Faustus in The Palisades

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July 1, 2012 · Posted in Commentary 

Thomas Mann & Wife Katia argued with my mother, Yaltah Menuhin, in 1942. Special Libraries and Archival Collections, USC

 By LIONEL ROLFE

I BECAME obsessed with the twentieth century’s most famous musical and literary controversy simply because one afternoon back in the fifties I was hit over the head with a viola case by the son of Germany’s greatest living writer. I was sitting with my mother in the back seat of the family Hillman Minx, going south on Overland Avenue. We had just cleared the hill on the way down to Venice Boulevard. My father and Michael Mann, son of the Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann, were in the front seat. We were on our way to USC, where Michael and my mother were going to give one of the concerts broadcast every Sunday on the old classical music station, KFAC.

My mother and Michael had just finished a piano-viola tour throughout Europe. Now another bigger tour was lined up; but all that was about to end. For just as we came off the hill on Overland, Michael turned around, threw the viola case at me, and lunged at my mother with a knife he had been concealing. He cut her just above the eye. Then he turned and ran out of the car. Later, after a visit to the hospital where my mother needed to be stitched up, Katia Mann—Michael’s mother and wife of the writer—called up the Rolfe home in West Los Angeles.

You have to understand the Mann presence in the Rolfe home was perennial. For one thing, Michael spent a lot of time around our house on Pelham Avenue. I remember being awed at the quantities of cheap red wine he consumed many nights, and the earnestness with which he imbibed it; the more he drank, the more he sulked and scowled. I also know that my mother had been reaching the end of her rope with the Mann family, and this latest incident convinced her this was enough.

Katia and Thomas were anxious to patch things up. Later, in fact, they were afraid my mother was going to sue them for the collapse of the upcoming world tour. My mother said she had no intention of suing; she just didn’t want anything more to do with the Manns.

Katia began the conversation a little huffily, saying that my mother must have “done something to upset Michael,” and added something to the effect that one should never upset a Mann. Katia said that what had happened to my mother was not such a big deal; Michael used to do that all the time to her when he was a child. My mother acidly replied that “a Mann had tried to kill a Menuhin,” and she didn’t want to have anything more to do with them. When Michael called her many years later to attempt a reconciliation, she told him she had no wish to renew the friendship.

“That had been the way Katia gave in to the moods and demands of her husband, just as she did with the children,” my mother said to me from London where she lived and concertized. “There was this demonic force in Thomas Mann. He seemed to be very gentle and mild on the outside—he was always very courteous with me—but anybody who wrote the things that he wrote was not a gentle, melancholy mess after all.”

In my mother’s opinion, Mann was overrated even though critics have called him the finest writer of the twentieth century and Doctor Faustus his greatest work. My mom’s son agrees with the latter—Doctor Faustus is an incredible work— a monumental work. My mother hated the pessimism of Mann’s fiction. She thinks that by offering no hope, he invalidates himself.  “He was like Tolstoy, an idealist for the world; victimizing his family into sharing the life he felt was right. He considered himself the champion of freedom, but at home there was a lot of tyranny.”

Thomas Mann was the most famous of the many famous refugees from Hitler’s Germany who sought out the untroubled blue skies over Los Angeles, so far away from the holocaust in Europe. Primarily because of the chamber music often played there, our front room on Pelham Avenue was one of the salons where musical exiles frequently gathered. It was a small, incestuous world, all these famous names in European literature and music in Los Angeles. Many of the greatest personalities, as well as egos, had come to L.A. to escape Hitler. Some were Jews, of course, but many, like Mann and Stravinsky, were not. Some were quite left-wing; others were more conservative. Yet they clung together, mostly in desperation, for they did not sense then that Los Angeles had any great appreciation for their presence.

Among the results of all this were some rancorous arguments as well as warm social scenes. Undoubtedly, the most famous of all the ideological and personal battles to hit the community occurred between Mann and Arnold Schoenberg over the publication of Mann’s Doctor Faustus. It was a battle with literary, political and musical implications that have not been resolved to this day.

