Monday, August 26, 2013

From Music to Pottery, Mann to Saramago

I recently read Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend again. I'd read it once, many years ago as an undergrad for a class, and after rereading The Magic Mountain a little over a year ago, decided I should read it again. I got it down from my bookshelf, put it on the end table next to my couch, and stared at it for a year. I wasn't quite sure why I couldn't bring myself to read it, because I didn't really remember it very well from 15 or more years ago, but once I began to read it, I quickly understood. It took me exactly one month to read the damn thing, because Doctor Faustus is probably the most difficult book I've ever read. I must have remembered that, somewhere deep in my brain, though I had apparently repressed it. What I must have forgotten altogether, though, was how deeply rewarding it is, in part because it is so difficult, but also because it is so wonderfully rich. The book is difficult for a variety of reasons: it is apparently very difficult to translate from the original German, and this is reflected in the flow of the book at points, it is stacked with symbolism several layers deep, the entire book is a deep allegory, it has several complex characters, and perhaps the main reason, the passages on music. These are long, often taking up entire chapters, and describe pieces of music, musical theory, or just music in general in detail with depth that would require a graduate education in music theory to fully comprehend. For someone like me, whose musical theory is limited to the bits I learned taking sax lessons in high school, these passages read incredibly slowly. In fact, most of the people I've talked to about the book since I finished it admitted skimming or skipping altogether much of the discussion of music. I think this is a bad idea, primarily because the discussion of music is inseparable from the character of Leverkühn, and also his allegorical relationship to the character of Germany in the first 45 years of the 20th century, but also because, once you start to penetrate them, and even without a full understanding of what it means, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in the in depth discussion of a craft. The book I read immediately after Doctor Faustus, José Saramago's The Cave, turns out to be another interesting example of this sort of satisfaction. The Cave is about a potter who bears as little resemblance to Leverkühn as Saramago's style does to Mann's, which is to say almost no resemblance at all, but as Mann does with music in Doctor Faustus, Saramago spends a lot of time describing the process of making pottery, and as music is part of the larger allegory in Doctor Faustus, the pottery is so in The Cave. Once again, I found learning about the making of pottery, something I previously knew nothing about, very satisfying in the context of the novel. I'm not sure what underlies this satisfaction, psychologically. On the surface, it seems that we should be largely disinterested in the intimate details of crafts in which we're never likely to participate, and about which, even were we to participate in them, we wouldn't need to know so much. Reading these two books in succession has shown me that, for me at least, there is a satisfaction to be gained in this sort of learning.