“Joseph and his Brothers” by Thomas Mann

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.


19 responses to this post.

  1. I haven’t read any Mann for years and maybe this is the reason. I really enjoyed his novellas, and read a few novels, but couldn’t get through Buddenbrooks, or Lotte in Weimar, that one about the incestuous hermit remains one of my most hated reading experiences, and even looking at the pseudo-biblical Joseph put me off from ever beginning it.

    Anyway, since you were recommending it before as one of the 10 greatest novels ever, I thought I’d give The Magic Mountain a go. It is Lowe-Porter though.


  2. Posted by Erika W. on October 15, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    I have a sentimental memory of “Joseph… ” I read the first volume as a child and went back tor read it two times more. I tried the other volumes but was much too young to enjoy them. I now prefer this enjoyable memory to any new one to lay on top of it. Incidentally Helen Lowe- Porter, who translated Mann into English, was my godfather’s wife.


    • Hello Erika, I did not know about your connection to Helen Lowe-Porter, and I am now looking through what I have written hoping that I haven’t put my foot in it too badly!

      As I said, we do owe Helen Lowe-Porter a debt of gratitude for having introduced Mann to the English-speaking world, and her translations of The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus both made a huge impact on me. And it is interesting to note that her translations have not gone out of print, despite the publication of newer ones.

      I think of Joseph and his Brothers as one of the great novels of the last century, and remain puzzled as to why it is not usually seen as such. If you liked the first part, I think you’d like the others as well.


  3. Posted by Erika W. on October 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Don’t worry about comments on H L-P. She was a horrid person–puffed up with conceit. She left my darling, gentle godfather, who was a very fine scholar indeed and of much more importance (Elias A. Lowe the paleographer ) but returned in old age for him to support her and so that she could swan around Princeton University. Now I’ve probably put my foot in it but their children would agree with me.


    • 🙂

      I still think she did a fine job in introducing Mann to the English-speaking world, but now that we have translations from the likes of John Woods and David Luke, I do feel her versions have been superseded.


  4. Posted by Michael Henderson on October 16, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    I’ve recently started reading this (for the first time), using the Woods translation. That’s why I didn’t spend much time re-reading Dostoevsky’s Devils, as I thought I might. I read, not long ago, Doktor Faustus, which was heavy going at times, but thoroughly enjoyable, especially for the musical interests, in particular, on Winterreise and Beethoven’s last piano sonata. More recently, I read Buddenbrooks, which was marvellous. It is full of superb episodes, such as Hanno’s schooldays.
    That made me want to tackle the big one. I haven’t got very far into it, as I have re-examined some passages several times. I had never thought of the timeline of the Genesis stories, nor whether Isaac was more than one person, but what he says makes sense, especially thinking of the repeated sister/wife substitution stories. The Eliphaz story, not in Genesis, was completely new to me as well.
    I tend to read in short sessions, for all sorts of reasons, including poor eyesight, so I think this book will keep me going for some time. If you try to hurry with Mann, you miss much of what he is saying, so I shall take a good while over it.


    • Hello Michael, that passage in Doctor Faustus about Beethoven’s last piano sonata is wonderful, isn’t it? Mann had a particular gift for writing about music – I don’t think anyone did it better. Towards eh end of The Magic Mountain, there is a chapter discussing a scene from Bizet’sCarmen, and the final scene of Verdi’s Aida, and it’s difficult not to put on recordings of these after reading them, and hearing the music with new ears, as it were.

      That long section in Buddenbrooks in which Mann slows down the novel’s time scheme, and describes a single day in Hanno’s life, seems to me one of the highlights of the novel. A single day is used to give a picture of his life in general (in a very different context, we get something similar in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). It’s incredible to think that Mann was only in his mid-20s when he wrote this. Apart from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which Carson McCullers wrote at a similar age, I can’t think of any other novelist who scaled such heights at so young an age.

      (Mind you now that I think about it, Dickens wrote Pickwick Papers also at this age…)

      Although Mann admired Dostoyevsky (the scene with the Devil in Doctor Faustus obviously owes much to the scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan meets with the Devil), Mann needs to be read slowly, I think, and savoured, whereas Dostoyevsky should ideally be read quickly to get the full impact of the mad headlong rush he often depicts in his novels (especially in Demons). Something such as Joseph and his Brothers I don’t think one could rush even if one wanted to. One of Mann’s themes seems to be the emergence of the human from the mythic, the personal from the archetypal. The figures that came before Jacob and Joseph – Abraham, Isaac, etc – were archetypal figures, more important for what they represented than as individual people. This being so, there could have been many Abrahams, many Isaacs, as they belong to the realm of myth rather than to history. And before the point in which human affairs are recorded, these myths, depicting archetypes, and with their cyclical patters, are all we have to go on. It seems to me to be this point – where mythology turns into history, where values we recognise as human begin to emerge – that I think Mann is depicting in this first volume. I really do think it’s a magnificent achievement, and now that we have such a fine translation of it, it really does deserve to be better known.
      Al the best,


  5. I have read Budd, MM and Faustus and enjoyed them more than almost anything else I’ve read. This one however like a mountain waiting to be climbed which I’m not sure I’ll ever attempt. I admire you for finishing it and writing so eruditely about it.

