8.2/101 Votes Alchetron
Originally published 1947
Adaptations Faust (2011)
Genres Fiction, Novel
Preceded by The Tables of the Law
|Similar Thomas Mann books, Novels|
Doctor Faustus is a German novel written by Thomas Mann, begun in 1943 and published in 1947 as Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde ("Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend").
The novel is a re-shaping of the Faust legend set in the context of the first half of the 20th century and the turmoil of Germany in that period. The story centers on the life and work of the (fictitious) composer Adrian Leverkühn. The narrator is Leverkühn's childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom, who writes in Germany between 1943 and 1946.
Leverkühn's extraordinary intellect and creativity as a young man mark him as destined for success, but his ambition is for true greatness. He strikes a Faustian bargain for creative genius: he intentionally contracts syphilis, which deepens his artistic inspiration through madness. He is subsequently visited by a Mephistophelean being (who says, in effect, "that you can only see me because you are mad, does not mean that I do not really exist"), and, renouncing love, bargains his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of genius. His madness – his daemonic inspiration – leads to extraordinary musical creativity (which parallels the actual innovations of Arnold Schoenberg).
Leverkühn's last creative years are increasingly haunted by his obsession with the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment. He feels the inexorable progress of his neuro-syphilitic madness leading towards complete breakdown. As in certain of the Faust legends, he calls together his closest friends to witness his final collapse. At a chamber-reading of his cantata "The Lamentation of Doctor Faust", he ravingly confesses his demonic pact before becoming incoherent. His madness reduces him to an infantile state in which he lives under the care of his relatives for another ten years.
Leverkühn's life unfolds in the context of, and in parallel with, the German cultural and political environment which led to the rise and downfall of Nazi Germany. But the predisposing conditions for Leverkühn's pact with the devil are set in character, and in the artistic life, the artistic processes themselves, not merely as political allegory. The interplay of layers between the narrator's historical situation, the progress of Leverkühn's madness, and the medieval legends with which Leverkühn consciously connects himself makes for an overwhelmingly rich symbolic network, an ambiguous complexity that cannot be reduced to a single interpretation.
The origins of the narrator and the hero in the fictitious small town of Kaisersaschern on the Saale, the name of Zeitblom's apothecary father, Wohlgemut, and the description of Adrian Leverkühn as an old-fashioned German type, with a cast of features "from a time before the Thirty Years' War", evoke the old post-medieval Germany. In their respective Catholic and Lutheran origins, and theological studies, they are heirs to the German Renaissance and the world of Dürer and Bach, but sympathetic to, and admired by, the "keen-scented receptivity of Jewish circles".
They are awakened to musical knowledge by Wendell Kretzschmar, a German American lecturer and musicologist who visits Kaisersaschern. After schooling together, both boys study at Halle – Adrian studies theology; Zeitblom does not, but participates in discussions with the theological students – but Adrian becomes absorbed in musical harmony, counterpoint and polyphony as a key to metaphysics and mystic numbers, and follows Kretzschmar to Leipzig to study with him.
Zeitblom describes "with a religious shudder" Adrian's embrace with the woman who gave him syphilis (whom Adrian names "Esmeralda" after the butterfly that fascinates his father), how he worked her name in note-ciphers into his compositions, and how the medics who sought to heal him were all prevented from effecting a cure by mysterious and deadly interventions. Zeitblom begins to perceive the demonic, as Adrian develops other friendships, first with the translator Rüdiger Schildknapp, and then after his move to Munich with the handsome young violinist Rudi Schwerdtfeger, Frau Rodde and her doomed daughters Clarissa and Ines, a numismatist named Dr. Kranich, and two artists named Leo Zink and Baptist Spengler.
Zeitblom insists, however, on the unique closeness of his own relationship to Adrian, for he remains the only person whom the composer addresses by the familiar pronoun. Adrian meets the Schweigestill family at Pfeiffering, in the country an hour from Munich, which later becomes his permanent home and retreat.
