The full title of this novel is "Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend." Mann wrote it during the latter part of World War II when he was living in exile in the United States. The Faust character in this story is a German composer named Adrian Leverkühn (1885-1940), whose biography is recounted by his childhood friend, a schoolmaster named Serenus Zeitblom. Zeitblom presents the tale in his own voice--in essence, the novel is an extended reflection on the composer’s life (the past) set into the context of the deteriorating military situation in Germany (the present) as he is writing; i.e. the same period that Mann is actually writing the novel.

Adrian Leverkühn starts out as a student of theology, but succumbs to his passion for musical composition. His early pieces, though technically skillful, lack energy and imagination. However, all this changes when the young man experiences himself as having made a pact with the devil. In a confession written years later, Adrian recounts that he "voluntarily" contracted syphilis in an encounter with a prostitute, an episode that he believed was emblematic of this Faustian bargain.

In the confession he recreates his dialog with Satan, who promises the composer an artistic breakthrough, if he agrees to forego human love. As a result of the pact, Leverkühn sets off on a brilliant 24-year career, becoming the greatest German composer of his time. Throughout the novel Serenus intersperses technical details of Leverkühn’s many compositions, culminating with his masterwork, an oratorio called "The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus."

Adrian Leverkühn had been a self-centered youth who failed to reciprocate the friendship and devotion that others, especially Serenus, had lavished upon him. As an adult he leads an austere, solitary, monk-like life. Yet, while he lives only for his music, he also yearns for love. His personal life consists of a series of aborted relationships. Leverkühn becomes attracted to a female acquaintance and asks a friend to court her for him, only to learn that she has fallen in love with the friend.

Toward the end of his career, Adrian’s 5-year-old nephew comes to live with him in the country. The nephew ignites in him another spark of love, only to be snuffed out when the boy suddenly dies of meningitis. Finally, just as he is in the process of "unveiling" his great composition to a select group of friends, Leverkühn experiences a "stroke" and lapses into a coma from which he recovers physically, but not mentally. He survives for another decade in a demented, childlike state, and cared for by his mother.

The larger theme of this somber work relates to the decline of German culture during the decades before the onset of the Nazi era. Mann explores the collapse of traditional humanism and its replacement by a mixture of sophisticated nihilism and barbaric primitivism. In "The Story of a Novel" (1949),

Mann wrote that "Dr. Faustus" was about "the flight from the difficulties of a cultural crisis into the pact with the devil; the craving of a proud mind, threatened by sterility, for an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost; and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalistic frenzy of Fascism." In Zeitblum’s narrative comments, Mann subtly relates the composer’s personal tragedy to Germany’s destruction in the war. Mann also claimed a "secret identity" between himself, Leverkühn, and Zeitblom.


This is a difficult novel to read, even for those accustomed to Thomas Mann’s sonorous and convoluted style. The story builds by accretion of detail, rather than moving along from event to event. Thus, it takes the reader a long time to realize that, in fact, there is a story embedded in what has been said (including the narrator’s frequent misgivings, self-recriminations, and circumlocutions).

In fact, the irony with which Mann treats his narrator is an important key to the book’s meaning. Serenus "represents" German humanism, culture, and bourgeois values. Leverkühn and his pact with the devil represent the collapse of humanism in the face of a new (but highly energetic and creative) barbarism. Nonetheless, throughout the novel Serenus idolizes his friend; he describes himself as Adrian Leverkühn’s life-long flunky. Even with Die Gotterdammerung happening all around him, Serenus mourns his dead hero, while at the same time condemning Nazi barbarism and the German nation’s pact with the devil.

The image of Adrian Leverkühn as a composer is obviously based on Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), whose "breakthrough" was the 12-tone compositional system. In many respects, Schoenberg could be described as the greatest German composer of the 20th century. Mann draws directly from Schoenberg for his detailed descriptions of Adrian Leverkühn’s compositional techniques and the radical nature of his music. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) provides another "source" for the central character. Like Mann’s composer, Nietzsche contracted syphilis as a young man, but then led an immensely creative life before succumbing to madness as a result of tertiary syphilis and dying in a mental institution at the age of 55. Despite these resemblances to historical persons, Adrian Leverkühn is a unique--and uniquely unpleasant--character.

From a literary point-of-view, Leverkühn takes his place in a distinguished line of Faustian characters. However, in this iteration of the Faust legend there is no evidence that the central character (or Germany) achieves redemption.


First published in 1948. Translation from the German by John E. Woods


Vintage International

Place Published

New York



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