Thomas Mann (Germany, 1875)
"Buddenbrooks" (1901) +++
"Tonio Kroeger" (1903) +
"Der Tod in Venedig/ Death In Venice" (1912) +
"Der Zauberberg/ Magic Mountain" (1924) ++ a novel obsessed with time and death. At the same it is a pretext for Mann to explore the new ideas of the new century: psycoanalysis, science, the world war, Mann identifies the sick community of the sanatorium with the sick Europe of his time. People are barely alive but they think they can make grand speeches and live grand lives, and that is also true of all "sane" humans. Except the ones in the sanatorium know that they are doomed, whereas the ones outside are truly insane in thinking they have any better grasp on life.
"Joseph und seine Brueder/ Joseph and His Brothers" (1943) - is by far the most boring of Thomas Mann's novels, an endless retelling of the Old Testament from Jacob to Joseph that Mann wrote between 1926 and 1943, wasting 17 years of his life. It consists of four parts: "The Tales of Jacob" (a rewrite of "Genesis 27-36"), "The Young Joseph" (a rewrite of "Genesis 37"), "Joseph in Egypt" (a rewrite of "Genesis 38-40"), and "Joseph the Provider" (a rewrite of "Genesis 41-50"). Each requires a lot of patience (besides a lot of time); and a passion for Judaistic/Christian history. To make things worse, Mann weaves tales of ancient Mesopotamia into the Biblical narrative, resulting in a cacophony of names and legends. Ironically, by the time Mann completed this tetralogy, Mann's home country of Germany had exterminated quite a few of the Jews who might have had something to say about it (Mann had already moved to Switzerland, France and the USA). He was neither an anthropologist nor an archeologist, but in this book he also attempted to draw a social fresco of the ancient lands of Canaan, Egypt, and Mesopotamia around 1400 BC. As far as fiction and chronicle goes, the Old Testament of the Jews is a bad book, full of contradictions, of implausible claims, of unexplained coincidences. Plenty of Jewish theologians have made a living out of trying to provide rational explanations for the hodgepodge of stories contained in the "Tanakh". The Jewish god is a terrible historian, but a decent playwright, and so no surprise that over the centuries many writers have turned parts of the "Tanakh" into tragedies or paintings or operas. The "Tanakh" was augmented over the centuries by folk legends that two books written by Mann's contemporaries tried to summarize: Levy Ginzberg's "The Legends of the Jews" (1909) and Micha Josef Berdyczewski's "Die Sagen der Juden/ Tales of the Jews" (1914). In fact, Berdyczewski wrote a novel titled "Joseph and His Brothers" (1917) based on the legends that he had collected. Therefore Mann's cyclopic four-part novel is basically a "remix" of Berdyczewski's original novel. But Mann's whole plot is so incredibly implausible: that this Joseph was never tell his father that he is alive, that it would be easier for the whole tribe to travel to Egypt than for the news of Joseph's situation to travel to Canaan.
Jacob had 12 sons (from both Leah and Bilhah) and only one daughter Dinah, from Leah. Jacob, also named Israel, led his tribe to Canaan, with his women, slaves, sheep, goats, etc. They settled peacefully near the town of Shechem, a place ruled by Hamor that worshipped the god Baal and had been conquered by Egypt; and Jacob built the deep well so his tribe would have its own source of water. Four years later Hamor's son Sichem fell in love with the 13-year-old Dinah. Jacob's eldest son Reuben and others who were teenagers like Simeon and Levi had always wanted to attack the city but Jacob vetoed the idea. Jacob had his own skeletons in the closet. When Jacob had fled the furious Esau, he had been taken in by his uncle Laban, his mother Rebecca's brother, who had a gorgeous daughter Rachel with whom Jacob had fallen in love. Jacob had offered to work seven years for free in exchange for Laban's permission to marry Rachel, but had then been tricked by Laban who, on their wedding night, had exchanged Rachel with Rachel's older sister Leah. Jacob had nonetheless married his beloved Rachel too and had had one child from her, Joseph; which explains why Joseph was the favorite. (Side note: according to old custom, Laban had murdered his infant son and buried him in the walls of his house during its construction).
