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Mephisto Unknown Binding – 1977

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Unknown Binding: 263 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st ed edition (1977)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0006CT3CI
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This is an entirely satisfying novel and an excellent translation (in terms of readability - I don't know how accurate it is). Written in 1937 it gives a view of the rise of the Nazis before the subsequent Nazi mythology grew after the war.
It is a savage and enraged portrait of Mann's brother-in-law which resulted in a long libel trial and the book being banned in Germany. Despite this, Mann's insight into the motives of his character is not entirely unsympathetic and he never loses sight of the moral complexities involved in living through this period of history.
It also draws a vivid picture of the Theatre in pre-war Germany peopled with wonderful characters, and a chilling one of the Nazis themselves.
The faust story is one of the greatest and here it is about the real moral choices which allowed the Nazi holocaust. Here is an answer to 'how could it happen?'
It's also easy to read, funny and not too long - what more could you ask from a novel?
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Format: Paperback
I first read Mephisto in the 1980s as part of my history degree; it's a book where the historical context is more significant than its literary value (hence the three star rating). As a published author, Klaus Mann is a relatively minor figure and Mephisto is his best known work by far.

The plot centres on an actor, Hendrik Höfgen and his progress from provincial German theatre in the mid-20s to fame and popularity under the Nazi regime. In the course of this journey, he abandons his original ideals (eg his membership of the German Communist Party) and ultimately his friends.

Superficially, this is a simple retelling of the well-known legend of Dr Faustus (adapted by Goethe and Marlowe among others). As we know, the Devil never plays fair; Hendrik is consumed by his ambition to be the foremost actor of his time but he achieves that goal only to be acclaimed by the critics for what he himself knows is a poor performance. In return for his betrayals, he gains fame but it is the result of his relationship with power, not his art.

I say 'superficial' because it's more subtle than that; when we first meet Hendrik in the 1920s, he is a selfish and self-absorbed tyrant eg changing rehearsal times so he can attend dance classes. He later makes what are best described as 'gestures' eg attempting to intervene on behalf of friends held in Nazi work camps but not at the risk of losing his patrons.

The book ends with Hendrik's mother comforting him as he mourns the price he's paid; but that moment of clarity is short-lived. In the final paragraph, he adopts a theatrical stance and cries dramatically 'What do men want from me? Why are they so hard?
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Format: Paperback
This is known to be a roman à clef about the brilliant and ruthlessly ambitious actor and director Hendrik Höfgen, actually Mann’s ex-brother-in-law Gustaf Gründgens who had divorced his wife in 1929 after a marriage of three years. Of course a novelist is entitled to invent things even in a roamn à clef. Not knowing enough about Gründgens’ private life, I do not know how much of Höfgens’ private life reflects that of Gründgens. The latter enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Weimar Republic which continued under the Nazis thanks to the minor provincial actress Emmy Sonnemann (here called Lotte Lindenthal), who was the mistress and later the wife of Goering. The German Wikipedia (Article “Mephisto (Roman)”) reveals the real identity of several of the other characters in the novel, though the author plays fast and loose with at least two of these identifications. Klaus Mann, like his famous father Thomas, had emigrated as soon as the Nazis had come to power and wrote this book in 1936. (Both Klaus and Thomas figure in the book as Sebastian and the Privy Counsellor Bruckner respectively.)

After the Prologue set in 1936 we are taken back to the 1920s. We get a picture of the men and women connected with the theatre - their rivalries, who loves whom and who hates whom, who is a communist and who is a fascist. There are scenes in the life of Höfgen which may or may not be true of Gründgens: we know that he was close to the Communists at that time; and perhaps he really was also a tyrannical actor-director; but was he really in thrall to a black dominatrix?
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Mephisto" is a masterpiece. I saw the film years ago while at university but have only read the book recently and I'm kicking myself for not having read it before.

It's the story of how the actor Heinz-turned-Hendrick Höfgen "insinuates his way into the lion's den" of the top Nazis in 1930s Germany, based on the real-life story of Klaus Mann's actor brother-in-law, Hermann Göring and his second (actress) wife. It's brilliantly written, with a superbly grotesque cast of characters, in turns bitingly funny and devastatingly poignant.

As well as throwing light on how people from all walks of life were attracted to the Nazi ideology, the tale explores the broader theme of artists "selling out" - if not their souls, then certainly their integrity.

I'm almost tempted to try reading the novel in the original German, too.
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