The ideological arguments were never important to my mother. She saw everything through each individual person. To her, the whole Mann family reminded her of one of the elder Mann’s novels. “No boundaries are set. There was no understanding of any normal, natural relationship,” she said. She did not feel comfortable, for example, with Mann’s fascination with the “homosexual thing” that was typical of the period in Germany before Hitler. “It was supposed to be a higher form of love,” she said, “than that of the normal bourgeois who married a woman and had children. It was a protest against convention.”

Talking of the debate over Doctor Faustus between Mann and Schoenberg, my mom feels that the exiles were “scarred in a way, damaged by their experience. They all demanded total loyalty from their worshipers. If you talked to them about anything they couldn’t explain or that might throw a shadow on any of their ideas, they immediately reacted with the old Nazi idea of we’re superior and ‘you don’t understand us.’ I mean ‘Nazi’ in the sense that one is supposed to accept the word of the one who knows best without any kind of protest. They never understood there was space for all of them. It was idol worship really” she says, adding that she believed the refugees were marked by a “mixture of melancholy, resentment and even a strain of the victimizers.”

My mother also admits she never actually read Faustus, even though she sometimes saw its creator on a nearly daily basis, because Mann’s work addresses itself to the very things she does. She read others of his works, but not Doctor Faustus, which, ironically, he was actually working on when she first came in contact with the Manns. She knew, for instance, that Michael Mann, who was a member of the San Francisco Symphony when she met him, was helping his father with the musical passages in Doctor Faustus, and that amounted to a major contribution, for classical music is what the book is about.

Furthermore, one of the most memorable characters in Doctor Faustus is Nepomuk, or Echo, an angelic child who appears in the last section of the book. When I was reading Doctor Faustus and came across Echo, I had the odd feeling I knew the lad. He seemed incredibly familiar, and when I told my mom about that, she said, “You remember Michael’s son, who gave me the mumps that time, don’t you?” my mother asked. “He was such a nice, quiet boy; today he is a theologian in Germany. I saw him not long ago in Zurich.” Anyway it turned out that is who the angelic child in Doctor Faustus was!

I must admit that, on listening to her recount all these things, I could see why I felt at least vicariously involved in the great contoversy between Schoenberg and Mann over Doctor Faustus, which occurred quite literally on our shores in the Pacific Palisades where Mann lived at at 1550 San Remo Drive. At this point, it would probably be appropriate to mention that Doctor Faustus is presented as the “biography of the composer Adrian Leverkuehn, as told by a friend,” the latter being, not so incidentally, a parody Mann wrote on himself. Doctor Faustus is the story of a nation’s descent into the maelstrom of total barbarity—what happened in Germany between her two defeats in World War I and World War II.

Mann tells the story of his beloved nation’s decline into bestiality through the parallel story of Leverkuehn, an avant-garde composer who, by the time Doctor Faustus was supposedly written, had achieved some degree of sanctification. Leverkuehn was conceived by Mann as the ultimate anti-Beethoven figure. Beethoven, of course, had been Germany’s greatest artist, the representative of hope, optimism, science and democracy coming out of the Napoleonic era. Leverkuehn was quite the opposite. He represented only an opening to the barbarous past.

One of the last conversations Leverkuehn has with Zeitblom, the narrator, who is supposed to be his friend, reveals the fullness of his misanthropy. He bursts out, “I find that it is not to be.”

“What, Adrian, is not to be?” Zeitblom responds.

“The good and noble, what we call human—good and noble though it is. That which human beings have fought for and stormed castles for, that which ecstatic souls have exultantly proclaimed—that is not to be. It will be revoked. I shall revoke it,” replies Leverkuehn, pointing out that these were the very things Beethoven had in mind in his great “Ode to Joy” in the Ninth Symphony.

In its various biographical details, the figure of Leverkuehn was not Mann’s neighbor Arnold Schoenberg, who lived not far away from the Palisades in Brentwood at 116 N. Rockingham. Leverkuehn is more like the famed German philosopher Nietzsche, who died after a prolonged period of insanity brought on by syphilis, a disease Beethoven is believed to have suffered from as well. But the musical system that Leverkuehn invents as part of his deal with the devil, the system of musical composition that enables Leverkuehn to make the “artistic breakthrough” composers from the turn of the century were looking for, is almost wholly borrowed from Schoenberg. And this is where things got tricky between the two exiles sequestered on Los Angeles’s golden shores.

