My initial reaction to being done this book is relief. Like the other Thomas Mann book I've read, I've found this a slog at times. It was one where I had to give myself permission to read around 20 pages a day and no more, or else I never would have sat down with it in the first place. But despite that, despite how long it took me to read, and how I was never quite eager to get back to it, I am glad I read it. A difficult read, but still, a worthwhile one.
Someone else pointed out just a little while ago that the title itself is a spoiler for the book. The extent to which it is a Doctor Faustus retelling is not overt, except for a few points. But I think that's not so much a spoiler as it is a foreshadowing. We need that knowledge to loom over every moment of the book, to know that it is inevitably leading somewhere dark, to keep urgent and pressing. Otherwise, it's the fairly straightforward story of a composer.
But, of course, it's not. It's also the story of Germany, and German politics and intellectual thought, and the deal the country made with the devil for a sense of destiny, of strength, of mastery. Adrian is that deal made flesh, but Germany continues down its path in the background.
More than anything, this book made me wish I knew the first thing about classical music or criticism. I'm sure anyone who does will get more from the long descriptions of Leverkuhn's compositions and how they were radical. I found them interesting, but came out of them still befuddled. Without that background, I was totally at sea. But these sections made me wish I knew more, rather than wishing they'd been skipped, so there's that.
Then there's the nature of the relationship between Adrian and the narrator. It's exceptionally close, to be sure. But what struck me is how little we know about the narrator's wife. If the book is about Adrian Leverkuhn, the wife of the narrator gets but a handful of mentions over the entire huge span of the book, and only physically appears in two scenes. And then, she has no lines or actions. It's this giant omission of a woman who shares his life from the story being told that is so striking. I don't want to over-psychoanalyze and wonder if it mirrors Mann's own life, and his known struggles with his sexuality, but the presence-but-absence of the wife is striking.
Right, the plot. This is the story of Adrian Leverkuhn, celebrated but not prolific composer, as told by his boyhood friend. It is the story of his withdrawal from the world, his contraction of a venereal disease, his deal with the devil, and his dissolution. It's also the story of the literary and intellectual community of German in the interwar years, arguing with each other while celebrating the new turns the German state has taken. Except for the narrator, who sees the looming danger for both his friend and his nation, without the ability to do anything about either.
I feel like I've only scratched the surface of this book, but even the surface was worthwhile. I'd be interested to read it again in a few years, and see what that did to my understanding. Without that musical training, though, I just don't know if there are bits I'd ever get.