At the time that Jacob arrived in Canaan his wife Rachel was still alive, his mother Rebecca was dead and his father Isaac was alone and blind. Jacob was reluctant to oppose Sichem's and Dinah's love because of his own love story with Rachel. His sons, instead, were just looking for a pretext to seize the town. The problem was that Abraham had told Isaac not to marry a woman from Canaan, and Isaac had told Joseph the same, and so Joseph felt that there was a veto against the Hebrews and the Canaanites marrying together. Sichem and all the males of the town accepted to be circumcised in order for the two tribes to be united through the marriage but Jacob's sons still objected. Then Sichem simply kidnapped Dinah. Jacob's sons, led by Reuben, finally had their excuse to carry out a massacre, killing Sechem and most of the other citizens. Jacob was ashamed of his own sons. He took Dinah, now pregnant, and moved on, returning to Hebron. The news of the massacre traveled to the nearby towns and everybody stood in awe of those murderous Hebrews.
After Rachel's death Isaac also dies. Jacob meets with Esau to bury their father. Here we are told the details of what happened when Jacob stole the birthright from Esau, fled to Laban's house, fell in love with Rachel, was forced to marry Leah, had Joseph from Rachel, the other sons from Leah and Bilhah. Now Jacob's tribe is moving towards Hebron and two women are pregnant: Dinah and Rachel. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin/Benoni, the last of Jacob's 12 sons, the second from Rachel.
From this point on the narrative is chronological and easier to follow, but it is nothing more than Biblical nonsense told in pompous sentences.
Jacob's tribe is living in tents outside the walls of Jericho when the 17-year-old Joseph is being educated by his tutor, Eliezer, a freedman (and bastard son) of his Jacob's father Abraham (who tells stories of Abraham, the founder of Damascus and its first king), and being hated by his brothers because he is obviously Jacob's favorite. Jacob can take advantage of Reuben's affair with Bilhah to curse him and bestow on Joseph the blessing of Abraham, that Jacob himself had in turn stolen from Esau. Joseph is also subject to ecstatic seizures and dreams, which further alienate his brothers and scare even little Benjamin. One day when Jacob's ten sons except Joseph and Benjamin are far away Jacob gives Joseph a gift: the robe which Laban gave to Rachel for her wedding night but that then turned out to be hiding Leah. It is a symbolic gift, but of great importance. Joseph is vain and wears it in front of his brothers, further arousing their jealousy. Annoyed by another of his self-serving prophetic dreams (that basically announce his destiny as their leader), the brothers decide to get rid of him once and for all, and thus throw him into a pit and leave him there to die, tied and boud. (Until now Joseph has been depicted, whether voluntarily or not, by Mann in such a negative manner that we almost feel glad for his misfortune). Joseph is saved by a caravan leader, a old merchant, who is passing by with his son-in-law Mibsam, his nephew Epher, and his sons Kedar and Kedema. Meanwhile Reuben and the others are being devoured by remorse and eventually find a solution: rescue Joseph and then sell him into slavery. When the caravan appears, they prepare to sell them the brother who (they think) is still lying at the bottom of the pit. Informed by the old man that the boy has been rescued, they simply tell him that Joseph is one of their slaves, punished for being a congenital liar. The old man offers to buy the slave and they gladly accept. The remorseful Reuben is actually at the pit, trying in vain to find Joseph alive. When he gets back to his brothers' camp he learns the news that Joseph has been sold into slavery. The brothers swear not to tell the truth to their father and to simply bring him back to fabled robe, letting Jacob think that Joseph died of a wild animal's attack.
