Flesh and Myth

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DECEMBER 12, 2005

Flesh and Myth

Joseph and His Brothers

By Thomas Mann

Translated by John E. Woods

(Everyman's Library, 1,492 pp.,


`Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?" In
1926, when Thomas Mann wrote those sentences at the beginning of
Joseph and His Brothers, he had no idea how aptly they would come
to describe the book itself. He envisioned it then as a short work,
the first of a "triptych of novellas with a religious hue" that
would also include segments about Erasmus and Luther. Sixteen
years, four volumes, and nearly fifteen hundred pages later, Mann
would finally bring his labors to an end with the rueful concession
that since the story "cannot possibly go on forever like this, it
must at some point excuse itself and simply cease its narration."

By the time he started "the Joseph," as he called the work that
preoccupied him for so much of his life, Mann's tendencies toward
maximalism, both stylistic and thematic, were already well
established. Buddenbrooks, published in 1901, when he was only
twenty-six, chronicles in more than seven hundred pages the decline
of Germany's middle class through the history of a family
resembling the writer's own. (His publisher was skeptical about the
prospects of such a huge tome by a young unknown, but Mann refused
to abridge it, and it became a best-seller.) The Magic Mountain,
which appeared in 1924, takes more than a thousand pages to spin
out an elaborate allegory of Western civilization in the setting of
a Swiss sanatorium. Both of these works, too, Mann originally
envisioned as short novels, as he explained in the preface to the
first complete English translation of Joseph and His Brothers
(which was done by Helen T. Lowe-Porter and published in 1948), but
they "got out of hand ... and then hypertrophied."

These undertakings, vast in any other context, falter in comparison
to Joseph. As he described it in a letter to his French translator
in 1935, the tetralogy "aspires to be, so to speak, an abbreviated
history of humankind." Abbreviated? There is little that seems in
any way abridged about this work, which seeks to re-tell the
biblical story of Joseph--his privileged position as Jacob's
favored son, his brothers' violence toward him, his exile into
slavery in Egypt, his elevation to the post of Pharaoh's chief
steward, and his triumphant reunion with his brothers and
father--"the way it really happened, or the way it might have
happened." Mann had the idea during the early 1920s, when an artist
friend asked him to write an introduction to a cycle of paintings
depicting the Joseph story. As he re-read the chapters in his old
family Bible--Luther's standard translation--he recalled Goethe's
lament about Joseph: "This natural story is highly amiable, but it
seems too short, and one feels oneself called to paint out all its
details." (Goethe had tried to do so himself as a youth, but
destroyed his attempt, deeming it superficial.) What Mann
imagined--an idea that "held an indescribable sensual and spiritual
appeal for me," he later recalled--was "something completely new
... to leave behind all the trappings of modern bourgeois life and,
through storytelling, to throw oneself most deeply into the

In order for his novel to convince in "all its details," Mann
believed, it could not abandon quotidian trappings altogether, but
rather had to use them to ground the story's mythical
foundation--what he called "die Fleischwerdung des Mythos," the
transformation of myth into flesh. He took the outline of his novel
directly from the latter half of Genesis, though he pursued it with
his own narrative logic. Volume I, The Stories of Jacob, begins
with the teenaged Joseph, but soon plunges back into the life story
of his father (with the occasional backward glance as far as
Abraham): his theft of the birthright from his brother Esau; his
exile to the house of Laban, where he labors for seven years to win
his cousin Rachel, only to be tricked on his wedding night into
accepting her older sister Leah in her place; his marriage to
Rachel; the birth of his twelve sons; and finally his eventual
fulfillment of thirteen additional years of servitude and Rachel's
death soon after. With Jacob's story, or stories, Mann lays the
groundwork for the main theme of the novel--that the tale being
told is both a repetition of a primary human myth and a unique
event in itself. "Every return is a transformation," he wrote, "and
just as the same number of colorful splinters keep falling into an
ever-changing display in a kaleidoscope, so life as it plays out
constantly brings forth something new out of the same
components--with the son's constellation made up of the same
fragments that had formed the constellation of his father's life."

But the Fleisch was as important to Mann as the Mythos, with an
important caveat: the daily life that he committed himself to
chronicling was not Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, but the social
fabric of Canaan, Egypt, and their neighbors around 1400 B.C.E.,
which he chose (somewhat arbitrarily) for his setting. As a child,
Mann had been fascinated by ancient Egyptian history; he would
later recall with annoyance how he had silently suffered a
teacher's false attempt at correcting him rather than defend his
own superior knowledge of the subject. In preparation for Joseph,
he threw himself back into these studies, augmenting them with a
generous dose of Jewish biblical exegesis, comparative mythology,
and academic texts dealing with everything from the history of
astrology to the cultivation of date palm trees. As a result, while
many of the characters in Joseph are products of Mann's
imagination--he once noted that it was his first work without human
"models"--much of the rest is not. A source can be found for nearly
everything that he added to the story.

