books book reviews


reviewed by T. Nelson


Doctor Faustus

by Thomas Mann
Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter
Everyman's Library, 1947 / 1992, 523 pages

reviewed by T. Nelson

I rarely read novels. I learned years ago that when one person talks about another, they're invariably trying to manipulate you. How much more so when they tell you in advance they're making it all up. And usually in fiction the characters seem more like cartoons than real people.

But some ideas simply can't be expressed in nonfiction. Thomas Mann's reimagining of Goethe's Doctor Faustus legend is an example. The Nobel Prize winner wrote this to express his lament about how one of the world's most sophisticated cultures destroyed itself by willingly embracing evil in its attempt to achieve greatness.

In the story, a classical music composer named Adrian Leverkühn deliberately infects himself with syphilis. Untreated syphilis often attacks the brain, causing dementia and death. The Devil, in the form of witty talking spirochetes, tells him he will get 24 years of brilliant creativity, after which he is condemned to eternal damnation.

Leverkühn is transparently modeled on composer Arnold Schönberg, who was not particularly thrilled about his depiction as a syphilitic madman. The idea, widely believed in those days, was that untreated syphilis, when the spirochete infects the meninges protecting the brain and finally the brain parenchyma itself, releases the person's creativity.

The inspiration for this came from the idea that Nietzsche's grandiose philosophizing resulted from neurosyphilis, which is now known to be false. This book is therefore perhaps the most famous example of a great work of literature based on a misdiag­nosis. The symptoms are remarkably detailed, making this book a favorite among neurologists.

The Devil keeps his word, and Leverkühn experiences mania and euphoria along with severe migraines and abdominal ‘lightning pains’ characteristic of so-called tertiary syphilis, but escapes the delirium, hearing loss, retinal necrosis, optic neuritis, and dysarthria that we often associate with it. His creativity is greatly enhanced and he achieves what he and his fellow musicians see as greatness.

The inclusion of twelve-tone music, with its brittle dissonance, and the death of a young character by acute disseminated encephalo­myelitis after contracting measles are used to symbolic effect in the story; but the story of how one composer made a deal with the Devil is really the tale of twentieth-century Germany. It starts out slow, but it is brilliantly done. In the last chapter the two strands—the fictitious biography of the composer and the author's honest and intense grief about the catastrophe that befell his country—come together, making this one of the most moving stories I have ever read.

dec 18 2019. edited dec 20 2019

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