The old caravan trader confides to Joseph that they are carrying him to the court of the Egyptian pharaoh. Joseph stands in awe of the famous king's name, and decides to change his own name to Usarsiph/Osarseph (Mann often uses different spellings for proper names). After a long journey they enter Egypt and Joseph even passes by the pyramids. Joseph is mesmerized by the architecture of the capital Waset (Mann misspells it as Weset-per-Amur), which Joseph nicknams No and the Greeks would later refer to as Thebes. He is also amazed at the cosmopolitan character of the city, in which Beduins, Numidians and all sorts of races coexist. The old trader sells Joseph to the wealthy and powerful Potiphar/ Petepre, who works for the pharaoh. He also sees for the first time the master's wife, Mut-em-enet/ Eni. Before parting from the caravan, Joseph kisses the robe of the old man who has sold him to the Egyptians, treating him like a father. Joseph has time to consider that his slavery in Egypt (due to the treachery of his brothers) parallels his father Jacob's life in Egypt (when he fled from the wrath of his brother Esau), but we are already told by the narrator that Joseph will remain in captivity for the rest of his life, returning home only to die. We are told that he will remain in the service of Potiphar for ten years, and the last three of those ten years will be dominated by the mood of a woman. Joseph is spared field work and kept in the house of the master, The highly educated Joseph/Usarsiph/Osarseph is protected by the house's overseer Mont-kaw, the oldest servant, who will become like another father to him, but hated by the reactionary dwarf Dudu, who is outraged that the foreign slave is granted privileges, while loved by another dwarf, the mock-vizier Bes, also hated by Dudu. Potiphar/Petepre is captain of the royal guard, head executioner and warden of the royal prison. One day Joseph overhears a conversation between Potiphar's parents, the twins Huia and Tuia, and learns that Potiphar/Petepre is a eunuch, having been castrated by his parents according to an Egyptian custom, and the marriage to Mut/Eni is purely formal, and she is probably still a virgin: she calls herself the bride of the sun-god Amun/Re. Thanks to Bes, Joseph is assigned to the gardens and there one day he meets Potiphar/Petepre in person. In the next seven years Joseph becomes a trusted servant of the master. It is a mystery why he doesn't communicate with his father, at least to tell him that he's alive. Instead, Joseph seems to enjoy the Egyptian lifestyle and being a slave at Potiphar/Petepre's court. After seven years Mont-kaw dies and, in a moving last speech, makes him his successor as overseer of the house. Then the story with Mut/Eni begins. This is told in 180 pages out of 1,200 (and mostly from Eni's perspective). The narrator begins by telling us that he is shocked by the way the story has been traditionally told. The way this narrator tells us the story is different because he begins by telling us about Eni's sacrifice: she was still a child when she was given in marriage to the castrated Petepre. Ironically, Dudu's complaints against the chosen successor of Mont-kaw end up drawing Eni's attention to the handsome slave she has always ignored. She is initially disturbed by her attraction for the slave and finds an excuse to ask her husband to dismiss Joseph. Petepre loves his wife very much and generally listens to her, but he bursts out laughing when he realizes that she has been influenced by Dudu, who notoriously hates Joseph. Dudu then changes tactic. He becomes kind to Joseph in order to act as a gobetween. He slowly but steadily creates the belief in Mut/Eni that Joseph would reciprocate her love. She confesses her unspeakable attraction for the slave, and Dudu pretends to help her. It is Dudu who architects their first meeting; but Joseph does not realize what Mut/Eni wants from him and only discusses the business of the house. Dudu seconds his mistress' secret love. It takes three years: first she loves him in secret, then she lets Joseph know of it, then she offers him her love explicitly. Finally, Dudu delivers a note by Mut/Eni (written in hieroglyphics) that invites Joseph to sleep with her; and then she invites him to a business meeting in which she openly discloses her passion for him. She even proposes to kill Petepre. Joseph is terrified and leaves. Two people have been eavesdropping without being seen: the two dwarves. They briefly fight, then Dudu runs to tell the master his version of the facts while Bes runs to warn Joseph about it. The narrator draws the parallel to when his brothers threw Joseph in the pit: he is being dropped into another pit.
Dudu tells Petepre that Osarsiph/Joseph is threatening to steal his wife and to take his life, and admits that he, Dudu, tempted the woman to find out to what degree she had been seduced by the young slave's beauty. Dudu frankly tells his boss that he expects to be awarded Osarsiph's management position. Petepre instead grabs a stick and beats Dudu. Meanwhile, Mut/Eni becomes more and more explicit in her overtures to Osarsiph. She even confesses her passion to her female friends convened for a party. When the female friends see Osarsiph (Mut specifically ordered him to serve their wine) the distinguished ladies of the aristocracy injure themselves (he entered while they were peeling apples). The head priestess herself is shocked to hear that the slave has dared to reject the lady, and takes it as an insult to the Egyptian nation. This friend tells her husband Beknechons, the chief zealot of Amun's nationalist cult, who also gets furious and threatens to use force in order to make Osarsiph submit to Mut's desire. The dwarf Bes informs Osarsiph of what is going on, and Osarsiph/Joseph interprets the whole plot as a fight between the god of the Hebrews and the god of the Egyptians, and pledges to remain royal to his god, the god of his ancestor Abraham. Mut even tries the magic spells of a black witch but to no avail. The Egyptian nation celebrates the beginning of the rise of the Nile with a big party all over Thebes. Everybody gets intoxicated, including Mut/Eni. She summons Osarsiph to her room while everybody is out, and then she tries to seduce him. Rejected one more time, she screams. When people arrive, she claims that Osarsiph has tried to rape her. Dudu can enjoy his revenge when he sees Osarsiph arrested. Petepre's judgment is not as severe as it could be: first of all he has Dudu's tongue cut in half, judging him to be a traitor, and then he sentences Osarsiph to jail. The young slave does not utter a word in his defense. The narrator comments that Joseph committed the same sin towards his brothers as towards Mut: in both cases someone ended up being hurt by his success, and took revenge on him by throwing into a pit.