There could be little doubt that Leverkuehn was the inventor of the same method of “composing with twelve tones” as that of Schoenberg. After all, until Schoenberg, composers hadn’t even considered inventing a system of composition in order to make music. Musicality was regarded as something innate; technique was primarily a tool for getting the music down on paper. Schoenberg, however, “constructed” music using a mathematical system of his own devising. From the beginning the results this system produced were highly controversial. So when Mann had Leverkuehn invent such a musical system, there could be little doubt about what system he was talking about.

“If I were Schoenberg with his esoteric musical theory and I sat down to read Faustus, I would be a little disturbed, too,” declared Steve Willett, a former professor of literature at Northwestern University and a graduate of Los Angeles’s own Occidental College. Willet is particularly interested in Mann and German literature, and he has had long conversations on the subject with Erich Heller, regarded as a Mann authority.

Willett went on to say, “While Schoenberg could say that he and Leverkuehn were not identical, for Mann had indeed written burlesques of specific composers in previous books, I would see some rather serious implications in Doctor Faustus. Were I Schoenberg with my twelve-tone system, I wouldn’t like at all the esthetics Mann had hooked me into.”

Even though most of Schoenberg’s increasingly strident objections to Doctor Faustus center on what he called the theft of his intellectual property, Willett points out that more to the point is what Mann was saying the Leverkuehn-Schoenberg system represented. In fact, Michael Mann himself who later quit music and became a professor of German at UC Berkeley said he thought Schoenberg was really upset because of the political and historical implications of what the Leverkuehn character was shown doing.

Leverkuehn, after all, is hardly an attractive figure. He is a man possessed by purgatory, a sickly man with demonic drives, whose musical system expressed and helped lay the groundwork for the triumph of the well-ordered barbarism that was Nazism. Leverkuehn’s system creates a music that eschews melody and harmony in favor of a “collective polyphony” reminiscent of earlier times: Mann certainly must have been aware that the same sort of criticism had been leveled at Schoenberg’s system as well.

Mann tartly denied that Leverkuehn was Schoenberg, yet he inscribed a copy of Doctor Faustus to Schoenberg calling him “the real one.” Furthermore, although the fictional composer’s life in a few ways resembles Schoenberg’s, Leverkuehn has to be one of the strangest characters in twentieth-century letters; in almost no place in the book is he given much of a physical presence. One hardly knows what he looks like; and that is as Mann intended. Leverkuehn was the embodiment of an idea, the great anti-Beethoven figure.

It is surely no coincidence that in 1908 Schoenberg set to music some poems by Stefan George as songs for voice and piano. Schoenberg regarded this work as his “breakthrough”—melody and harmony almost completely dissolved in atonality—and he believed that he had finally succeeded in his (and Leverkuehn’s) claim of emancipating dissonance with his work. In Doctor Faustus, at about the same time in history, Leverkuehn completed his Brentano songs, and called it his “breakthrough” work.

Also, the whole background of Stefan George suggests the brutality of the intellectual satire Mann may have been committing on his neighbors and acquaintances. Stefan George, with whom Schoenberg was so enchanted, died in 1933. He is today regarded as a spiritual father of Nazism. Blood and uniforms, little boys dressed up in Greek robes, diabolical rites; these were among the ideas that excited this strange man. Some of his poems were overwritten paeans to the beauty of various young men, for George was a rather flamboyant, decadent, aristocratic type of homosexual, whose poems didn’t make much sense except to the Illuminati.

Like Schoenberg and Leverkuehn, George was a dedicated member of the so-called avant-garde, which was always searching for a “higher order.” George was proud and over-sensitive and no doubt felt very misunderstood. His inner vision was not meant for all mankind, as Beethoven and the poet Schiller had intended the “Ode to Joy” to be. George’s work was done for an elect few, as was Schoenberg’s. Schoenberg felt, in fact, that only his musical peers had a right to pass judgment on his works and, interestingly enough, Schoenberg’s music has continued to draw its supporters from academic circles rather than mainstream music lovers.

