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Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (The New John Woods Translation) (Vintage International) Paperback – 1 Feb 2000

4.8 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 538 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; New edition edition (1 Feb. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375701168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375701160
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.3 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 368,021 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann is a challenging work, monumental in conception. Many of its 525 pages are not easy to read, especially the ones dealing with the theory and history of music to those not familiar with this subject. The discussion of modern and classical music is inevitable as Adrian Leverkuhn, the main character in the book, is said to be a great composer.

This novel is said to an "allegory of the rise and fall of the Third Reich", but what does that actually mean? The way I understand it is that Mann asks himself the question, how is it that the nation which produced the sublime music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven also produced Hitler and the horrors of the Holocaust? His novel is an artistic attempt at finding an answer to this question. For this purpose, Mann makes use of the legend and myth of Faustus, the man who is said to have sold his soul to the Devil -Precarious territory to negotiate in an age when those of intellectual standing don't believe in the Devil. In Mann's balancing act he makes use of his narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, a close friend of Adrian. Zeitblom was born a Roman Catholic, but now considers himself a Humanist, whereas Adrian is born to a Lutheran family.

According to Zeitblom's account, Adrian firmly believes that he has sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the ability to compose great music. It is worth quoting Adrian's own words here: "It is an age when no work is to be done in pious sober fashion and by proper means, and art has grown impossible sans the Devil's aid and hellish fire beneath the kettle......art is stuck fast and grown too difficult and mocks its very self, that all has grown too difficult...
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I don't find Thomas Mann's books, such as Doctor Faustus at all easy to read. They are both long and highly complex, written not as a novel as such but to transmit a message, in this case, the similarities between the Faustus legend and the rise of Nazi Germany. However, I have been fortunate to read both this book and another major work of Mann, The Magic Mountain, in new translations by John E Woods which bring a clear and smooth passage through these undoubtedly great works of literature.

Dr Faustus is on the face of it, a fictional biography of Adrian Leverkuhn, a brilliant composer who came to fame in the 1920s and 30s. The biography is recorded by his life-long friend Dr Serenus Leitblom, who happens to have possession of Leverkuhn's journals including a secret manuscript, which comes to light about half way through the book, which gives an account of the terrible evening when Leverkuhn entered into a pact with the devil, to exchange his soul for 24 years of brilliant musical composition.

Dr Leitblom has a hard time of it with Adrian Leverkuhn, the friendship never achieving an easy intimacy, and several times there are references to Leverkuhn's refusal to use the personal pronoun with even his closest associates. He is unapproachable and isolated, and takes private rooms in a farmhouse, some distance from Munich. His almost hermit-like existence is relieved by train journeys into the city where he takes part in musical and philosophical soirees, described in some detail by Mann and showing his command of the most complex musical ideas.

Leverkuhn's music is rarely well-received, being appreciated by only a select band of critics, the message being that it is too rarified for the common concert-goer, but will eventually be vindicated by generations to come.
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I really enjoyed reading this book slowly from cover to cover. It can be enjoyed on many levels which makes it accessible for readers of many different backgrounds. I enjoyed it first as a very convincing fictional biography of an early-twentieth century German composer. I later discovered the book's potential to be read as an allegory for Germany's shift to Nazism.

I think the beauty of the writing lies in the way in which Thomas Mann chooses to convey deep psychological truth not through long impenetrable sentences filled with complex vocabulary but with telling descriptions of the nuances in his characters' appearance and physical mannerisms. I find this more 'everyday' language far more enjoyable to read and, for the most part, more effective in conveying meaning.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about German history, German music or anyone who simply wants to be told a good story in sophisticated but not stifling language.
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