Joseph is sent to the island fortres of Zawi-Re and soon becomes the protege of the governor Mai-Sachme, who also happens to be a physician ahead of his time. Mai-Sachme appreciates Joseph's intellectual skills and saves him from the hard labor that is maiming and killing the other convicts. The conditions of the prison greatly improve under Joseph's management. And Mai-Sachme is also curious to hear Joseph's adventures. One day Joseph/Osarsiph is assigned two new convicts who belong to the royal aristocracy: the chief baker, a prince, and the chief butler, a count. They are accused of having conspired to poison the pharaoh. One of the pharaoh's concubines, nicknamed Isis, was so influenced by the legend of Isis and Re that, starting from the harem, she created a conspiracy to assassinate the pharaoh and install her son, Noferta-Ptah, a bastard son of the pharaoh, as new king. The conspiracy had been discovered and 72 people found to have participated in it. Joseph becomes good friend with the two distinguished prisoners and one day interprets their dreams as indicating that one will be executed and the other one will be released. The baker is eventually found guilty and sentenced to death. The count/butler is released as innocent but he quickly forgets that he had promised Joseph to intercede with the pharaoh about his case.
On the third year of his captivity Joseph/Osarsiph is suddenly summoned to the pharaoh in person. What has happened is that Amenhotep IV reached the age of 16 and became officially the ruler, with his regent mother Tye surrendering all political power to him, and his wife Nefertiti becoming the new queen. Joseph had been affected by the new government because Amenhotep IV had commissioned new temples and this had resulted in more work for the convicts at Zawi-Re. Then one day the pharaoh, who was already known to be frequently seized by ecstatic states, had woken up from a nightmare about seven cows and seven ears of corn. The royal dream interpreters had failed to provide him with a credible interpretation. The pharaoh was notoriously a fan of the god Aton, and the high priest of Amun was plotting against him, so the whole affair had political overtones. The butler, finally, remembered that Osarsiph had correctly interpreted his dream back in the prison and advised the pharaoh to consult the convict slave. Hence Joseph/Osarsiph is received by the pharaoh in person and by his mother in the fabled city of On, where a great obelisk has been erected. Joseph/Osarsiph easily interprets the dream: the dream is foretelling seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. The pharaoh is impressed not only by the soothsaying but also by the story of Osarsiph's god, of how his ancestor Abraham made a covenant with such god. The mother admonishes the teenage king that measures must be taken to protect from the seven years of famine, and Osarsiph is quick to list what must be done: somebody must be put in charge of overseeing the seven-year operation to prepare for the seven years of drought. The pharaoh, who also sees a political advantage in his fight against the house of Amun and in his colonial ambitions, promptly hires Osarsiph as the manager of operations.
Osarsiph, settled in the city of Menfe with a host of Nubian and Egyptian servants, and with Mai-Sachme as his housekeeper, becomes first an influential manager and then a close friend of the pharaoh, who, influenced by Osarsiph's monotheism, changes his own name to Ikh-n-Aton (Akhenaten) and turns the worship of Aton into monotheism, even dreaming of building an entire new city devoted to the worship of the only god Aton. Osarsiph marries Asenath, the 16-year-old daughter of the high priest of Re at On, from whom he has two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, and then other unnamed sons. The pharaoh, instead, only has six daughters, and no son, from Nefertiti, and lives surrounded by women: Nefertiti, his mother, his sister, his wife's sister and the six girls.
