Monday, November 23, 2020

Thomas Mann's Young Joseph - "How well this clod of earth understands me!"

Young Joseph (1934) is the second novel of four in Thomas Mann’s biblical YA fantasy series Joseph and His Brothers.  It is the cute little one, just 270 pages in the German paperback, while the next book, Joseph in Egypt (1936) is more like 600 pages.  The fourth and final volume is also a monster.  It is going to require a little willpower to start those..

Compared to the source, Young Joseph is the least efficient volume, though, covering only Genesis 37.  Joseph dreams that the sheaves bow down to him; Jacob gives him the Coat of Many Colors; Joseph’s brothers toss him in a well, fake his death, and sell him into Egyptian slavery.

I am of the age where I learned the story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors at the exact same time that Dolly Parton’s 1971 song of the same name was frequently played on the radio – on country radio – so I have great difficulty not imagining Joseph’s coat as made of patchwork scraps.  But it is, in Mann’s telling, a complex and expensive veil covered with embroidered stories, more like Homer’s Shield of Achilles:

As the old man held it between restless arms, flashes of silver and gold merged at times with the quieter colors – with the purple, the white, olive, pink, and black of symbols and images of stars, doves, trees, gods, angels, human beings, and animals set in the bluish haze of the fabric.  (390, tr. John Woods)

Jacob was a fool to give this treasure to Joseph, and Joseph was a fool, the embodiment of arrogance, to wear it in front of his brothers.  Mann is superb with narcissistic teenage psychology.  Joseph is the world’s most annoying teenager, and many readers will I do not want to say approve of the later action of the brothers – the well, the slavery – but many readers will understand.  Mann had six children, the youngest two of whom were teenagers at the time this novel was written, so he had plenty of firsthand experience.  Mann’s children were all, like Joseph, amazingly accomplished people.  Any or all may well have been insufferable for some part of their teenage years, and thus good models for Joseph.

I am still a little puzzled by what Mann wanted with these books, what he was trying to do.  Sometimes, there is the conversion of myth to realism, the psychology of Joseph, or lines like:

The wind set up a light clatter in the wooden rings by which the ropes were attached to the tent roof.  (383)

The “realistic” novelistic method at work.

But other times, Mann is investigating myth, storytelling:

“Beg pardon,” the old man said, taking his hand from his robe to halt this flow of speech, “beg pardon, my friend and good shepherd, but allow your elder servant a remark concerning your words.  When I listen and attend to what you tell of your race and its stories, it seems to me that wells have played in them a role equally as remarkable and prominent as has the experience of journeying and wandering.” (492)

Yes, no kidding, I had also noticed all of the wells (but of course I did, since I knew Joseph’s story already).  Here, though, Mann explicitly turns the “well” theme into metafiction.

A couple of chapters are in an in-between mode (if I were a person who used the word “liminal,” it would fit here), novelistic scenes with fantastic or mythic elements.  Mann begins a section “We read that Joseph was wandering in the field” (435).  We read where?  In Genesis 37:19, where Joseph asks directions from, in the King James language, “a certain man,” a vague figure who Mann takes for an angel, possibly the one who wrestled Jacob, possibly Satan, the Satan of Job (a later chapter about the grief of Jacob for the presumed death of Joseph is an explicit rewrite of Job).  Nothing, strictly speaking, violates realism, but that “certain man” sure seems to know some things he shouldn’t.  The angel appears again a few chapters later, when a repentant Reuben goes to the well to free Joseph, a clever emendation of Genesis 37:29.

Mann employs more than one mode, is what I am trying to say.  What is he doing?  He is doing many things, and I am still trying to understand many of the many.

God, however, had kissed His fingertips and – much to the secret vexation of the angels – cried out: “Unbelievable, how well this clod of earth understands Me!” (352)

Well, no, not yet.

Young Joseph is just about the least German example of German literature I could have read, but it still counts for German Literature Month – in its tenth year! – so I had better go register.


  1. How fascinating... although I've heard of Joseph and His Brothers I had no idea that it was a Biblical epic of sorts. As a whole it's far beyond my page-length limit but I really enjoyed your honest musings. And I just heard that Dolly Parton song the other day for the first time in years!

  2. The size of the whole thing really is insane. As I understand it, the story was typical for Mann's novels - he thought he was writing a novella, but it just kept growing somehow.

    Mann assumes a pretty deep knowledge of Genesis, not just the Joseph "novella" that ends it. A reader who grew up in a different tradition would likely see quite different things in the novel.

    The Dolly Parton song is so good.

  3. Mann writes in The Story of A Novel, "Switzerland is where the most gloriously un-German things are said in German." He was living in Switzerland when he wrote this. Ergo...

    Of course in the song Dolly's mother tells her that her scrap coat is like the Coat of Many Colors to make her feel better--and it works--so song Dolly must have some idea the biblical coat is nicer.

  4. Thomas Mann wrote a Biblical fantasy YA series?? I think that's my favorite thing I've learned so far today.

    I grew up not with Dolly Parton, but with the songs of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So I've always imagined it just stripy.

  5. In the fourth book, Joseph is no longer a teenager, but is an actual young adult, so that one is, perversely, not a YA novel. I was informed, strongly, years ago that YA specifically meant "teen protagonist," and had nothing to do with marketing or reading level. Young Joseph definitely has a teen protagonist.

    I can seeing Dreamcoat causing trouble, too, for the reader with the strong association. Mann's coat is not even a coat, or robe, but a big shawl-like object.

  6. What Mann wanted to do with these novels is anyone's guess. No single explanation, or combinations of explanations, seems to cover it. Examination of the nature of mythology? Of religious belief? An examination of an insufferable youth maturing into a man of wisdom? Imbuing ancient mythology with modern psychology? Who knows... But as long as it holds the reader's attention (and it certainly did with this reader) perhaps it doesn't matter.

    Among the many things I loved about these novels is its mastery of pacing. I couldn't help thinking of this in symphonic terms: the second novel of the tetralogy develops a fine head of steam; the third is a long, slow, and serene. Perhaps it's too far fetched to speak of these two as a scherzo and an adagio movement of a symphony: fair enough, I won't insist on it. But his sustaining of whatever tempo he chooses does seem to me quite impressive. It certainly doesn't seem like a novella that just happened to grow.

  7. Mann, almost immediately after finishing The Magic Mountain, started what he thought would be a trilogy of little novels about, what to call them, famous mythological heroes. Only the first novel was supposed to be about Joseph, but as often happened with Mann, it grew and grew.

    The symphonic idea is interesting and plausible.

    I don't agree with that "doesn't matter" business. I'm going to keep trying to figure out the conceptual side. I don't think the "modern psychology" idea is quite right, but rather the reverse, recapturing the ancient mentalité.

    I think Mann is trying to push back against his own assault on argument and meaning in The Magic Mountain.

  8. I meant to start these many years ago but never quite got around to doing so. Having already finished (many of) the other big books of his, it's probably time I did...

  9. Thank goodness this series is in multiple books. Taken as a whole, it is a big book among big books.

    It is unusual and innovative, reason enough to take a look.

  10. "Mann had six children, the youngest two of whom were teenagers at the time this novel was written, so he had plenty of firsthand experience."

    Mann portrayed kids of all ages pretty convincingly. "Disorder and Early Sorrow" hits the whole spectrum, I think.

  11. I was hoping he had a seventeen-year-old in the house at the moment he was writing the book. No such luck, Pretty close, though.