by Ted Gioia

Günter Grass is often lauded for his bold use of the
techniques of magical realism, in his novel The Tin
Drum (1959), to create a wry, indirect indictment of
the moral compromises and pervasive bad faith (in the

Sartean sense of lying to oneself) of Germany during
the 1930s and 1940s. Yet Thomas Mann had already
done the same a dozen years
earlier with his angst-ridden
Doctor Faustus, pub-
lished in 1947, and actually
begun in 1943, two years
before the end of World
War II—and when Grass was
still wearing a Nazi uniform.  

Here Mann finds a most
fitting symbol for Germany's
plight, building his story
around a deal with the devil,
a universal theme of time-
honored appeal to authors
and readers, but one with
especial resonance for his own nation’s literary history,

and the subject of the greatest work of German
literature, Goethe's Faust. Modern writers are often
fascinated by the potential for updating a classic work
in contemporary trappings, but seldom has the fit
between old and new been so compelling. If any
moment in German history could benefit from a
probing reexamination of the Faustian bargain, it was
the very point at which Mann embarked upon this
project.  His countrymen had made just such a deal,
only to learn that, in these transactions, the devil
always dictates the terms and sets the outcomes.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Even before the rise of Hitler, Mann had been
obsessed with ideas of decline, dissipation and

disease—a striking contrast with his cultural milieu
which displayed a marked obsession with hygiene,
racial purity and expansionary conquests. His debut
novel Buddenbrooks charted the gradual fall from grace
of a mercantile family, and his most famous works,
The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice, reveal an
acute sensitivity to the concept of illness—which in

Mann's worldview was invariably intertwined with  
issues of creativity and transcendence.

This strange intersection of the pathological and

transcendental reappears in Doctor Faustus, where
Mann relates the life story of the fictional modernist

composer Adrian Leverkühn, as seen through the eyes
of his devoted childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom.
Leverkühn is willing to barter his soul and much of
physical well-being in exchange for a period of 24
years during which he will be "blessed" with a rare

degree of artistic inspiration. Yet, in a manner typical
of Mann, this demonic contract is more than a
questions of simple barter or
quid pro quo: the ravages
of the body are depicted here as inseparable from the
glories of the creative spirit, Leverkühn's highest
achievements revealing their intimate connection to
the composer's most abject debasement.

Toward the conclusion of this novel, Mann's narrator

mulls over this linkage on a larger world-historical
scale. "What will it be like to belong to a nation whose
history bore this gruesome fiasco within it, a nation
that has driven itself mad, gone psychologically
bankrupt," Zeitblom asks himself. Then he
despairingly probes the connection between this
downfall and the cultural landmarks that preceded it,
the achievements of a Wagner, Nietzsche, Beethoven,
Goethe. "Was not this regime, both in word and
deed, merely the distorted, vulgarized, debased

realization of a mindset and worldview to which one
must attribute a characteristic authenticity and which,
not without alarm, a Christianly human person finds
revealed in the traits of our great men, in the figures
of the most imposing embodiments of Germanness?"

Under any circumstances, this would be a bitter,
horror-gripped admission, but all the more so when

one considers that Mann himself was one of these
"great men" of German culture. The most lauded
German novelist of the first half of the 20th century,
Mann could only honor his native land by severing his
connection with it. His aesthetic sense for the corrupt
and debased may have prepared him for this, but
could hardly have softened the blow.  As early as
1930, he denounced Nazi ideology in a Berlin speech,

entitled "An Appeal to Reason," asserting that the
new political climate marked a "wave of anomalous

barbarism, of primitive popular vulgarity" and
identifying "a state of feeling that may become a world
menace." Mann was in Switzerland when Hitler came
to power, and remained there for several years, later
moving to Southern California. In the unlikely locale
of Pacific Palisades, home to countless Hollywood
stars and celebrities, he began work on
Dr. Faustus
in 1943, with war still raging on three continents, and
published it in 1947.