In some way, then, Joseph seems hardly a novel at all, but a
kaleidoscopic constellation of "essayistic detours ... epic and
analysis, dramatic scenes and playful scholarship," as Mann
described it in an introduction to an early reading. Playful? Well,
yes: the writer of The Magic Mountain and the forthcoming Doctor
Faustus viewed the Joseph tetralogy as "a comedic song of
humanity," something akin to a light opera. He undertook the
research with zeal, pressing his mountain of accumulated facts into
the service of what he called a "hilarious exactitude," and he
seems to have regarded his studies as an amusing diversion,
something of a scavenger hunt. In one letter he remarked to a
friend, "I'm waiting for the critic who will be the first to
discover where I got the idea for the `Bitch' chapter in the third
Joseph volume. Someone must figure it out!" (This chapter, one of
the novel's more bizarre and dramatic episodes, describes an
attempt by Potiphar's wife, hopelessly smitten with Joseph, to use
the ministrations of a witch to enchant him.)

But Joseph also represented for Mann a diversion of a different
kind. In 1933, just before The Stories of Jacob was published in
Germany, Mann delivered a lecture on Wagner at the University of
Munich, and then went on vacation. While he was abroad, catastrophe
struck, nationally and personally: the Reichstag was set ablaze,
Hitler established his dictatorship, and a campaign against Mann
was unleashed in the media. His house and his bank accounts in
Munich were confiscated, but his daughter Erika managed to rescue
his manuscript and notes and send them on to him. He wrote the next
two volumes of Joseph during the most tumultuous years of his life,
which saw his loss of German citizenship and brief sojourns in
Switzerland and France before he settled permanently in the United
States in 1940. There, in California, he at last found a peaceful
setting in which to complete the novel, but he was forced
continually to allow his political writing to interrupt his work on
Joseph: "The story came into being under the awful tension of a war
on whose outcome the fate of the world, of Western civilization,
indeed of everything in which I believed, appeared to hang ... a
war whose cause I constantly felt called to serve with my words."

Joseph, on its surface, is the least political of Mann's novels; but
it cannot be read separately from its historical context. The
incongruity of its timing is simply too stark. Just as Germany was
undertaking its singularly murderous persecution of its own Jewish
citizens and then the Jews of Europe, Mann, the personification of
high German letters, was turning his obsessive attentions to the
figure of a Jew who overcame the terrible rejection of his brothers
and his imposed exile to a foreign country to rise to the pinnacle
of his circumstances, by virtue of his wits and God's blessing, not
once but twice: first as overseer in the house of Potiphar,
Pharaoh's high chamberlain, and then to a position of great power
in Pharaoh's court, saving Egypt and its neighbors from starvation
during the great famine predicted by the king's dreams. And as
contemporary Jewish readers recognized, Mann told the story in a
manner that revealed his deep interest in and respect for Jewish
tradition. As The Stories of Jacob went to press in 1933, just a
few months after the Nazi book-burning at Bebelplatz in Berlin,
Mann half-seriously suggested to his publisher that the book's
design incorporate Hebrew lettering, "only I am afraid it will look
at first glance like a kosher restaurant."

To be sure, the novel's characterization of Joseph is hardly
adulatory: especially as a teenager, he is presented as arrogant,
snide, a tattletale, entirely without self-awareness. And there are
moments when the novel seems to play into contemporaneous
anti-Semitic conventions. When Potiphar's wife accuses Joseph of
rape, crying, "The Habiru [Hebrew] monster came to me in order to
do with me as he pleased and to insult me," her language is shaded
with the Nuremberg laws. And in a country in which the majority of
Jews were almost seamlessly--but not always without
suspicion--assimilated into mainstream society, Mann's
characterization of Joseph in Pharaoh's court as "an Egyptian from
head to toe" is double-edged, as is the implication that Joseph,
who controlled the dispensation of grain, was running the world.

