Carlos Fuentes, Turgenev and Thomas Mann on Faust

Mephistopheles, a Bronze sculpture by Jacques- Louis Gautier , 1853

Yesterday I finished reading ‘Inez’ by Carlos Fuentes. The Mexican novelist has this time chosen the musical work ‘The Damnation of Faust’ by Berlioz to explore the man- woman relationship. I did not find the novel as such very engrossing, except toward the end when it climaxes. Overall, the novel is obscure at most of the places, the threads being too many and they get tied very quickly and ineffectively towards the end. But the concept itself is novel in its usage not so much of the legend of Faust but that of Berlioz’s symphony based on it to explore an eternal theme.

I had read Goethe’s Faust many years ago, perhaps fifteen if not a little more. It had shaken me at that time, though I got around to re- read it only last year, my interest re-kindled by the reading of Thomas Mann’s ‘Dr Faustus’ and also of Turgenev’s lesser known work ‘Faust’. I had previously prided myself that I knew of most of Turgenev’s works, but this novella was a delightful exception.

Goethe, along with Flaubert, was an abiding influence on Turgenev. The novella is not so much about Faust as much about the impact of the book on a young married woman who has been brought up by her mother away from the ‘pernicious’ influence of poetry and music for which the mother had apparently paid a dear price in her younger days, and hence decided to keep her daughter away from both and from a similar fate- but destiny had something else in store and the narrator of the story ends up reading Goethe’s ‘Faust’ to the young girl and lends her his copy- with disastrous consequences. Turgenev captures her transformation very poetically and though certainly not in the class of ‘Fathers and Sons’ or ‘Rudin’, it made for some memorable reading.

Thomas Mann was far more inspiring. I would rate ‘Dr. Faustus’ as the best reading on this theme barring Goethe’s- it is the familiar Thomas Mann style- patient, laboured, slowly progressing narrative, plodding the reader on- ending in a crescendo with the reality of the musician Hans Castorp’s life coming out in the open and shocking the reader with the grotesque barbarity of it all. There would perhaps be few comparable literary examples indicting German fascism.

Reading Dr. Faustus was also a discovery in reverse. It lead me to Schopenhauer and to Wagner – precisely the inspirations for Thomas Mann’s work. I would have dismissed Wagner’s music as rather dark and gloomy, but after having read the book, I can perhaps relate to it. And wont hesitate to state that I now rather enjoy Wagner- in times when I am in a dark or a blue mood myself, on one of those evenings, when the skies are dark and gloomy too and the night seems to be brimming with the screeching ghosts of existential questions.

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