Meanwhile, Jacob, now 100 years old, is still mourning the lost son. His faithful companion is now Tamar, a young woman. Jacob tells Tamar the stories of Abraham and his tribe, as well as the legend of Shiloh, the messiah to come. Tamar becomes obsessed with becoming the ancestral mother of this Shiloh, and her plan focuses on Leah's fourth son Judah/Jehudah, the brother who had the idea to save Joseph from the pit and sell him instead into slavery, and who is still haunted by remorse. She is too young to marry Judah but not too old to marry his sons. And so she marries Judah's eldest son Er, who dies while having sex with her, and then Judah's second Onan, who also dies. Judah is reluctant to let her marry the third and last one and sends her away. Tamar obeys but then, disguised as a prostitute, she tempts Judah into a one-night-stand that makes her pregnant (of twins, one being Peretz, David's ancestor). Then she reveals her real identity to Judah, who accepts her. Sha has achieved her goal to become part of the lineage from which the Shiloh will be born.
Meanwhile in Egypt the prediction of the drought comes true: the Nile fails to rise, and Egypt is saved from starvation by Joseph's preparations. People come from all over the region to buy food from his royal warehouses. Some of them travel from very far, because famine is spreading. And one day his own brothers, ten of them, show up, asking to buy food for Jacob's tribe. Joseph does not reveal himself but asks questions about the family, and so he learns that his father is still alive, and then Benjamin is married and doing well but was left at home with the father. Jacon informs Mai of whom they are. Together they decide on a little prank. Joseph accuses them of being spies sent by enemies to provide information about Egypt's wealth, and demands that they bring back Benjamin in order to prove that their stories are true. Simeon, one of the brothers who was particularly mean to Joseph, will remain as hostage. Joseph lets the other nine leave with plenty of food and even secretely returns the money they paid. When the brothers return to Jacob's place (a very long journey), Jacob is initially reluctant to send Benjamin away, having already lost Joseph and Simeon on distant journeys, but eventually Benjamin himself asks to go. When the ten brothers return to Egypt, Joseph again does not reveal his identity to them but enjoys the view of his full brother Benjamin. Joseph even asks Benjamin to convince Jacob to move the entire tribe to Egypt. The brothers are amazed by the kindness and generosity of the Egyptian lord, who even throws a party in their honor and let them take even more food back to Jacob. They are amazed that he knows so much about them: he knows their names and can even rank them in order of age. When Benjamin asks him the secret of his wisdom, Joseph replies that his divining power comes from drinking for a silver cup. The brothers leave for their return trip home but they are soon chased and stopped by Mai's troops: the silver cup has been stolen. The brothers are outraged that Mai would suspect them of theft but a search reveals that Benjamin is the thief. Thus Benjamin has to become a slave of Joseph. Judah, who has become the spokesman for the brothers, refuses to leave the youngest brother and asks that all the brothers be allow to intercede with Joseph. Judah explains that he cannot possibly go back to Jacob and tell him that another son has been lost after his son Joseph was sold as a slave by them. He has confessed to Joseph. Joseph, moved by the confession, finally reveals himself to be that long-lost brother. Joseph releases them and sends his regards to his father Jacob. The pharaoh himself, who is busy building the divine city of Akhetaton, is pleased to hear the news.
The brothers travel back to Canaan and the little daughter of one of them, Serah, is charged with delivering the news to Jacob. Somehow she has to sing the news in cryptic lines instead of just telling him (which sounds like a useless torture inflicted on an old man). Finally Jacob understands and, delighted (without inquiring how his son Joseph ended up living in Egypt and therefore never learning of how his other sons had sold him in slavery) make preparations to travel to Egypt. The whole extended family follows him about 70 people, and carry him in a litter. They follow the caravan route to the Niles delta in 17 days. When they arrive, Joseph is alerted and travels to meet his father. Joseph arrives escorted by his retinue that even includes fan bearers. Joseph argues that Abraham's god El sent him to Egypt so that he could eventually save Israel/Jacob from the famine. Joseph announces that they can settle there. Even the pharaoh himself visits the old Jacob, the patriarch of the monotheistic tribe. Feeling that his days are numbered, Jacob asks his son Joseph to be buried in Canaan. On his deathbed Jacob tells Judah of the Shiloh that has to come (the messiah, perhaps Mann's Jesus). When Jacob finally dies, Joseph has him mummified by the royal surgeons before a royal funeral to which the whole royal court is invited.
"Doktor Faustus" (1947) ++
"Der Erwaehlte" (1951)
"Felix Krull" (1954) +