By the time the tetralogy was complete--the fourth volume, Joseph
the Provider, appeared in 1944--many of the Jewish readers who
might have been troubled by its ambiguities had already perished.
And its Christian readership had rejected it from the start. "The
Germans want to know nothing; all they have in their heads is `the
German people'-- at the wrong moment, as usual," Mann complained.
He himself never drew any explicit connection between the Joseph
story and the events of his time, preferring to see the novel as
vaguely autobiographical: he described the teenaged Joseph as a
typical young artist in his self-absorption and assumed adulation
(one thinks of the youthful author of Buddenbrooks), and he spoke
of America after the war, his own land of exile, as "the granary of
the world and literally the `provider' of all nations!" For today's
reader, though, looking back at the 1930s and 1940s with the acuity
of hindsight, the mythical figure the Joseph author most resembles
is Scheherazade, spinning out his stories as Germany crumbled. The
difference is that the death he sought to forestall was not his
own. It was the death of his nation.


The Bible sometimes reads like a novel, but the two forms really
have nothing in common. Even the most experimental fictions must
rely on psychological realism to some extent; without it, their
characters would be unrecognizable, and their plots without
interest. But whether or not one believes that the stories of the
Bible were wrangled together under the ministrations of various
editors or recorded directly from the mouth of God, it does not
change the fact that their content remains largely unexplained. How
does Pharaoh find out that Sarah, whom Abraham has passed off as his
sister, is actually his wife? What happens to Jacob's daughter
Dinah after she is raped by the prince of Shechem? Why does Jacob
give Joseph the coat of many colors, knowing that his brothers
already resent him for being the favorite son? Not only is
explanation not required, it is antithetical to the Bible's purpose.
If the reading of this book is motivated by faith, then, the
contradictions and the omissions do not finally matter. The text
need not persuade on an intellectual or emotional level, because it
is prima facie "believable."

Yet Jewish tradition has always been troubled by the narrative
arbitrariness of the Bible, and over the centuries scholars have
contributed a wealth of midrash, or exegetical legend, to help
explain some of the ellipses and contradictions. Much of this
traditional commentary adheres specifically to questions of grammar
and diction in the original text, but another category of midrash
comprises stories and myths, largely popular in origin, that give
an imagined social or psychological context to the biblical
stories. During the early twentieth century, two major scholars
collected and translated these legends, Louis Ginzberg in America
and Micha Josef Berdyczewski in Germany. The latter's work, Die
Sagen der Juden or Tales of the Jews, published in Frankfurt in
1914 under the pseudonym Bin Gurion, was an important source for
Mann's Joseph; and Berdyczewski composed his own novelistic version
of the story, also titled Joseph and His Brothers, which appeared
in 1917, and which Mann also consulted.

The outline of the Joseph story will be familiar even to those who
have forgotten the specifics of the biblical text--a fact of which
Mann was excruciatingly self-conscious. While he takes great pains
to build suspense throughout the novel, he also allows his
characters to interrupt periodically to exploit the irony of
participating in a story of which the ending is long since
predetermined. "You can't imagine how shocked I was when I read [my
brothers'] names on the list, even though I knew it would happen and
had most definitely expected it," Joseph tells his chief servant
upon his brothers' arrival in Egypt. "A man never knows beforehand
how he will behave in his own story; that is revealed only when the
time comes and he finds out who he is." After the climax, when
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with his triumphant "It is
I," the narrator implores the reader to stay with the equivalent of
"Don't touch that dial!":

Nothing would be more regrettable if, in the wake of these events,
the majority of our audience were to begin to wander off and
scatter, thinking to themselves: "So that was it, the lovely `It is
I' has been spoken, and it can't get any lovelier than that. That
was the high point, and now the rest will just be played out, and
we already know how, so there's nothing exciting left." Take my
advice and do stick around! The author of this story--whom we
should understand to be He who is the author of all events--has
provided it with many high points and knows how the effect of each
is heightened by the others. For him the motto is: The best

is yet to come.

What is significant about Mann's Joseph, then, is not the story
itself, but the exegesis that he supplies: the way he has filled in
the outline, painting out "all its details." Especially in the
first two volumes, he sticks close to Jewish tradition, lifting
crucial elements of the plot directly from Berdyczewski's legends.
For Jacob's wedding night with Leah, an episode that is
particularly puzzling to the literal-minded modern reader--how could
Jacob really not have noticed that he was making love to the wrong
sister?--Mann finds a crucial psychological element in the midrash.
In the Bible, the scene is described with minimal detail: it is not
even stated that Leah is wearing a veil, as is commonly thought. In
Mann's novel, however, Jacob and Laban discuss the details of the
wedding night ahead of time, with Laban telling Jacob that the
custom is for him to receive his bride "by the darkest darkness of
night." Jacob is naturally suspicious: "I assume, by the way, that
at least one torch will continue to burn or the wick of some little
lamp, so that I can see my bride," he tells Laban, who pretends to
be gravely offended. "Silence!" he cries. "I would like to know how
you can possibly speak so unchastely." The dialogue is Mann's
amplification, but the detail of the lights being extinguished
comes from Tales of the Jews.

