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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The demonic forces in the human psyche, 19 Nov 2006
This review is from: Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (The New John Woods Translation) (Vintage International) (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..." The age he is referring to is the period after the First World War when Germany is resentfully licking its wounds of defeat, and the despair and turmoil in that country provides the fertile soil for the rise of Nazism.

Zeitblom gives us a description of the last work composed by Adrian, an oratorio entitled The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus. He says that the climactic passage of this work could be described as an "Ode to Sorrow", a lamentation, in contrast to Beethoven's Ode to Joy. "There is no doubt that he wrote it with an eye to Beethoven's Ninth, as its counterpart in the most melancholy sense of the word." While Beethoven's symphony may be said to be religious in the conventional sense, Zeitblom suggests that Adrian's work is also religious in a different sense. "A work dealing with the Tempter, with apostasy, with damnation - how can it be anything but a religious work!"

Although Adrian completed this work in 1930, I think Zeitblom (and Mann) is suggesting that he foreshadowed the total destruction of Germany by writing this Lamentation. It is likely that Mann wants us to understand the myth of the Devil in the same way that Herman Melville did less consciously in Moby Dick. Many critics have felt that the Great White Whale represents God, while Captain Ahab is the Devil. In Mann's novel, Adrian is one of the few people living in that era who recognized the demonic forces at work in the human psyche. Those who deny these forces become True Nazis. A Nazi would never admit that he is doing the work of the Devil; he sees himself as a God-like being whose duty it is to purify the human race.

What is the relevance of this message for the 21st century? I think it is that those who are unaware of and deny the demonic forces within themselves become the unconscious instruments of these forces. However, Doctor Faustus is a great work of literature which depicts a concrete reality in the life of its characters, and there are likely to be many possible interpretations.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfection of form, 24 July 2003
Well, what can you say? If Felix Krull is the novel that would have perfected Mann's form, Faustus was the one which actually did. The technicality of language and construction of novelistic technique here is like Nabokov tenfold. It is unsurpassed, even by Proust. And while it may lack the sublime artistry of Proust, Mann has his own inimitable style of beauty. The going is very slow, it takes you down two gears as a reader, and then another, as you absorbe all the dense but vague symbolism (that of Germany and her Mephistopheles, Hitler), and the complex character which is based on Schonberg. If you enjoy literature in its perfected form, National Socialist German history, Goethe's Faust legend, or dodecaphonic music, you can do no finer than this.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Deep but very readable., 17 May 2011
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This review is from: Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (The New John Woods Translation) (Vintage International) (Paperback)
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book, 27 Jun 2009
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J O (Leicestershire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (The New John Woods Translation) (Vintage International) (Paperback)
I came to this book after reading the fascinating The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which describes the intellectual trajectory of music from classical(romantic) to modern.

Doctor Faustus starts rather oddly, with a lot of self-referential comment and doubt. I found this off-putting, but was very glad that I persevered. As other reviews have described the content, I will just say that I enjoyed reading this book very much. It is a serious literary examination of art in the form of european music, and a very rewarding read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The destruction of genius portrayed - in an outstanding translation, 27 April 2008
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A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (The New John Woods Translation) (Vintage International) (Paperback)
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. The implication is that only listeners similarly in league with the devil would be able to appreciate its complex abstractions.

Dr Leitblom writes his biography during the dark days of 1944 when Germany's collapse was seen as inevitable, and the tragic destiny of Leverkuhn is contrasted with occasional short accounts of the unfolding disasters caused by allied bombing of the great cities of Germany and the breaches of its borders by invading armies. This gives the whole book an atmosphere of burning cities and the inevitable doom which awaits Leverkuhn all who sup at the devil's table, the final chapter being a revelatory denouement which shows the dark forces which have worked through Leverkuhn's music throughout his life.

