Monday, July 13, 2020

Thomas Mann's The Stories of Jacob - we know the stories in which it all comes to pass

Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43) is on the one hand a 1,500 page monster that decompresses roughly the second half of Genesis, and on the other hand it is four novels, the first two of which are not even especially long, published over a decade.  Four books, not one; I just finished the first one, The Stories of Jacob (1933).

Why did Mann want to tell these stories in modern novelistic form?  What does he want with sentence like this:

He [Joseph] ventured to step down to the old man [Jacob] and carefully placed an arm around his shoulders, convinced he had enchanted and placated him with his chatter; and Jacob, who had been standing there pondering his God and playing with the little stone cignet cylinder dangling at his chest, sighed and, yielding to the pressure, set one foot on the circular step and then sat down on the rim of the well, resting his staff against his arm, ordering his robes, and turning his face now to the moon, with its clear light brightening his gentle aging majesty, its gleam mirrored in his wisely worried chestnut-brown eyes.  (“At the Well,” p. 77, tr. John Woods)

The bit about the moon is thematic, part of the novel’s ideas.  But the rest – as if what was missing from Genesis was minutiae about where Jacob put his feet.  The final clause is especially klutzy.

Form aside, Mann is deeply interested in the stories themselves, their origin and repetition, their power.  Joseph and Jacob are discussing a story, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.  Jacob has retold the story, and Joseph is responding:

“But that is the advantage of these later days, that we know the great rounds in which the world rolls ever on, and the stories in which it all comes to pass and that the fathers established.  You could have trusted the voice and the ram.”  (“At the Well,” 81)

Someone – Mann, Joseph – has been reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which uses the Abraham and Isaac story as its exemplar.  Mann explores the way the stories are repeated as stories, and are then repeated by the characters themselves, with Jacob sometimes acting to repeat a story, say of something his grandfather Abraham did, or to avoid repeating a story, to prevent a repetition of the Cain and Abel story, especially if he would play the role of Abel.  Meanwhile Jacob generates new stories, some of them superb.  I was not surprised that Mann does interesting things whenever he brushes against the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, among the most sublime stories in the Hebrew Bible.  In the novel, it is a dream, perhaps, but what a dream.

The first forty pages of the book are a separate essay, “Descent into Hell,” a Key to All Mythologies that explains while dodging explanation.  Mann explicitly describes Joseph and His Brothers as what we now call a fantasy novel; he does this by denying that it is a fantasy novel:

The people there [at the bottom of the well, in the past] do not have horned armor or an eye in the middle of their foreheads, do not do battle with flying lizards, but are human beings just like us – allowing for a few easily pardoned dreamy imprecisions in their thoughts.  (40)

Mann is fascinated by the monotheists making their way in a polytheistic world, where their one God is at the same time one of many gods (the moon theme I mentioned above is used here – one God, or moon god, and what’s the difference, really).  He wants to understand the psychology of the monotheists.  Psychology, that is a novelistic project.

Side note, on a recurring Wuthering Expectations topic: Some fine cat mummies, “to which, weeping loudly, he would offer sacrifices of mice and milk,” on p. 122.  Once Mann gets Joseph to Egypt, there should be more, right?


  1. I'll be curious what you make of this as you go on.

    I read it about ten years ago and I find I don't remember it all that well. Not a good sign. Were there mummified cats?! Mann thought it his masterpiece; one of those things he was wrong about, I think.

  2. Yes, mummified cats! Mann introduces an Egyptian character in the Dinah chapter, weeping and worshiping his cat mummies, I fear just to make sure the "Egyptian motif" is introduced. It is so artificial. Klutzy, even.

    Mann's Joseph has been not just overshadowed but almost crushed by the novels on either side of it. So of course he liked it best, of course.