He lives at Palestrina in Italy with Schildknapp in 1912, and Zeitblom visits them. It is there that Adrian, working on music for an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, has his long dialogue with a Mephistopheles figure who appears either objectively or out of his own afflicted soul. In these central pages, the fulcrum of the story, Zeitblom presents Adrian's manuscript of the conversation. The demon, speaking in archaic German, claims Esmeralda as the instrument by which he entraps Adrian and offers him twenty-four years' life as a genius – the supposed incubation period of his syphilis – if he will now renounce the warmth of love. The dialogue reveals the anatomy of Leverkühn's thought.
Adrian then moves permanently to Pfeiffering, and in conversations with Zeitblom confesses a darker view of life. Figures of a demonic type appear, such as Dr. Chaim Breisacher, to cast down the idols of the older generation.
In 1915, Ines Rodde marries, but forms an adulterous love for Rudi Schwerdtfeger. Adrian begins to experience illnesses of retching, headaches and migraines, but is producing new and finer music, preparing the way for his great work, the oratorio Apocalypsis cum Figuris ('The Apocalypse with Figures'). Schwerdtfeger woos himself into Adrian's solitude, asking for a violin concerto that would be like the offspring of their platonic union.
By August 1919 Adrian has completed the sketch of Apocalypsis. There is also a new circle of intellectual friends, including Sextus Kridwiss, the art-expert; Chaim Breisacher; Dr. Egon Unruhe, the palaeozoologist; Georg Vogler, a literary historian; Dr. Holzschuher, a Dürer scholar; and the saturnine poet Daniel zur Höhe. In their discussions they declare the need for the renunciation of bourgeois softness and a preparation for an age of pre-medieval harshness. Adrian writes to Zeitblom that collectivism is the true antithesis of Bourgeois culture; Zeitblom observes that aestheticism is the herald of barbarism.
Apocalypsis is performed in Frankfurt in 1926 under Otto Klemperer with 'Erbe' as the St. John narrator. Zeitblom describes the work as filled with longing without hope, with hellish laughter transposed and transfigured even into the searing tones of spheres and angels.
Adrian, producing the concerto which Rudi solicited, attempts to evade his contract and obtain a wife by employing Rudi as the messenger of his love. She however prefers Rudi himself, and not Adrian. Soon afterwards Rudi is shot dead in a tram by Ines out of jealousy. As Adrian begins to plan the second oratorio The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus, in 1928, his sister's child Nepomuk is sent to live with him. The boy, who calls himself "Echo", is beloved by all.
As the work of gigantic dimensions develops in Adrian's mind, the child falls ill and dies, and Adrian, despairing, believes that by gazing at him with love, in violation of his contract, he has killed him with poisonous and hellish influences.
The score of the Lamentation is completed in 1930, Adrian summons his friends and guests, and instead of playing the music he relates the story of his infernal contract, and descends into the brain disease which lasts until his death ten years later.
Zeitblom visits him occasionally, and survives to witness the collapse of Germany's "dissolute triumphs" as he tells the story of his friend.
As a re-telling of the Faust myth, the novel is concerned with themes such as pride, temptation, the cost of greatness, loss of humanity and so on. Another concern is with the intellectual fall of Germany in the time leading up to World War II. Leverkühn's own moods and ideology mimic the change from humanism to irrational nihilism found in Germany's intellectual life in the 1930s. Leverkühn becomes increasingly corrupt of body and of mind, ridden by syphilis and insanity. In the novel, all of these thematic threads – Germany's intellectual fall, Leverkühn's spiritual fall, and the physical corruption of his body – directly correspond to the national disaster of fascist Germany. In Mann's published version of his 1938 United States lecture tour, The Coming Victory of Democracy, he said, "I must regretfully own that in my younger years I shared that dangerous German habit of thought which regards life and intellect, art and politics as totally separate worlds." He now realised that they were inseparable. In Doktor Faustus, Leverkühn's personal history, his artistic development, and the shifting German political climate are tied together by the narrator Zeitblom as he feels out and worries over the moral health of his nation (just as he had worried over the spiritual health of his friend, Leverkühn).