By the time Mann wrote this book he was living in America and broadcasting radio messages into Germany criticizing the Nazi regime. Dr Faustus is in some ways Mann's ultimate critique of Nazism, something he had been fighting since its first appearance in the 1920s. Dr Faustus is not an easy read, far from it, but it is an important element of world literature and great piece of art in its own right which can only enrich the reader who perseveres with it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This book may well change your life, 5 April 2014
Deep as an ocean, inscrutable, regretful, cold. Emotional sterility compelling Time's Flower to doomed devotion.
The truly terrible price of genius and its pain as dehumanizing infliction.
Magic/music as synonyms.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent, 7 Oct 2013
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L. Andre - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (The New John Woods Translation) (Vintage International) (Paperback)
Musical genius and cultural construction and identity, this is a superbly crafted book that opens thinking and makes one feel one has just been in interesting company
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mann's difficult masterpiece, 26 July 2001
By A Customer
Although translations always take something from the original, those of us who have troubles reading Mann's admittedly difficult German will surely find the reading quite pleasing. The dark and philosphical atmosphere of Mann's final masterpice is wonderfully captured in this translation. Mann's interplay of reality and imagination already permeated his "Magic Mountain" and "Joseph and his brothers", but I find that it is in "Faustus" where he finally loosens all boarders between the real and the imaginary. The reader therefore never be quite sure whether Mann is taking the objective or subjective perspective. The novel completely lacks the lightness of touch Mann used in the "Buddenbrooks", and reflects Mann's vision of the World War II. The story is only superficially similar to Goethe's Faust, and I found it very different in both tone and storyline. But both books are masterpieces and both try to explain to us what it takes to be human.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The literary equivalent of a neutron star, 11 Jan 2010
By 
John Ferngrove (Hants UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend (The New John Woods Translation) (Vintage International) (Paperback)
I have to give this five stars because its neutronium solid literary credentials are so space-warpingly gravid as to make what I actually think of it hardly relevant, seeing as it will certainly go on to be pondered by people much cleverer than me, long after my atoms have dispersed. Still, it is a tough book, and I think few would deny that. The prose is not easy, eloquent without being elegant, and I am told this is not just a matter of the translation. This impression is made more so by the frequent harkening back to archaic provincial German dialects, which this translator has attempted to render with results that verge at times on the Joycean in effect, if not in intent. I cannot say if other translators have plumped for more obviously amenable strategies. As to whether I found the struggle worthwhile is something I am still pondering, some weeks after completing it. It is clearly a great 20th Century novel, with all that that might connote, it being a novel about many things, and about everything and nothing.

There is a sense in which, like a complex piece of music, I could only see the meta-level form of the novel after I had finished it. While reading it one is subjected to a stream of episodes, ostensibly unified as the biography of the composer Adrian Leverkhun. But Leverkuhn is portrayed as such an enigmatic cipher that it is hard to hold these episodes together in the mind as a narrative about him. Only when I had finished did I find that switching my perspective, such that the book became the autobiography of Serenus Zeitblom, the first person narrator and supposed biographer, was I able to discern some kind of recognisably human story by which to pull it all together.

The novel is about many things but its key theme is that of music, the art of composition and of the exquisite aesthetic and moral difficulties and dilemmas confronting the composer, who cannot help but be alone for being only dimly understood by his fellows. Leverkuhn is the manifestation of the Nietzschean superman, which is one of Mann's recurring obsessions by all accounts, and an idea which I find conceptually suspect and perhaps therefore a source of some of my reservations about the novel. All the people I know who value this novel value it primarily for its musical insights. Having said that, all the people I know who value it came to Thomas Mann first through even more monumental works such as The Magic Mountain and Joseph and his Brothers. I will stick my neck out then and say that you would probably do best coming to this book already acquainted with Mann through one or more of his other works. I came to grips with it as someone who'd bounced more than once on the rather dry prose of The Magic Mountain, and who took up with it on the recommendation of music lovers.

The novel is about more than just music, but music often serves as a window onto the wider issues of the world. Central to the novel, quite literally, is Leverkuhn's Faustian compact with the devil by which his greatness as a composer is guaranteed at a price too subtle for my comprehension. The devil, specifically Mephistopheles, is amusingly portrayed as a most urbane and cultured gentleman, whose only wish is to assist people in accomplishing their chosen goals. However, it has to be said, at the end of this critical section I was unclear as to the actual nature of the agreement. This agreement is then presented as a metaphor, a strained one to my mind, for the pact that the German people have made in taking up with Nazism, in return for the realisation of potent but ill-defined dreams of national greatness. And that, I guess, is the novel's other main theme - Germany, Germanness and what it means to be German. The novel presents a vivid window into the mindset of the educated German bourgeoisie throughout its tumultuous 20th Century. We see this both in the run up to and through WWI, which is seen almost as something of an embarrassment, a collective slip of decorum. But we then see the willing renunciation of freedom and individuality, and the almost wilful descent into apocalypse that culminates in the catastrophe of WWII. Zeitblom is completing his biography as the bombs are quite literally falling around him, and as he contemplates the obliteration of all culture, particularly musical, which has been the other expression of German greatness, and its magnificent gift to the world.

The novel includes a large supporting cast of vividly portrayed characters whom I find myself remembering more fondly with retrospect. Quite a few of these characters are not a little eccentric, and from these some quite memorable comic moments are extracted.

In truth I am not entirely comfortable with giving this five stars. Several serious lovers of classical music of my acquaintance consider this, if not their favourite book, then up there with their finest few. But otherwise I can't think of anyone else I could recommend it to with any conviction that they might enjoy it, and I do have some very literate friends. I'm certainly glad I read it, but then I am a masochist and will try extra hard with stuff that I've been told is good for me. Having read it I find that there continues to be a lot to go back and think about. What I would really like is to be able to select a `random' star rating between perhaps 5 and 3, such, that the number of stars lit up would vary according to some sort of radioactive decay process. That would give a far more accurate indication of my present feelings around this book that was such difficult going, but that insists so massively on its own validity and significance.

So, I have absolutely no idea if you, potential reader, will enjoy the book. I can only hope to have given some clues as to whether it might provide the kind of challenge you wish to undertake.
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