-rational music symbolizing the rejection of the Dionysian passion of Eros in which he cannot participate.

The narrative relayed by Zeitblom intersperses Adrian'slife events with historical events occurring simultaneously in German politics and society. Leverkühn’s lifetime roughly approximates that of Hitler, the suggesting that the same historical forces that brought the Nazis to the fore had a similar effect on Leverkühn’s art. Leverkühn’s final physical and mental collapse occurs in 1933, the year in which the Nazis came to power in Germany. Leverkühn dies in 1943, a year in which the war in Europe turned decidedly against the Axis Powers, leading to their eventual defeat.

The selection of a composer as the symbol of Germany’s moral and cultural decline is significant in that music is generally regarded as the most German of the arts. One composer, Richard Wagner, held a particular fascination for Mann. Mann had an ambivalent attitude toward Wagner; he greatly admired the composer’s music but was repelled by the man himself. It was Mann’s essay “The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner” that ultimately led to Mann’s public denunciation and eventual exile to America.

Adrian Leverkühn’s daemon, the catalyst whose function it is to see that the protagonist’s fate is fulfilled, appears in many guises, but perhaps never more significantly than in the being of Wendell Kretzschmar, the American expatriate music master and Leverkühn’s only real teacher of composition. Kretzschmar’s significance as a daemon extends not only to Leverkühn’s choice of a career as a composer—it is Kretzschmar who ultimately supplies Leverkühn with the justification to abandon theological studies and return to music—but also to the course that Leverkühn’s musical career will follow.

Leverkühn’s years of theological study at the University of Halle led him to be influenced by several other characters. Professor Kolonat Nonnenmacher instructs Leverkühn in Pythagorean philosophy and reinforces Leverkühn’s long-held fascination with an ordered cosmos, particularly one susceptible to mathematical reduction. Nonnenmacher’s lectures also deal with Aristotelian philosophy and stress the philosopher’s views on the inherent drive to the fulfillment of organic forms—in other words, the urge toward the unfolding of destiny. These lectures have a profound impact on Leverkühn, who comes to the realization that his personal destiny is not necessarily of his own making. Leverkühn finds a different and more subtle version in the form of Ehrenfried Kumpf, Mann’s caricature of Martin Luther. Kumpf’s theology rejects humanism and reason and embraces a rather lusty appreciation of life, including its sensual pleasures, of which music is but one facet. Although Kumpf is a minor figure in the novel, his influence is long-lasting on Leverkühn, who adopts the former’s archaic German phraseology and syntax and who eventually abandons the rationality and “coldness” of theology for the “warmth” of music. Of all Leverkühn’s professors at Halle, none leaves a more permanent impression on Leverkühn’s than Eberhard Schleppfuss, the mysterious theologian whose very difficult lectures combine the tenets of Christianity with a blatant Manichaeanism. Schleppfuss views evil as a necessary concomitant to good and posits a sinister interpretation of the nature of creativity.

Leverkühn’s involvement with music is made permanent, however, only after the liaison with a prostitute named Esmeralda, which, interestingly enough, occurs after Leverkühn has witnessed the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (based on Oscar Wilde’s visionary Decadent drama). This liaison is a curious phenomenon in that neither lust nor intellectual curiosity appears to be its root cause. In many ways, Leverkühn is as irresistibly drawn to the prostitute Esmeralda as the symbolic butterfly hetaera esmeralda (chapter 2) is susceptible to visual or olfactory stimuli. There is a certain inevitability in both cases in which moral laws and the individual will are transcended by reflex actions firmly based in the instinctive domain. Additionally, Leverkühn’s brief sexual encounter permits the appearance in rapid succession of two other influences, namely Dr. Erasmi and Dr. Zimbalist, both of whom are thwarted from treating Leverkühn’s syphilis in its incipient stage.

