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


Harry Potter (seven-volume set)

by J. K. Rowling
Scholastic, 2007, 4095 pages

reviewed by T. Nelson

A s someone who was baffled by the multitude of plot holes and unanswered questions in the movies that I sometimes refer to as Planet of the Ginges, I hoped that reading the books would clear things up. They're light reading for an adult; despite their 4,095 pages it takes only a few weekends to read them.

There are, of course, many differences between the books and the movies. Most notably, the dialogue is not as crisp in the books. Voldemort doesn't disinte­grate in the end and Harry doesn't break the Elder wand in half. Firenze, the clumsily CGI-rendered centaur, is a Hogwarts professor. And some of the characters are more likeable while others are nastier.

In the movies we watch a group of children, selected mainly for their cuteness and hair color, grow up before our eyes. The sudden blast of cuteness caused a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out, saying “Awwwwww!” and then fell silent. By the third movie acting skills become evident and the stories begin to have more logical cohesion. In the books, one must be content with watching the author's writing skill improve, as it does, through the seven volumes.

In the story, Harry Potter is an orphan who is gradually driven out of his home in the Muggle world by his step-parents and goes to a boarding school in the UK where they teach him magic. The villain, Voldemort, has done some­thing to him which left him with a N-shaped scar on his forehead, as if he fell asleep on a New Balance sneaker. It turns out that he is a “chosen one”, and everyone but Harry seems to know what he has been chosen for.

Sample dialogue from Chamber of Secrets

In the book:

Mr. Malfoy ripped the sock off the diary, threw it aside, then looked furiously from the ruined book to Harry. “You'll meet the same sticky end as your parents one of these days, Harry Potter,” he said softly. “They were meddlesome fools, too.”

How I would have written it:

“What did you do to my book? I've been looking all over for it! It looks like somebody flushed it down the toilet! And what is this thing? Your book­mark? It's disgusting!”

Mr. Malfoy's brow wrinkled. “That book had unique quali­ties, Potter. You could have been seriously hurt.”

The books were enormously popular, due in part to the author's clever strategy of saying something controversial and outrageous right before her book comes out, which gets people on Twitter stirred up and causes the book to soar to the top of the charts.

Their popularity was enhanced by the fact that the characters are so unrealistically likeable it defies the imagination. In the movies, almost every time Harry enters a room, his girlfriend, his other girlfriend, his girlfriend's mum, his friend, his dog, and anyone else who happens to be in the room runs up and hugs him, giving him affirmation. There's less of that in the books, and Harry is often depicted as quite miserable. Luna is depicted as bitterly lonely and Hermione is not as hormonal as in the movie. The overall story, however, is the same.

The books do explain a few more things. What caused Hagrid's facial injuries? What are those underwater things in the cave scene? And how did those kids manage to fly on invisible horses without falling off? The amusing headlines in the newspaper (examples: “Mistakes wand for chopsticks, creates mayhem at Chinese restaurant”; “Vampire admitted to casualty for too much garlic bread”) aren't depicted in the books. But anyone hoping for theories about how this magic is supposed to work will be disappointed.

The movies suggested that a person's soul, whatever that may be, is transmuted into energy by a magic wand. In one scene, for instance, Voldemort's wand overheats and he cries out in pain as smoke comes out of it. Perhaps, I thought, a magic wand is a transducer for soul energy, allowing part of one's soul to project through the wand as energy, effecting a reconfig­uration of matter in the real world. This would explain how, in certain cases, the soul could be fragmented into pieces, thereby creating a problem for Harry.

To paraphrase one of the characters in the book, watching these movies is almost like having children, except you don't have to put them through college.

It's no mystery why it was so popular. It is an Eden-like world with a rich tradition, where people bond through a shared culture, there is no politics, there are exciting things to learn, and the possibility of friendship exists. The author contrasts it with the Muggle world, from which people with magical ability must conceal their existence.

In the magical society, magic has prevented the development of science and technology (though they do have radio, and in one scene in the movie Ginny is seen swiping on a cell phone in the background). Divorced from its origins in early Christianity, there are no deities, no electricity, and no mechanistic under­standing of the physical world.

It is an eternal story: Harry discovers that the world is not as he thought it was. He realizes that the people he idolized also have a dark side. He manages to defeat a more powerful and much smarter opponent by con­form­ing to conventional social mores and cultivating friendships. And for young readers there is the appeal in watching most of their teachers get killed in horrible ways.

It is also the story of how three teen­agers use their resource­fulness to break expensive pieces of jewelry. And it is about growing up: the young Harry fantasizes about his parents telling him they love him, and through a series of setbacks learns to face hard truths.

But mostly it is the story of an individual and the hundreds of mundane experiences that integrate him into society and motivate him to confront his terrible fate to protect the society that accepted him. In the school, one teacher tries to prevent him from learning magic, forcing him to learn how to be a leader. Another berates him for being weak, forcing him to strengthen his mind. He makes catastrophic mistakes that get people killed, including his beloved godfather / dog. It is clear that the guilt from the loss of his mentors gives him the final push he needs. Everyone but Harry knows from the start what Harry really is and the terrible sacrifice he will be asked to make, and does whatever is necessary to ensure that he makes it.

When Harry finally figures it out, with Snape's help, his altruistic choice seems unavoid­able. But the strength of this story is that it is those seemingly irrelevant details of his life that determined his reaction. The author never lectures us or draws conclusions for the reader but lets the events tell the story, so it is only later that we realize that this silly fairy tale has given us a profound message about human nature.

One message we can all learn is: if they start calling you the chosen one, ask some hard questions. Like, for example, what does “pig for slaughter” mean?

aug 23, 2020. expanded sep 24, 2020 and dec 25 2020