When I first came across the novels of Thomas Mann, the only translations available were those by Helen Lowe-Porter, Mann’s first translator. I read The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and a few short novels (including Death in Venice) in Lowe-Porter’s translations, and, although I liked what I read, I was surprised to hear a friend who knew Mann’s works in the original German praise the suppleness, wit and expressive range of Mann’s prose. For, truth to tell, the impression I had of Mann’s prose was that of humourless Teutonic turgidity. Now, I do of course realise that associating the Teutonic with humourless turgidity is but an Anglophone prejudice, but that prejudice was reinforced rather than otherwise by what I had read of Mann. In particular, Joseph and his Brothers had defeated me: Helen Lowe-Porter had rendered in a particularly heavy-handed pseudo-Biblical prose, and I had found it frankly unreadable.
I do not mean to have a go at the Lowe-Porter translations: we do owe her a debt of gratitude for having introduced Mann to the Anglophone world in the first place, and her translations both of The Magic Mountain and of Doctor Faustus, whatever their shortcomings, had made on me a huge impact. But it was only when I read John E. Woods’ translation of Buddenbrooks did I realise what my German-speaking friend had meant: far from being turgid, here was prose that was elegant, witty, and, indeed, light on its feet. It was a far cry from the Mann I had previously known. It was then I felt I had to tackle the work that had previously eluded me – Joseph and his Brothers, but this time, in Woods’ translation. After all, when a novelist of Mann’s stature spends some ten years of his creative life on a work that he later declares to be his best, that work surely demands to be read.
I dived into this massive tetralogy of novels not entirely without trepidation. After all, I had failed to make much headway with it the first time round (admittedly in a different translation). And then, there was the length: going by the number of pages, the whole thing was somewhat longer even than War and Peace. And it goes without saying that this book is intellectually challenging. Sure, I’m all for books that stimulate the intellect, but did I really want some 1500 pages of it, re-telling an old story that takes up only a handful of pages in the Book of Genesis? And then, there was another German-speaking Mann-admiring friend of mine who opined that, because so much of the effect of Joseph and his Brothers depends on the quality of the prose, and because the prose in this book was so very individual and idiosyncratic, the work was “possibly untranslatable”.
What made me eventually go for it was finding, some four or so years ago, a handsome hardback copy of Woods’ translation in a lovely little second-hand bookshop in Clitheroe during one of my bookshop-browsing sessions. Although second-hand, the book was in mint condition, and was offered at a very attractive price. Never one to resist a bargain such as that, I had my wallet out almost immediately. And so, there it sat on my shelves, waiting to be read. It was, at the very least, a “challenge”. Since the only way to rise to such a challenge was to dive in, that is what I did: I took a deep breath and dived in. And what I found was extraordinary.
The prose is, indeed, very elegant, and with some startling use of words in contexts where one doesn’t expect them. The friend who had thought this book to be “possibly untranslatable” had told me that Mann often uses words in ways that force us to re-appraise what those words actually mean, and consider what they might be made to mean: that such an observation can apply also to Woods’ translation also is an indication of its quality. Throughout, the prose is startling, the sentences sometimes reading like miniature prose poems. For instance, here is Joseph in the pit in which his brothers have placed him:
For natural hope needs some reasonable justification for clinging to life to the very end, and Joseph found it in these confusions. To be sure, it went beyond life, this hope that he would not perish for good and all, but somehow be rescued from the pit – for on a practical level he regarded himself as dead. He found the proof he was dead in the confidence his brothers shared, in the blood-soaked garment that Jacob would receive. The pit was deep, and there could be no thought of rescue and return to the life before his plunge into the depths – a thought as absurd as for the evening star to return from the abyss into which it has sunk or the shadow to be drawn away from the black moon, making it full again.
Or, as Joseph and the slave traders journey towards Egypt:
They crossed dunes, down whose backs the wind had evidently left repulsively dainty waves and folds, while above the plain below them the hot air played and flickered as if about to burst into dancing flames and the sand was lifted in whirling vortices so that the men covered their heads in order to pass through such ghastly terrors, preferring to ride blind rather than gaze upon so vicious a delight in death.
Time after time I was startled by an unexpected use of words, or by an unexpected piece of syntax. Indeed, if Woods’ translation had been a novel written originally in English, then I too would have opined that prose of such brilliance was untranslatable.
Moving away from the quality of the prose, it’s difficult to know how to describe either the content or the form of this book, since it is so unlike anything else I have read. The only other novel I have read that attempts to recreate a remote ancient world is Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert, but where Flaubert revels in the exoticism, Mann presents this very strange world in a matter of fact manner, emphasising the everyday nature of even the most bizarre of events. And yet, at the same time, these everyday events are also mythical archetypes: throughout, Mann relates the events both to existing pagan mythologies, and also to the myths and images of Christianity (which, of course, emerged after the events narrated here).
