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Joseph Conrad and Mann's Doctor Faustus.

Joseph Conrad's novels had been part of Mann's intellectual background for a long time. His introduction to the German edition of Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) was his only full-length essay on an English writer. In 1926 he praised the Polish-born Conrad's "virile talent, his Englishness, his free brow [sic], his clear, steady and humorous eye, his narrative verve, power and grave-faced whimsicality." Reflecting on the similarities between Conrad's novel and The Magic Mountain, Mann added: "the conflict of West and East forms its political background.... It is an anti-Russian story ... in a very British sense and spirit.... This anti-Sarmatic [western Russia] satire, however light the touch, speaks pride of English freedom and English civilisation in every line" (Mann, "Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent," Past Masters and Other Papers, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter, NY: Knopf, 1933, pp. 234-237). The idea of the barbaric Tartar whip and Czarist knout in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes (1911) recurs in The Magic Mountain (1924) when the liberal Settembrini, referring to the notorious prison in St. Petersburg, warns Castorp: "Asia surrounds us.... Genghis Khan. Wolves of the steppes, snow, vodka, the knout, Schlusselburg, Holy Russia. They ought to set up an altar to Pallas Athene, here in the vestibule--to ward off the evil spell" (Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. H. T. Lowe- Porter, London: Secker & Warburg, 1957, p. 241).

Later on, Mann was even more enthusiastic as he devoured most of Conrad's novels when completing Doctor Faustus (1947). Unlike Mann, who continued to write in German while living in America, Conrad wrote in English (instead of his first languages: Polish and French) and introduced a European viewpoint into English literature. Mann called Under Western Eyes Conrad's masterpiece and wrote: "I was nowadays reading a great deal, perhaps all, of him before going to sleep. I had begun with Lord Jim, continued with Victory, and in the course of several weeks read through the whole series of these novels, entertained, impressed, and as a German somehow shamed by his manly, adventure-loving, linguistically superior, and psychologically and morally profound narrative art.... I read The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', Nostromo, The Arrow of Gold, An Outcast of the Islands, and the rest of those excellent books, read them with great pleasure" (Mann, The Genesis of a Novel, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, London: Secker & Warburg, 1961, pp. 153, 169).

Mann imitated the modest, self-effacing, pedantic and long-winded tone of Conrad's professor of languages in the opening paragraphs of Under Western Eyes when portraying his similar character, Serenus Zeitblom, the deliberately imperceptive narrator of Doctor Faustus. Conrad's narrator wrote of his subject:
   To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts
   of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to
   create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself
   ... Razumov.... Even to invent the mere bald facts of his life
   would have been utterly beyond my powers.... I must mention that I
   have lived for a long time in Geneva.

Mann's narrator echoed him when introducing the life of the composer:
   I wish to state quite definitely that it is by no means out of any
   wish to bring my own personality into the foreground that I preface
   with a few words about myself and my own affairs this report on the
   life of the departed Adrian Leverkuhn.... Only because I consider
   that future readers will wish to know who and what the author is do
   I preface these disclosures with a few notes about myself.... [I
   wonder if] my whole existence does not disqualify me for a task
   dictated by my heart rather than by any true competence for the

Both prophetic and pessimistic novels were created by European writers acutely critical of violent political movements, displaced by tyranny and forced into exile. Conrad and Mann explored the despotic pathology of Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany, and embodied contemporary political events in their tormented characters.

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, Berkeley
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Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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