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Literature / Doctor Faustus

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This 1947 Thomas Mann novel's full title is Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (original: Doktor Faustus. Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde). The book is a repurposing of the Faust legend, combined with a pitiless analysis of early 20th-century German society.

Seen from the viewpoint of narrator Serenus Zeitblom, the novel follows his childhood friend Adrian Leverkühn from eccentric child, to passionate, unworldly student, to sinistrally gifted composer. As a young man, Leverkühn made a fateful (though ambiguous) decision that conferred upon him musical genius, but also seemed to make him a destructive, damning force in the lives of anyone he loved from that point onward. All this takes place against the backdrop of a German culture that would end up making its own devil's deal, and meet its own fatal reckoning.

Doctor Faustus contains examples of:

  • Accidental Public Confession: At his last social appearance, Leverkühn's mind snaps and he begins a rambling, allusive public confession of his sins, just before he collapses.
  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Zeitblom's voice is hard to separate from Mann's own usual style.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: One of Adrian's old professors favors an archaic form of German full of dialectal quirks, gnarled turns of phrase, and zesty, full-blooded epithets. Leverkühn and Zeitblom later jokingly adopt this manner of speech between themselves, and the Devil often affects it while speaking to Leverkühn.
  • A Chat with Satan: This quasi-dream sequence takes up a good chunk of the middle pages.
  • Composite Character: Leverkühn is not an Expy of any actual person, but the innovations of several real-life composers are attributed to him. For example, in the novel's universe it's Leverkühn, rather than Schoenberg, who pioneers the twelve-tone musical scale.
  • Deal with the Devil: The plot revolves around a meeting with Satan whose actuality is left ambiguous, but in which Leverkühn consents to a classic, old-time soul transaction.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: From title to dialogue, the novel is full of riffs on the Faust legend and all its various adaptations.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: For long stretches at a time, Zeitblom disappears as an active participant in events.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: The degree and nature of Rudi Schwerdtfeger's obsession with Adrian raise eyebrows among nearly every character.
  • Insufferable Genius: Even before his deal, Leverkühn is incapable of wearing his talents lightly. At several points the book describes his studied air of superiority over his father, his teachers, and his peers.
  • Just Before the End: The narration takes place from a besieged Nazi Germany, on the verge of being overrun by the Allies.
  • Lack of Empathy:
    • Leverkühn renounces the possibility of love as one of the terms of his Satanic deal, and maintains this almost unshakably ... until the end is near, and it's all far too late.
    • At points, the composer's personal coldness lends him a mystique that attracts doomed followers and friends such as Rudi.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: This mystery is at the novel's heart. Maybe Leverkühn really did sell his soul to the Devil for 24 years of musical genius. Or maybe he caught a case of syphilis that drove him mad and killed him, but also unlocked unexpected centers of creativity in his brain. You can believe whichever suits you.
  • The Muse: The gypsy prostitute whom Leverkühn sleeps with haunts his art in more than one sense: he includes her name in several cryptic music-notational puns.
  • Take That!: Mann was determined that German readers not miss the parallels to their country's own Faustian bargain with the Nazi party—gaining power and pride for itself in exchange for a price to be worried about later, if at all.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The angelic child Nepomuk dies of a lingering illness that Leverkühn fears his very affection has caused, in breach of his terms with the Devil.

Alternative Title(s): Doktor Faustus