Alex Ross and Mann's Doctor Faustus

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Alex Ross and Mann's Doctor Faustus

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apr 24, 2008, 11:38 am

Thanks to Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise: Listening to Music in the Twentieth Century, Thomas Mann's 1947 novel Doctor Faustus is enjoying a renewed popularity. I finished it yesterday morning, only to meet with a notable musicologist that same afternoon who had a copy of the novel in his hand. I started it well before I knew of Ross' reference to it, but found it a lovely coincidence when I began reading Ross' book about a month into my reading of Doctor Faustus.

It is rare that it takes three months for me to finish a novel, but I have a few theories as to why this was (aside from the rigors of a teaching schedule/adjunct commute).
The novel operates on so many levels it is difficult to read more than a few chapters before you need to stop to digest. Keeping track of the numerous secondary characters is a painstaking, but worthwhile, endeavor. Mann forms his environment with this multitude, presenting a photograph of German bourgeois life in the early 20th century.

The book warrants musicological analysis in its debt to Schoenberg, its continuation of the intimate connection between Faust and music, and its portraiture of Germanic musical existence (for starters). But even outside of musicological inquiry*, the book is full of literary paths one can tread should they choose. The relationship between the book's narrator and his forsaken hero, Adrian, dallies in sentiments rarely explored between two male characters. There are some echoes of Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, except that Adrian Leverkühn's encounter with "love" comes with dire consequences.

I'd like to re-read the novel with a focus on the music only, because what resonated for me most loudly was how the book serves as a treatise on the dangers of blind nationalism. The narrator, Zeitblom, frustrates the reader with his various digressions, until you realize they are not digressions at all but allegories. His reflections about wartime Germany telescope into Adrian's own struggles. There were moments that made me stop and put the book down as I was yanked into my own reality:

"...the democracy of the West--however outdate its institutions may prove over time, however obstinately its notion of freedom resists what is new and necessary--is nonetheless essentially on the side of human progress, of the goodwill to perfect society, and is by its very nature capable of renewal, improvement, rejuvenation, of proceeding toward conditions that provide greater justice in life." (358)

I suppose I still believe this...but I note also Zeitblom's comments a couple of pages earlier regarding Germany:

"It is the demand of a regime that does not wish to grasp, that apparently does not understand even now, that it has been condemned, that it must vanish, laden witht eh curse of having made itself intolerable to the world--no, of having made us, Germany, the Reich, let me go farther and say, Germanness, everything German, intolerable to the world." (356)

This is why I read.

Readers who have no musical background will likely find themselves frustrated with some of the lengthy musical explications. I suggest skipping/skimming them. Normally I would never recommend this, but there is so much else to be had from reading this novel that it would be such a disservice to throw the myriad babies out with the musical bathwater. For the musically-inclined reader, however, the plethora of references to composers and pieces is a ready-made listening list and a chance to experience a nation's struggle with both political and aesthetic ideologies.