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Thomas Mann: Doktor Faustus (Doctor Faustus)

The story is narrated by Serenus Zeitblom but it is about his friend, Adrian Leverkühn, the Faustus figure. Zeitblom has given up his post because of the Nazis and is now writing this biography. Zeitblom and Leverkühn have been friends since childhood. Both – but Leverkühn in particular – were intellectually curious and it was always intended that Leverkühn be a scholar. At first he seemed to have a talent for music but then he turns to theology where his teachers talk about the devil. Leverkühn returns to music while Zeitblom has to do military service and the two friends lose touch for a while. Leverkühn becomes a composer of formal music but is persuaded to write an opera. Only after he gets syphilis from a prostitute is his creative energy sparked and he starts to compose great work using the twelve tone scale. However, not unlike Gustav von Aschenbach, he works too hard and this leads to a collapse. However, Zeitblom later learns that Leverkühn had a visit from the devil while in Italy and made a deal to exchange twenty four years of creative energy for his soul. Leverkühn moves to rural Bavaria and starts composing great work. Zeitblom lives near by. Leverkühn has a series of affairs but is particularly affected by the death of his nephew, who was living with him, from meningitis. His final work is, of course, on Faust but, as he plays the opening chord, he collapses and spends the rest of his life in madness, dying in 1940. Zeitblom cannot help but notice that Leverkühn’s life parallels in some way that of Germany.

This is a great rambling work, of which the summary only gives a small flavour not just of Leverkühn’s artistic development but of his complex and strange life. Did he sell his soul to the devil? Whether he did so literally is unlikely but it is clear that, metaphorically, he did so, just as Germany did in the first part of the twentieth century. This is Mann’s last major work (though not his last work) and it is the culmination of his searching for the soul of twentieth century man, particularly though certainly not exclusively twentieth century German man.

Publishing history

First published in German by Fischer 1947
First published in English 1948 by Knopf
Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter/John E. Woods