Schoenberg felt his music would find wide acceptance a few decades down the line. What has happened is that he has achieved a kind of sainthood in contemporary music schools. There is a Schoenberg Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles, since he taught there. And there is, or was, until Schoenberg’s heirs in a moment of pique, moved it elsewhere, a Schoenberg Institute at USC. Still most people find his compositions more cacophony than music and can’t understand what the academics find in it. Steve Willet has an answer.

He says that the avant-garde has similarly suppressed the traditional narrative structure in literature, just as melody has been dismissed as “too sweet” in academia, where atonality has become the status quo. “The works which seem to be major landmarks in twentieth century culture,” Willet says, “are marked by what the devil gave Leverkuehn; an enthusiasm for evil, madness and mental disorder.”

Although this commentary may seem strong, similar language has been used by others who are less than awed by Schoenberg. The critic and writer, Louis Untermeyer, was reported to have left a performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” harumphing, “Moonlight in the sickroom.”

Schoenberg was rather an odd man as well as an odd musical charlatan. He moved in the circles that provided the intellectual and artistic soil for the Third Reich that later emerged from post-World War I Germany and Austria, but they didn’t love him. He was after all a Jew. He converted to Christianity in his youth, but later rediscovered his Jewishness when Hitler gave him no choice, and fled Europe, ending up in Los Angeles with mainstream composers such as Stravinsky and Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco, the latter dismissing Schoenberg’s work as “composition by slide rule.”

Stravinsky went through a brief and thankfully short flirtation with Schoenbergian techniques. But the difference was that with his genius he hardly needed them at all.

The late Ernest Gold, who came from Schoenberg’s native Vienna and lived in the Palisades as well, told me he regarded Schoenberg as a second-rate talent who couldn’t write a good melody, and so decided music should have no melody. Gold wrote both serious music and successful film music, including the Oscar-winning score for “Exodus.”

“Besides,” says Gold, “look at his odd relationship with that Nazi, Hauer.” Hauer was an intellectual type, a contemporary of Schoenberg’s, who also claimed to have invented the twelve-tone method. He and Schoenberg tried on more than one occasion to get together for the common cause of atonality. But they ultimately fell out, primarily because even in the great cause of their esoteric innovation, Hauer could not bring himself to work side by side with a Jew.

Schoenberg picked up one thing from the fascists. He was a complete authoritarian. Once when his wife was enjoying a knitting circle with some friends in the kitchen, Schoenberg told the women to stop because they were distracting him, when it would have made more sense for the composer to have moved to another room. But then Mann, apostle of democracy, needed constant attention to his every whim from his wife Katia, too. “She would have killed the children so he could do his work undisturbed,” my mother Yaltah told me, adding that she was sick of the stridency of the old arguments that ran through the refugee community, and sicker yet of all the competing egos.

To add to the mix, Katia Mann blamed the flap between her husband and Schoenberg on Alma Mahler-Werfel, who had once been married to the composer Gustav Mahler. Katia said that Alma was later remarried to Walter Gropius the architect and then to Franz Werfel (author of The Song of Bernadette), and that she was mean, malicious, and drank too many sweet liqueurs. The Manns and the Werfels were much closer than the Manns and the Schoenbergs. Katia insisted that it was the former Mrs. Mahler who brought to Schoenberg’s attention the whole Leverkuehn parallel. Katia wrote in her Unwritten Memories that “she gave her former husband Gustav Mahler a very difficult time. She alienated him from all his friends and made him break off with his female admirers. Mahler died young. I think she was rather too much for his nervous system.”

In those same memoirs, Katia also makes it clear that she wasn’t much fonder of the Schoenbergs. But she was particularly appalled with the Schoenberg offspring, one of whom became a Beverly Hills judge famous for two things. He once gave O.J. Simpson a break in a decision on wife beating, and after I wrote about his father in the Los Angeles Times, he got me fired there, and tried to get me dismissed from papers I worked on after that whenever I wrote about his sainted father.

