In this modern take on the Faust myth, composer Adrian Leverkühn, a cold but brilliant character, sells his soul to the devil for twenty-four years of unparalleled and innovative accomplishments in his chosen field. His life is chronicled by his childhood friend Serenus who is the only one close to Adrian, since isolation from others and abstaining from loving anyone is part of the pact, too.
I bought this book about 15 years ago, read the first 300 pages, decided that I had absolutely lost the thread and did not care about finding it again, and put it on the shelf. I half-heartedly thought about trying again many times, but never quite found the motivation to actually do it. So, thank you, Bingo, for finally making me read it. Now that I have finished it, it is also obvious to me why I had trouble with it the first time around: my younger self had much less patience than I have now. It is an exhausting and highly cerebral read that needs a reader’s full attention at all times because one will be lost otherwise. There is a lot of philosophy, theology, and musical theory included, as Mann explores the conditions that led to the rise of Nazi Germany which Adrian’s life story is basically an allegory for.
Nothing much happens in the book plotwise, and the characters are more or less chess pieces being moved on a board in order to illustrate the ideas Mann wants to convey, because at its heart, the book is an arrangement of ideas and theories that try to explain the inexplicable. Adrian’s fall is not of a mythical nature; the pact with the devil is a creation of his diseased mind, because the syphilis he contracted as a young man causes his physical and mental deterioration. The reasons for Germany’s descent into hell, on the other hand, are not as easily discovered, which leads to this sprawling behemoth of a book. When Mann spends dozens of pages on musical subtleties and explanations, it may seem like an unimportant digression, but it is not, because every single one of the lengthy excursions into a philosophical or musicological topic is entirely relevant. This can be very frustrating because it is so easy to miss important information.
Still, this is definitly a great book, and one that imparts a wealth of knowledge and provides enough food for thought that it will last anyone a long time. I am in awe of what Mann accomplished here, and I appreciate the artistry, but I can’t say that I truly enjoyed reading it. Maybe I’ll get back to it in another fifteen years to see whether my feelings towards it have changed once more.
CBR12 Bingo: White Whale