Leverkühn’s fall is akin to the fall of Adam; both are terrible yet necessary for the evolution of the human condition. One can no more imagine a Christian view of history without Adam’s transgression than a continuation of musical evolution beyond Wagner without the imposition of a seminal figure such as Leverkühn. The connection between Leverkühn and Adam is further strengthened by the fact that one of Leverkühn’s first mature works is a setting of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” with its references to the poisoned fruit and the serpent who despoils an altar. In the end, however, as Mann always makes clear in his writings, untempered creativity ultimately consumes its creator. All knowledge, all fruits of artistic genius carry with them a terrible price in the imaginary world of Mann’s fiction. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Apr 30, 2018 |
Read 150 pages, and felt I had the measure of it. Some fantastic characterization, but the writing was frequently convoluted and flowed poorly (it might be a translation issue). Primarily though, without a profound interest in the daemonic and theology, I found it hard to retain the interest that the book warrants. ( )
  sometimeunderwater | Apr 20, 2018 |
The first hurdle I had to overcome with this was that I find the Faustus figure Adrian Leverkühn rather dull as a portrait of an artist, and his meek friend the narrator doesn’t make up for that. The second was its indirect stance towards what I take to be its major subject, Germany’s descent into Nazism. Leverkühn is out of commission by the time the Nazis are in charge, and the narrator is writing his biography in the last years of the war with German defeat in the offing. Leverkühn is uninvolved in politics as in most else except for his music; the narrator refers to his estrangement from his Nazi sons but himself withdrew from public life when society went Nazi.

Leverkühn is the ultimate cold fish. He takes the inability to be intimate that was complained of in The Magic Mountain to a new level, and this time less a curse of the upper-middles because of bringing-up but a personality trait. By his Faustian bargain he is not allowed to love: a clause he ridicules as unspecific, unscientific – out of a cheap Wagner opera. Aha, but one must wonder, as we did in The Magic Mountain, what this prohibition on using the intimate pronoun, or on touch, does in the way of psychic damage? Thomas Mann was from the upper-middle and seems to have suffered from the uptight.

The Faustian bargain is an old metaphor (obviously) and at first I wasn’t convinced it was up to the job it is set here, of being an explainer of Nazi Germany. Parts of this metaphor are overt: the description of hell is very concentration camp. Other parts took a while to sink in: the foreknowledge of the bargain made, that is of the price, goes with the worst consciousness of the narrator at time of writing. He’s a patriot still although an anti-Nazi, and he must admit his secret wish that his beloved Germany (the German culture this average intellectual has spent his life on, and in the bonfire the works of his genius friend) is obliterated in the punishment that had always to follow on from the bargain.

Mann spent much of his career recording the social and intellectual life of Germany from the turn of the century on, and this is what he had to do at last. I’m not well-read in ‘Exilliteratur’, of anti-Nazi Germans in exile who tried to write about Germany and its Nazi perversion for the world. But I find this example admirably honest and terribly sad. And I don’t want to get too relevant but there were passages where I thought he was talking uncannily about the alt-right. He’s Thomas Mann, I figure, and worth listening to.

As always, reasons to read Mann include his descriptions of people – physical as much as anything else – and his jolly forays into the science of the day that have the spirit of a Jules Verne or a H.G. Wells. He became a historical novelist with Joseph and His Brothers; I seriously want to him to realise that he craves to do a science fiction.

In this one, the musical discussion is extensive. There is a bravura rant about a late work of Beethoven’s whose descriptiveness sweeps me away; the more technical talk I cannot for the life of me follow. Without doubt there are added layers to this book if you have more musical knowledge than I.

Mann remains a funny read for a Dostoyevsky fan. As The Magic Mountain seemed to me to continue a conversation started in The Brothers Karamazov, so Leverkühn’s visit from the Devil is utterly a follow-on from Ivan Karamazov’s. ( )
1 vote Jakujin | Sep 22, 2017 |
Well, contrary to my own expectations, I’ve finished this in time for German Lit Month!

Doctor Faustus (1947) was the last novel of Thomas Mann, (1875-1955) and it’s considered to be his masterwork. It’s the third novel I’ve read by this author, the others being Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924), both written before Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929 (which was cited principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks, which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature. How little they knew what a truly great writer he was to become!) This translation of Doctor Faustus by John E. Woods became available in 1999, and one can only wonder at the skill of the translator in this case: the novel is so rich and complex and dynamic, even without knowing a word of German I can see how difficult the task must have been to convey the tone of the narrator Dr Serenus Zeitblom. This tone, for all its fussiness and pedantry, is central to understanding Mann’s lament for a deep and powerful loss.

