Doctor Faustus

I tried to read and like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus—I really did—but quit after perhaps 80 leaden pages. It wasn’t a bad novel, to be sure, but just one that never seemed to unshackle itself from the page. Alex Ross brought it to my immediate attention through his allusions to Doctor Faustus in The Rest is Noise, but that initial enthusiasm didn’t prove sustaining. High school travesties like Ethan Frome came to mind, as an endless bowl of unsweetened oatmeal becomes dreary, no matter its healthfulness.

That image of the endless bowl is apt given how many sentences in Doctor Faustus were long and tedious, without the sustaining beauty in Swann’s Way. From the start of chapter VIII, a page I flipped to at random: “But [Kretzschmar] had early felt the pull back to the Old World, from where his grandparents had once emigrated and where both his own roots and those of his art were to be found; and in the course of a nomadic life, whose stations and stopovers seldom lasted longer than one or two years, he had come to Kaisersaschern as our organist—it was only one episode that had been preceded by others (for he had previously been employed as a conductor at small municipal theaters in the German Reich and Switzerland) and would be followed by others.” Two words shy of 100, and all of it, so far as I can tell, irrelevant to understanding the character of Kretzschmar or Adrian Leverkühn or anything else. Sometimes digressive novels work fabulously well, as Cryptonomicon did, but in Doctor Faustus there’s so much artistry that I’m being stifled.

Another annoyance that starts small and grows: the constant tendency of the narrator to discuss how he tells the story. At the start of chapter IX, he says: “I shall not glance back—far be it from me to count how many pages have piled up between the last Roman numeral and the one I just wrote. A mishap—a totally unexpected mishap, to be sure—has occurred, and it would be pointless to indulge in self-accusation and apologies on its account.” Good: then don’t indulge in either, and don’t tell us about it. I will count how many pages have passed: 25, and in those 25 I skipped larger and larger blocks of text as I looked for something, anything, to happen. But nothing does, except for telling us how the story will be told and about the early life of a great composer. I never got to a point where I said, “Ah ha! This is where I would’ve started the novel.”

If you want to see a morally compromised figure interested music, try Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, where the surgeon Adam Staunton is also an amateur pianist whose music is associated with madness or otherworldliness. Its many pages flow like corrupt money through Willie Stark’s machine, and to me is a stronger work that begins with movement and never stops. What made All the King’s Men go and Doctor Faustus not is a topic I’ve been pondering; James Wood comes at it from the angle of character when he contemplates “[…] how to push out? How to animate the static portrait?” in How Fiction Works. Like him, I can’t formulate rules so strong that novels can’t wriggle out of them, and so I feel forced to observe what I can’t explain, like astronomers and dark matter. Yet, just as Supreme Court Justice Stewart said regarding pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it,” so too I know problematic novels when I see them. Still, I’ve also learned to be wary of decisive conclusions on novels that have superseded their times and are still widely regarded as good, and so I’m keeping Doctor Faustus in anticipation of revisiting it sometime in the distant future, and I hope I don’t look back ruefully on this essay.

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