    Must stop commenting on your fascinating posts – its time to go out to Sainsb.


    • One advantage of Joseph & his Brothers is that it is actually four novels, and the first two are relatively short. I too find it daunting starting out on what looks like a 1500 page novel, but when you tell yourself that you’re really only starting a 300 pager (Tales of Jacob is about 300 pages) it doesn’t seem so intimidating.


  6. Posted by John Posner on March 26, 2012 at 2:47 am

    I am a great fan of Thomas Mann’s works and those of his brother Heinrich (e.g. Man of Straw). I must say, however, that I disgaree about your comments re: Lowe Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann. I found her rendering of the Joseph and his Brothers series masterful and evocative of the period in which they are set. Certainly at first glance the books appear daunting, but once you immerse yourself into the richness and subtelty of the writing (& translation), you will quickly lose any initial fears about embarking on the journey. Stick with it, its well worth the experience.


    • Hello John, and thank you for that. I am afraid that I cannot really comment on the accuracy of the translation, since I know no German, but in those instances in which I have read both the Lowe-Porter translation and the Wood translation of the same work (“Buddenbrooks”, “Doctor Faustus”), it has seemed to me that the prose in Wood’s version have greater wit, a greater variety of tone, and a surer touch. Friends of mine who know Mann in German have recommended me Wood’s version (or to David Luke’s version of “Death in Venice”, and various other pieces of shorter fiction); however, Mann himself had approved of Lowe-Porter’s versions, so it’s hard to say. However, leaving all this aside, Wood’s translation of “Joseph and his Brothers” seems to me magnificent: it contains some of the finest English prose I know. Perhaps I was unfairly harsh about the Lowe-Porter version, but since that version is no longer in print, I don’tknow that I’ll have the opportunity of giving it another try. But leaving translations aside, I think wemay agree that “Joseph & his Brothers” is one of the great masterpieces of European literature, and deserves to be far better known than it appears to be.

      Cheers, Himadri


  7. […] novel which should certainly be read by anyone interested in approaching it. You may read it at https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/joseph-and-his-brothers-by-thomas-mann/. The author of the site has read it in the apparently supple John E. Woods translation, which I […]


  8. Posted by Stanley Gilbert on June 12, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    For my part it’s that very elevated, “biblical” style of the Lowe-Porter translation that for me sends Mann’s work into the Shakespearian realm. Like you, I ran across an old 40’s edition by accident in a used book store many years ago. I vaguely knew Mann’s name then, and nothing of the book itself. But something possessed me to buy it anyway. It’s become the most spectacular work of literature I’ve ever read.


  9. You all might want to see if you can track down the Kenneth Burke xlation of Death in Venice and compare; interesting is all I can say at the moment of distant memory.
    One of the many sad things about the death of the great German-American musicologist, critic, and scholarly annotator Michael Steinberg 8y ago is that on his uncompleted last-years slate was a new translation of Faustus. He had wanted to do more than that, but the Woods work, which I have not yet read, obviated that, except (in his view) for Faustus.
    Fascinating analysis of Joseph and wunderbar gossip abut HLP. I fear her own ‘only the exhaustive is truly interesting’ and ‘God forbid it should be seven years’ are too stuck in my mind for anything new wrt Magic Mountain, but I intend to try the climb.


    • Hello, and welcome. Thanks for the recommendation of the Kenneth Burke translation: I am not aware of that one. The only version I know, apart from the Lowe-Porter version, is the one by David Luke.

      The problem about commenting on translations is that unless one knows the original language, there isn’t really much one can say about how good it is. I could say something “reads fluently”, but if the original is, say, difficult and knotty, or rich and intricate, then “reads fluently” is hardly a recommendation.

      The German-speaking friend I mentioned, incidentally – an extremely erudite man, and himself a translator – once told me that he thought “Joseph and his Brothers” (which he describes as his favourite novel) was “untranslatable”. On my showing him the John Wood version, he looked up some of the key passages, and said: “He’s done a marvellous job, hasn’t he?” That seems to be recommendation enough!

      All the best, Himadri


      • Yes about truly knowing, or not, and how; there was a typically detailed heated exchange recent in NYRB on this matter wrt Russian xlations.

  10. Posted by 505iason on January 10, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    i picked up the book just a few weeks ago, on part because of my own interest but also because of this very well written written article. I more or less came to the book with huge expectation (so much so that even i thought i’d be dissapointed wehn first oppening the book), needless to say, it overshot my expectations by miles. It undoutebly is Mann’s masterpiece, which makes the fact that, it has been so underappreciated in comparison with Mann’s other works, all the sadder. Anyway, thank you very much for reccomending the book :). Also what do you think Joseph’s seizure in the start of the books was and/or signified, I know its a small detail to hang on to but i always find it interesting to hear other people’s thoughts on exactly this kinds of details.


    • Hello, and thank you for that. It certainly feels good to know that I’ve helped encourage you to read this remarkable set of novels.

      I am not entirely sure what you mean by Joseph’s “seizure” at the start of the books. If I remember correctly, Joseph doesn’t even appear in the first one. Am I misunderstanding you?

      Regards, Himadri


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