The most complex of ideas are communicated with a marvellous lucidity. The opening section is effectively an essay in which Mann reflects on the nature of historic time, on the nature of beginnings, on the point where historic records run out and we have to interpret myths. Then he embarks upon the story. The heart of this narrative beats slowly, but one soon becomes accustomed to the slow pace. What impresses is Mann’s control of pace: although the underlying pulse is slow, he can speed it up or screw up the tension virtually at will. The details are piled on as Mann re-interprets and gives his own spin on these familiar stories, and a very convincing picture merges of mythic times, of people with very different sets of values and beliefs from our own, but who are, nonetheless, very recognisably human. There is also far more humour than the Anglophone reader, used to the Lowe-Porter translations, usually expects from Mann. And there is also, quite frequently, a sense of awe: one of its major themes is, after all, the human conception of the divine.
It’s not easy, to begin with, to discern Mann’s artistic purpose, but it’s very easy to become caught up in the narrative. The story is, of course, well known, but where the Book of Genesis merely gives us the sequence of events, Mann expands upon the psychology of the characters, and examines their motivations in great detail. His acute psychological analyses give the story a tremendous dramatic immediacy; and yet, at the same time, Mann emphasises the ritualistic aspect of this tale. The quotidian and mythical, the immediately dramatic and the archetypal, the ritualistic and the everyday – all these apparently contradictory elements are held together in a masterly balance.
The first volume, Tales of Jacob, tells of Joseph’s father, Jacob, and acts as a sort of prelude. It presents a very strange world – a world in which people can bury their own son alive as a sacrifice to the gods. And yet, somehow, the characters are not remote: the mythical and the human are held in balance. Joseph himself emerges in the second volume, Young Joseph, and while he first volume provided ample evidence of Mann’s mastery of pacing (despite the generally slow pulse), it doesn’t perhaps prepare us for what we get in the closing chapters of the second: when Joseph’s brothers imprison him in a pit and then sell him into slavery, the narrative acquires a tremendous forward momentum and leaves one breathless with excitement.
If the second novel of the series can be seen as a sort of symphonic scherzo, the third novel, Joseph in Egypt, is a majestic and serene adagio. Joseph is brought into Egypt by the traders, and he is sold to Potiphar, and in this new environment, he establishes himself as a trusted, and, later, a high-ranking member of Potiphar’s extensive household. The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is too well-known to be retold here, but Mann fills his account with the most precise and intricate psychological details: the tension comes not from “what happens next?” – since we all know what happens next – but in the painstaking of depiction of the development of various characters’ psychologies. Rarely, if ever, has sexual desire been presented in more convincing detail than in the depiction of the wife of Potiphar, proud and aloof, lusting after the mere slave Joseph. And in this volume, another theme begins, I think, to develop: it is that word that Potiphar’s wife could barely bring herself to say, even after hundreds of pages of agonising over it – “love”. Not necessarily love in a sexual sense, of course – although that’s part of it – but the love that humanity, despite everything, persists in feeling for one another. The chapter depicting the death of the overseer, Mont-kaw, who had become as another father to Joseph, is among the most moving things I have read in any novel. For all the various complexities and layers of irony, Mann could at times be almost disconcertingly direct.
Joseph starts the fourth novel, Joseph the Provider, as a prisoner: in the final chapter of the previous novel, Potiphar, apparently not believing his wife’s accusation and yet at the same time not in a position to ignore it or to challenge its veracity, had sentenced Joseph merely to imprisonment rather than to any of the hideous deaths Joseph had been threatened with. Once again, the rest of the story is too well-known to require re-telling here, but Mann looks at this tale afresh, and presents each apparently familiar scene in a new light. The novel ends in a hard-won reconciliation, as Joseph, unrecognised by his brothers, is moved by their sight, but has to delay revealing himself to them until they acknowledge their guilt. The reconciliation, the forgiveness, the blessings, when they do finally come, are tremendously affecting. The journey has been long and sometimes even arduous, but the sense of rightness at the end, the sense of a journey completed, of joy, of a consummation of all that has gone before, is something that, once experienced, stays firmly lodged in the mind.
Throughout these four novels, Mann’s themes, as I understand them, are the emergence of human civilisation, and of moral values; the emergence of religious thought and sentiment, which seem innate in the human mind; human concepts of the divine, and humanity’s aspirations towards it; the persistence through all this of our primal urges, which often find expression in forms of mythology and of ritual; the cyclical and archetypal nature of the myths themselves; and, most importantly, human love that can overleap mere accidental barriers that separate humans one from another. And I’m sure there are many other themes that I haven’t even begun to identify yet, and will only become apparent to me through re-reading. But, unless one thinks of literature as some means to an end rather than an end in itself, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much what these books are about: what matters is what they are, the experience they have to offer. I am not sure I understand fully what this extraordinary series of novels is about; but I do know that, as I was reading them I was taken through virtually every emotion I could think of, and that, since reading them, they have not stopped resonating in my mind.
One doesn’t merely read works of this quality, and then put them aside: they are to be lived with. While I have been pondering these works for a good few years now, and have re-read individual passages, I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to re-read the whole thing. But I know I’ll do it some day. I suppose I’ll just have to dive into it again.