Doctor Faustus

So long as I am reading for pleasure rather than for work, so long as I am really reading rather than merely studying, I prefer to measure a novel in hours or, at most, in days.  In the case of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, however, which I have only just finished, my reading has been measured in weeks, three long weeks, not because of any abnormal amount of distraction, and not because of any abnormal lack of opportunity, but merely and utterly because I had to force myself, against all inclination, to finish the book at all, page by page, word by word. I have not felt such complete disinterest for a novel since I read Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, which is, perhaps only coincidentally, also written by a German.  Except that my sample of German novelists is so small, and except for the salient anomaly of Franz Kafka, I would begin to suspect that there was something essential about German novels that disagrees with me.

It is not that Doctor Faustus is badly written, or that it is without its artistic and intellectual excellences.  It is that, like with Victorian novels, for example, or with Restoration poetry, I find myself admiring the craftsmanship and the genius of writing that nevertheless bores me so completely that I can hardly bring myself to read it.  I can recall reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch with precisely this same sentiment, appreciating the complexity of the tale, the aptness of the characterization, the unity of the narrative, and yet yearning through every page for its conclusion.  I reflected at the time that Eliot had authored a work that was the literary equivalent of a perfectly cut jewel, with every angle ground to precision, only that she had practised her art, not on a gem, but on a piece of gravel.  Her cutting was superb, but her material was entirely unremarkable.  She had produced a perfectly cut hunk of granite.

I have much the same opinion of Dactor Faustus.  The narrative voice is well controlled and maintained.  The protagonist and his tale are interestingly conceived and rendered.  The parallels between his story and the story of Germany during World War II are often masterly.  None of this, however, comes together to make a compelling novel.  Except for certain scenes, which, perhaps by design, stand out all the more in comparison, most of the narrative is comprised of long conversations on music, theology, politics, philosophy, and a myriad other things, mostly of the sort that would have been better suited to another medium than the novel.  The result is a sort of technical mastery that mostly falls short of inspiring artistic interest.  I am glad to be done with it.

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