In preparation for a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times about the relationship between music and exiles from the Holocaust on our shores, I had interviewed Trude Zeisl. She was the widow of Eric Zeisl who was a talented composer whose music my mother used to play. We talked about former days, and she remembered with relish her own husband’s views on Schoenberg, who was not at all a fan of his. But as fate would have it, one of her daughters married one of the Schoenbergs, and I interviewed her where she was living in a home that had been the residence of the composer. Unlike Schoenberg, Zeisl did not make a lot of money in his life, so she was quite dependant on her in-laws.

When the article came out, Ronald Schoenberg, the judge, was furious. He wrote Martin Bernheimer, the Times’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning music critic—who was editing the series I was writing—demanding I be fired. A copy of his letter also went to the paper’s arts czar, Charles Champlin. In addition Trude had written or at least signed a letter to the editor denying she had said the things I quoted her as saying.

Bernheimer laughed, knowing full well she had said them. He, in fact, had wanted to move a quote from another composer up to the lead of the piece. The quote said something to the effect that Schoenberg’s music would have at least made sense if he were a Nazi—referring to its authoritarian qaulities.

Bernheimer told me he fought for the paper to run the rest of the pieces I had written, but instead only the first piece about the old controversy over Schoenberg ran. The paper then ran Trude’s denial she had said some of the things she had said to me and the series was cancelled. They wouldn’t even let me reply.

Meanwhile I ran into Charles Champlin in the hallway, who grabbed me by my shirt and said what I had done was wrong. I offered to let him hear the tape I had made of Trude’s remarks. He didn’t want to hear it. He just wanted to punish me for having the temerity to write about the old Schoenberg controversy.

I told him I hadn’t made the controversy up—many musicians at the time felt Schoenberg was a fraud. They felt that the Times put big money behind Schoenberg because Buffy Chandler, the publisher’s mother who built the Music Center, was trying to acquire culture in a hurry. She must have sat through a concert of Schoenberg’s, squirmed a lot in her chair, and thought that Schoenberg must be high cultural icon because she was so uncomfortable listening to his “emperor’s new clothes” kind of music. Champlin, obviously, was concerned about not upsetting the powers that be.

This book started from that incident. Bernheimer suggested I go write about the controversy for the Herald-Examiner, and that’s where I first took up Thomas Mann and Doctor Faustus and Schoenberg. Although I didn’t say so in that piece, I was obviously writing a retort to Champlin and The Times.

Katia also tells a fascinating story, during her diatribe against the family, about how Schoenberg died. Her point was that Schoenberg was not only an unpleasant man, but superstitious as well. It seems that Schoenberg had long been sure he was going to die on the thirteenth day of the month. On July 13, 1951, Gertrud Schoenberg sat up with her husband, holding his hand, just as she had done on previous occasions when it was the thirteenth midnight of the month. She was worried about his nervousness because he was seventy-six and suffered from a heart condition. Nonetheless, on this July night it appeared he had lived through another Friday the Thirteenth, so Schoenberg went upstairs to bed while Mrs. Schoenberg, as was her custom, stayed downstairs in the kitchen to make him a hot drink. When she took his drink upstairs he was dead—and the clock downstairs in the bedroom was just striking midnight. She deduced that the clock downstairs had killed him by running fast. When he had come upstairs by himself and seen it was actually still the Friday the Thirteenth … and not yet midnight, the shock had killed him on the spot, Gertrud reasoned.

In fairness to Schoenberg—some of whose critics have suggested that his interest in numerology shows that his system was more metaphysics than the science of music he claimed it was—Mann was also fascinated by numerology. How else could he have written Doctor Faustus?

Doctor Faustus is not an easy book to read; it presupposes a certain knowledge of music. The book has particularly intrigued musicians and musicologists alike, for Mann accomplished an amazing thing. The musical system, and indeed the musical works he created only in words, made such sense to people that it was as if they could almost hear it. In a very real sense, Schoenberg could be said to have accomplished not so very much more, because his music is still more talked about than listened to or played.

