A Joseph for modern times, for all time

Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

IN the years when Germany was besieged by inflation, depression and social unrest, Thomas Mann -- whose active role in defending the beleaguered Weimar Republic would earn him a place on the Nazis’ enemies list -- began work on a project that would fill his imagination with images, ideas, sounds and personages from the distant past: his four-novel masterpiece, “Joseph and His Brothers.”

Mann, who’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, was living in exile in Switzerland when the first volume, “The Stories of Jacob,” was published in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany. “Young Joseph” followed in 1934, and in 1936, the year “Joseph in Egypt” came out, the Nazis stripped Mann of his German citizenship. Two years later, he immigrated to America, where he completed the final volume. “My work proceeded beneath the blue of the California sky -- so like that of Egypt -- and to it my narrative surely owes much of its serenity and cheerfulness ... ,” Mann wrote in an introduction titled “Sixteen Years.”

Written in a time of war, when the fate of the world seemed to hang in the balance, “Joseph the Provider” (published in 1943) was -- and still is -- a remarkably calm, gracious and indeed cheerful book, its portrait of Joseph’s provident management of Egypt’s economy influenced in part by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The four-novel sequence “Joseph and His Brothers” first appeared in English in 1948, translated by Helen Lowe-Porter with the author’s blessing. In his introduction, Mann movingly described the work as having been “my refuge, my comfort, my homeland ... the guarantee of my own steadfastness amid a storm of change.” Plunging into the deep well of the past, “Joseph and His Brothers” transports us to a realm both strangely familiar and radically different, peopled with characters whose ideas, whose very way of thinking, differ profoundly from ours.


Yet the problems they face, the choices they make, have a timeless resonance. Love, hate, trickery, sibling rivalry, vengeance, reconciliation -- along with these perennial human concerns are broader themes: the contrast between the relatively simple life of Joseph’s people and the sophisticated civilization of imperial Egypt; the notion of progress; the idea of consciousness as something evolving and of the covenant between the human and the divine as part of this process.

John E. Woods, who has won praise for his translations of “Buddenbrooks,” “Dr. Faustus” and “The Magic Mountain,” has approached the Joseph tetralogy with immense conviction and enthusiasm. So eager is he to win a new generation to this spacious, serenely wondrous work that he suggests readers shouldn’t start at the beginning with “Descent Into Hell,” Mann’s meditative (Goethe-esque) prelude locating the story in its various theological, historical and mythological contexts. Instead, he directs readers to begin with one of Mann’s most arresting and dramatic pieces of storytelling, the tale of Joseph’s sister Dinah.

Woods recommends reading the relevant portions of Genesis in tandem with Mann’s greatly expanded versions of these stories; indeed, doing this enables one to admire the aptness of his characterizations and the shrewdness and profundity of his insights into the stories, from Abraham’s departure from the land of idols to Joseph’s exile and eventual triumph in a land regarded by his forefathers with deep suspicion.

Mann’s Pharaoh is a dreamy, pampered youth given to abstraction, with a passion for converting his people from their primitive beliefs to an enlightened, quasi-monotheistic sun worship. Unlike his forebears, he’s never had to fight, so he espouses a sweet but naive pacifism that verges on downright passivity in the face of danger. Fortunately, Joseph is on hand to press for the “doughty vigor” needed to defend one’s country against human foes and to cope with natural disaster.

Like others who reinterpret previously translated works, Woods is critical of his predecessor’s efforts, linking “Joseph’s” lukewarm reception in the United States to Lowe-Porter’s penchant for rather archaic, biblical-sounding language. This is a bit unfair, for in some instances, her version is crisper. But Woods is generally more accurate, closer to the original German. Still, in those passages where Mann spins out his intricately wrought sentences, there’s not much either translator can do to simplify matters, and it would be false to Mann’s ruminative, ironic, playfully ponderous, quintessentially Germanic prose to do so.

A composition in four parts (like a symphony), Mann’s retelling of the Joseph story is certainly long, but not when compared with other monumental masterworks such as Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” To immerse oneself in four novels on an engrossing, familiar subject is surely not beyond the capacity of an ordinary reader. As Woods notes in his introduction, other factors conspired against “Joseph’s” popularity. In postwar Germany, Christians seemed to find it heterodox, Communists had no time for books with religious elements and any potential Jewish readership had been lost in the death camps or had emigrated. West German intellectuals were not keen on “biblical novels.” Instead, they were far more interested in “Doctor Faustus,” which came out in 1947, pretty much overshadowing “Joseph.”

Mann, however, regarded it as his magnum opus, calling it his “pyramid,” an immense achievement that would long endure. “Is it too much to expect,” he mused, “that posterity (assuming we can expect posterity to emerge yet in something like decent intellectual shape) may on occasion pause to wonder how during those years, from 1926 to 1942, when heart and brain were besieged daily by the wildest demands, such a narrative as this ... could be nurtured and completed under those turbulent circumstances?”

Posterity, that glimmering land beyond the horizon where, it is generally hoped, genius will at last be understand and appreciated: What if it turned out to be no more than a mirage? Although there is little doubt as to Mann’s genius, one wonders how widely -- or deeply -- he is read these days. Those who do are most likely to know him through his hauntingly elegiac “Death in Venice,” his brilliantly stimulating “The Magic Mountain” or his portrait of an artist -- and a culture -- on a path into the abyss in “Doctor Faustus.”


Yet the very qualities that once put readers off may in the end ensure that, like the pyramids, Mann’s grand construct will endure. For one thing, we are witnessing a renewed interest in the Bible and, indeed, in all varieties of religion. In “Whose Bible Is It?,” renowned biblical scholar Jaroslav Pelikan praises Mann’s book as “the outstanding literary example in the twentieth century of how the ever ancient beauty of the Bible can become ever new....” “A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature” pronounces it “the definitive modern rendering of the Joseph story [and] perhaps the greatest single commentary on the life of the biblical Joseph ever written.”

For those not enticed by the biblical connection, Mann’s encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history, mythology, customs and societies allows him to create a spellbinding portrait of a vanished world: brilliant, colorful and dramatic, yet at the same time erudite, thoughtful and analytical. *