The novel incorporates the catastrophic events that

presided at its birth. As the narrator recounts the life
story of his composer friend, he frequently breaks
away to mull on the events of World War II, which
taking place while he (and Mann) write—with bombs
literally dropping from the sky.  At first
glance, the story of Adrian Leverkühn might seem to

have little connection with the fate of the German
nation.  The composer does not participate in political
movements, and over time isolates himself from social
activities of all sorts.  He lives for his art, and can
hardly remember people's names, on those rare
occasions when he goes out into public. Yet even in
his aloofness, Leverkühn reveals traits—of pride,
disdain, narcissism, arrogance—that will infect the
body politic and set events on their tumultuous,
world-shaking course. Leverkühn aspires to a

Nietzschean kind of greatness, and when forced to
chose, is willing to accept an unholy, demoniac
grandeur over a purity and innocence that never rises
above the ordinary. In short, he has made a deal with
the devil.

Among the composer's papers, the narrator finds the

transcript of a dialogue between Leverkühn and the
Devil.  Mann is deliberately ambiguous about how we
should interpret this document. Is it a sign of
madness?  A symbolic story? A factual account of a
real discussion with some infernal tempter?  And this
author, true to his track record, also offers a possible
medical diagnosis of a purely physiological sort—
Leverkühn contracts syphilis during a brief love affair,
and readers are left to consider that this disease serves
as the instigator both for the composer's creative surge
and dementia.

We are thus invited to dismiss the Devil from these

pages, treat him as a mere hallucination. Yet Mann
does not make this easy for the reader. Some larger
demonic force seems to hold a real sway over events
during the course of this novel, and the predictions
and promises made by the Devil during his dialogue

with Leverkühn possess an uncanny knack for coming
true.  Certainly the composer himself seems wholly
convinced that he has entered into a Faustian bargain,
one that, once made, cannot be disavowed or revoked.  

In their dialogue, which stands as the emotional

centerpiece of this anguished novel, the Devil
demands that Leverkühn abstain from all love. The

composer scoffs at this condition, and expresses doubt
that his interlocutor can enforce such a vague
mandate. "Would you attest to your reputed
stupidity," Leverkühn asks, "and bell yourself as a cat,
by wanting to found your business and promise on so
pliant, so captious a term as—'love'?" The Devil, as
they say, is in the details, but here too the dark side
shows that it holds the upper hand. Whenever the
composer tries to test this restriction, and dares to
nurture and channel his softer emotions, a heavy toll
is exacted. Only his art remains as an acceptable

vehicle for his emotional life. But this too takes on a
dark, woe-begotten aspect.  The aptly labeled allegro
con fuoco
from his string quartet "sounds as if flames
are licking at one from all four sides," and his final

composition, The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, is
nothing less than a musical evocation of his own

damned state.  

Other novelists have addressed musical themes in
their works, but few can match Mann for the depth
of technical knowledge of the composer's art that he

shows, time and again here. At a certain point, he
describes Leverkühn's immersion in twelve-tone row
techniques, and the lengthy description and apologia
for serialism is as good as anything you will find in
any book of music criticism. Elsewhere the lengthy

asides—on Beethoven's attitude toward counterpoint,
on "servant" and "master" notes, on the compromises
of the well-tempered scale, etc.—may strike the less
musically-inclined as slow going; yet those with a zeal
for such subjects will find Mann a profound,
knowledgeable guide. (In all fairness, he himself had
his own guides:  Mann got help from Schoenberg and

Stravinsky during the course of writing Dr. Faustus.)

In truth, there are few interludes or asides here that
do not contribute to the overall effect. Even

throwaway conversations—on Mad King Ludwig or
the theories of sociologist George Sorel—will later
appear to have a connection to the unfolding plot.  
Mann is one of the most intellectual of novelists,
treating ideas with a seriousness that one rarely
encounters in authors of fiction nowadays. Yet our
esteemed Nobel laureate had good reason for this
attitude: this author lived during an era in which
intellectual concepts killed far more people than all
seven of the deadly sins combined, and the particulars
of his own biography put him at the geographical
epicenter of these catastrophic ideas. Above all,
Mann's deftness at dealing with the abstract, and
personifying it in the interplay of characters and events
is unsurpassed, and places him in a small group of
literary masters—Musil, Tolstoy, Kundera, Bellow,
Canetti and (pre-eminently) Dostoevsky—for whom
the novel can be a vehicle for ideation on a profound,
almost philosophical level, yet without sacrificing the
intensity and immediacy possible only through fiction.
Doctor Faustus
by Thomas Mann
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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