If Mann were parodying Schoenberg’s intellectual system, he was both attracted and repelled by it. Doctor Faustus has an appearance of being “constructed.” Mann rarely made up people and events; he almost always took them from real life. More than his powers of imaginative storytelling, Mann’s greatness was in his perceptions and his ability to synthesize. Especially in Doctor Faustus, he saw where the patterns of culture and history came together. His writing sometimes seemed musical, as if his works had melodies and harmonies, yet he himself was only an amateur pianist. His son was the only real musician in the family.

The controversy between the two exiles did not remain on the lovely, smogless shores of Los Angeles. As the Saturday Review noted in 1949, “Doctor Faustus has occasioned one of the most notable literary controversies of our time.”

Schoenberg complained in a letter to the Saturday Review that Mann had stolen his “intellectual property” in order to lend “the hero of his book qualities a hero needs to arouse people’s interest.” He went on to state that Mann had done this “without my permission and even without my knowledge.” Schoenberg then put the blame on a former associate, the musicologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, who had studied the system with Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg. Schoenberg was right: Mann had consulted Adorno at length in the writing of Doctor Faustus.

Schoenberg and Adorno had had some sort of falling out; no one was sure just what caused it. It well might have been political. Adorno was politically on the left, whereas Schoenberg’s tendencies were to the political right. It was also no secret in L.A.’s exile community during the writing of Doctor Faustus that Mann was working on a novel that borrowed heavily from Schoenberg’s musical system. In fact, once when Mann and Schoenberg were together at a barbecue at the Werfels, Mann pumped the composer for musical and biographical information.

Schoenberg’s letter to the Saturday Review further complained that Mann’s inscription of Doctor Faustus had read, in German, “To A. Schoenberg, the real one.” Schoenberg said he took this to mean that Leverkuehn “was an impersonation of myself.” He pointed out that he was not a lunatic, “and I have never acquired the disease from which this insanity stems. I consider this an insult.” Schoenberg further alleged that when Mann was confronted with evidence indicating that Schoenberg had figured out his neighbor had borrowed him wholesale, Mann merely replied, “Oh, does one notice that? Then perhaps Mr. Schoenberg will be angry?”

Mann’s printed reply to Schoenberg in the Saturday Review was to say he was “both astonished and grieved.” He pointed out that the two had already exchanged letters on the subject, and he thought the composer had been mollified with the note penned at the end of the English editor of Doctor Faustus, which more or less admitted that Schoenberg and not the fictional Leverkuehn was the inventor of the twelve-tone system.

Mann suggested that Schoenberg had never read the book, that he knew it only through “the gossip of meddling scandal-mongers.” He argued that he was certainly not trying to steal Schoenberg’s system, which everybody knew Schoenberg had invented. Mann then tried to explain what he meant by his inscription to “the real one.” He was trying to say to Schoenberg, “Not Leverkuehn is the hero of this musical era; you are its hero.” He protested that his respect for Schoenberg was profound, that he thought of Schoenberg as a “bold and uncompromising artist.” He stated flatly: “The idea that Adrian Leverkuehn is Schoenberg, that the figure is a portrait of him, is so utterly absurd that I scarcely know what to say about it.”

Except, of course, it was painfully obvious that it was.

Mann pointed out that, in many details, Leverkuehn’s life was closest to Nietzsche’s, and to some extent his own. He suggested that Schoenberg should have accepted his book with “a satisfied smile” that “testifies to his tremendous influence on the musical culture of the era” rather than regarding Doctor Faustus as a “rape and an insult.” Said Mann, with perhaps only a hint of courtly sarcasm: Schoenberg should “rise above the bitterness and suspicion so that he may find peace in the assurance of his greatness and glory.”

Perhaps Mann’s cordiality was fully serious. It seemed that the more he protested that he did not want to become Schoenberg’s enemy, the more the composer was galled, and rallied his supporters to the fight. After all … they had been friends. Mann had complimented Schoenberg once on what good coffee he made, a very high compliment! And Schoenberg had dedicated a work to Mann. Mann had even given Schoenberg a copy of his Magic Mountain with the inscription, “From someone who also tries to build music – Thomas Mann.”