Published in 1947 in the aftermath of Germany’s infamy being revealed in all its horror, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend is a lament not just for the nation state that was brought so low by its own ideology, but also for the idea of Germany as a place of civilisation and culture. It is a lament for the boyhood days of innocence before World War I; a lament for the suffering under reparations that Germany brought on itself by its barbarity while pursuing grandiose plans of conquest; and a lament for the ease with which Nazism was embraced by a people who ought to have resisted it. As WWII closes in and the Fatherland is in ruins, Mann from his exile in America shows us his narrator rue the destruction of the cities while acknowledging that there is justice in the brutality of the Allied air campaign.

As for my hometown on the Saale, it should be noted for non-Germans that it lies somewhat to the south of Halle, near the border to Thuringia. I almost said it lay – for being separated now from it for so long, I find it has slipped into the past for me. But its spires surely still rise in the same place as always, though I cannot say whether or not its architectural profile has suffered from the profligate destruction of the air war, which given the town’s historic charms, would be extremely regrettable. And I add that remark with some composure, for along with no small proportion of our population, including those hardest hit and homeless now, I share the sense that we are only getting what we gave, and if our atonement should be more terrible than our sins, then let our ears ring with the dictum that he who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind. (p. 38)

For the reader, this postmodern attention to the novel’s audience, veiled in the narration of Zeitblom , takes the novel into three time frames...

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/11/01/doctor-faustus-by-thomas-mann-translated-by-... ( )
  anzlitlovers | Oct 31, 2016 |
A daunting masterwork which I feel hopelessly unqualified to describe, this is in part a retelling of the Faust legend, in part a meditation on the nature of classical music, genius and creativity, and part an inditement of Mann's Germany at the time of its creation, in the latter stages and immediate aftermath of the Second World War, centred on the life of an imaginary radical German composer of the early 20th century, told by a friend who knew him from his schooldays.

I was prompted to read it by an almost throwaway review comment that described Richard Powers' Orfeo as "the greatest novel about music since Mann's Doctor Faustus". I can't pretend that this was an easy read, and it is full of lengthy and erudite digressions, but it is a powerful, compelling novel of ideas, and a worthy but much darker successor to Mann's masterpiece The Magic Mountain. ( )
  bodachliath | May 4, 2016 |
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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.

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.
added by SnootyBaronet | editNew York Review of Books, Robert Craft

» Add other authors (118 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mann, ThomasAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ekman, KerstinForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fontcuberta i Gel, JoanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kallio, SinikkaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowe-Porter, H. T.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pocar, ErvinoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wallenström, UlrikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Westphal, GertSprechersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Апт, С.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ман, Н.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I wish to state quite definitely that it is by no means out of any wish to bring my own personality into the foreground that I preface with a few words about myself and my own affairs this report on the life of the departed Adrian Leverkuhn.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375701168, Paperback)

"John E. Woods is revising our impression of Thomas Mann, masterpiece by masterpiece."  --The New Yorker

"Doctor Faustus is Mann's deepest artistic gesture. . . . Finely translated by John E. Woods." --The New Republic

Thomas Mann's last great novel, first published in 1947 and now newly rendered into English by acclaimed translator John E. Woods, is a modern reworking of the Faust legend, in which Germany sells its soul to the Devil. Mann's protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, is the flower of German culture, a brilliant, isolated, overreaching figure, his radical new music a breakneck game played by art at the very edge of impossibility. In return for twenty-four years of unparalleled musical accomplishment, he bargains away his soul--and the ability to love his fellow man.

Leverkühn's life story is a brilliant allegory of the rise of the Third Reich, of Germany's renunciation of its own humanity and its embrace of ambition and nihilism. It is also Mann's most profound meditation on the German genius--both national and individual--and the terrible responsibilities of the truly great artist.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:21 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A new translation of a 1948 novel based on the Faust legend. The protagonist is Adrian Leverkuhn, a musical genius who trades his body and soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of triumph as the world's greatest composer.

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