Bombs are falling on a defeated Nazi Germany as Doctor Faustus ends, and it is symbolic that Leverkuehn is in an advanced state of syphilitic madness. Schoenberg and Stefan George had reached their heyday long before Nazi Germany arose. Yet Mann traces the rise of fascism from their millieu.

Mann’s message was not a simplistic one. He is not saying that everything avant-garde was bad. To Schoenberg and others, at the turn of the century in Germany and Austria, it appeared that music had reached a dead end—not just music but all of the arts. Wagner had pushed melodies and harmonies to such a point that he had left nothing for composers who followed him. Thus most of the music after Wagner can seem like parody. Sometimes, as in the compositions of Paul Hindemith, the form became ever more elegant and complex. Mahler and Richard Strauss struck many people as only less satisfying Wagner. Compared with the works of Beethoven—the first romantic—who emphasized so many rich melodies, music seemed to have little content anymore. The new composers were using the old forms and saying nothing new. Much of their music seemed hollow.

What to do? That was the question that concerned artists at the turn of the century and into the Weimar Republic. The avant-garde believed that the solution was to change the form of music, not to find new content. Part of the deal the devil makes with Leverkuehn is this promise: “You will lead the way, you will strike up the march of the future, the lads will swear by your name, who, thanks to your madness, will no longer need be mad.”

The Leverkuehn system took music-making away from individual expression and returned it to the tribal polyphony of earlier, more barbaric times. Composers would no longer be able to make music that had their own distinctive melodies and harmonies if Leverkuehn’s system triumphed. The clear suggestion was that composing music by his system was something totalitarian. Professor Steve Willet insisted that the whole point of Leverkuehn is that he represents pure expression of feeling, unconscious tribal feeling, untroubled by logic or reason, the peculiarly human qualities that ultimately are our only improvement over the animals on this globe. As Willett said this, however, he pointed out that others might have a different interpretation. “You understand,” he said, “you are getting yourself into this vortex, this quicksand of Faustus criticism, which is endless.”

The matter was not just of academic interest to me. After all I had been initiated into this whole matter of Doctor Faustus, an incredibly ambitious work that ties culture and history together, with a knock on the head. The critics have been arguing ever since the book was published about just how well Mann connected the two. Certainly the most surprising thing about this most ambitious and profound of twentieth century works is that it was rooted in a saga that unfolded on Los Angeles’s golden shores as well as in the musty halls of European culture.

You can see that the work Mann created here was indeed a major saga in literary and musical history; so was the saga of his battle with his neighbor over it, for it revealed at least part of what Mann was talking about.

The critics have long argued about the effects of Los Angeles on Mann. Usually, musicians fare better in exile than writers. Writers need to read and hear their native language; they need their audiences and their familiar surroundings to write about. Music, as they often say, is universal. Mann, however, was famous enough that he could try to transcend the lack of a German-speaking infrastructure in Los Angeles.

Some have said that Doctor Faustus turned out all the better for Mann’s being in exile in Los Angeles. He was alone and cut off. He worried about his homeland and hated it at the same time. He was not at all comfortable among the natives of Los Angeles—any more than any of the exiles were. Yet against adversity and ill health (Mann was sixty-six when he came to Los Angeles in 1941), Willet asserts, Mann’s German developed a purer, deeper and perhaps more classical turn, which is part of the reason Doctor Faustus is regarded as his masterpiece.

Mann was not himself of the avant-garde, either in his own art or in his personal tastes. Doctor Faustus may have seemed intricate at times, but it had a traditional narrative form. Mann far preferred the late romantics, such as Wagner, to the likes of Schoenberg.

Here is how the seclusion in L.A. might have helped: First of all, the Pacific reminded everyone of the Mediterranean coast. A source of obscenely easy money in the Hollywood dream factories close by.

Mann had to be in L.A. and Schoenberg had to be his neighbor under the pristine blue skies, or Doctor Faustus would have never been written. And I’m absolutely sure without Michael hitting me over the head with his viola case, I would never have gotten around to reading Thomas Mann at all. I might have missed the book that has been hailed as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. It was written in Los Angeles.

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This is an excerpt from Lionel Rolfe’s “Literary L.A.,” available as an ebook through most good online purveyors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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