Mann seems to have used the legends primarily as inspiration,
expanding or altering them as necessary to suit his purposes as
novelist. Consider another puzzling moment in the biblical text.
Early in the story, Jacob sends Joseph in search of his brothers,
who are supposedly pasturing their sheep near Shechem (the
present-day Nablus). An unnamed man who discovers him wandering
there asks what he is doing. Joseph says that he is looking for his
brothers, and the man tells him that they have moved on to a nearby
town. Of course, when he meets them there, they brutally attack
him, cast him into a pit, and eventually sell him to a passing
caravan of Ishmaelites. Who is this man who leads Joseph to his
destruction? The midrash identifies him as the angel Gabriel, who
tells Joseph that the brothers had received a prophetic vision that
another tribe was plotting war against them, hence their departure.
But there is no textual evidence for identifying the man as an
angel, an explanation that is itself not narratively satisfying:
why would an angel lead Joseph to his near-death? Instead Mann
transforms the man into a kind of sinister guide, who usurps
Joseph's donkey, insults him, steals his food, and leads the donkey
into a hole so that she breaks her foot, forcing Joseph to go on
without her. And he re- appears twice after that: Reuben, returning
to the well surreptitiously to rescue Joseph, will learn from the
man that his brother was sold to the Ishmaelites; and Joseph
himself will encounter him again in the next volume, en route to
Egypt, and learn from him of Reuben's good deed.

The first two volumes are dreamlike in nature, as befits their
source in folk legend. The dramatic intensity of Mann's narrative
increases when the action moves to "monkey-faced Egypt." He
channeled his lifelong fascination with Egyptian culture, together
with impressions gathered from several trips to the Middle East,
into an extraordinary profusion of detail, from the products that
the Ishmaelites sell ("Finest Ashkelon Onions") to the specific
gardening duties with which Joseph is tasked and the dialect of the
slaves in Potiphar's house. When Joseph is thrown into prison, his
journey takes place "quite uncomfortably, in the plank shed that
served as both cabin and storeroom on a smaller freighter that was
made of acacia wood and had a caulked deck: a so- called oxen boat,
the same sort on which he himself had probably once moved up and
down the river, bringing his house's goods to market."

Architecture, too, is the focus of Mann's close attention throughout
the latter half of the work, from the precise layout of Pharaoh's
prison Zawi-Re to the fantastic gardens and frescoes of the royal
palace. Such specifics of setting root the novel firmly in its time
and place, giving it an almost cinematic quality. (In fact, film
versions of Joseph were twice proposed and abandoned.) They also
generate in the skeptical reader a sense of vertigo: even one
disinclined to believe in the literal truth of the Bible can hardly
help concurring with one of Mann's typists, who, upon finishing the
manuscript, exclaimed to him, "Now we know at last how all this
actually happened!"

The most elaborate, and most significant, of Mann's augmentations
occurs with the episode of Joseph's attempted seduction by
Potiphar's wife, a story that appears in numerous other religious
and mythological texts, including the Koran and the Persian
legends, and has inspired many works of art. Mann found all the
other versions of the story unsatisfactory. "My portrait of
Potiphar's wife is clearly a vindication of a woman who has always
been regarded as a licentious seductress," he wrote in a letter to
Agnes Meyer, his friend and translator. The biblical story, which
occupies all of thirteen verses, seemed to him devastating in its
simplicity. We are told that after Joseph was put in charge of
Potiphar's house, the master's wife "cast her eyes" upon him and
said, "Lie with me." Joseph refused, saying that he could not
betray his master's trust and his own faith in God; but the woman
would not be dissuaded, repeating her demand "day by day," until
finally, when the two were alone in the house, she seized Joseph by
his garment, and when he fled it remained in her hand. She accused
him of trying to rape her, using the garment as her evidence; and
Joseph was sent to prison.

Mann laments that tradition has regarded Potiphar's wife (she does
not even have a name) as a "shameless seductress and the honeyed
bait of evil" without considering what circumstances might have
driven her to make her indecent demand. "The whole world knows what
[she] is supposed to have said after having `cast' her eyes upon
Joseph," the narrator admits, and he does not deny that "she did
indeed speak precisely the blunt phrase of terrible directness that
tradition has put into her mouth." But he takes it upon himself to
redeem her reputation: "To be frank, we are dismayed at the
grudging brevity of an account that does so little justice to
life's bitter and exacting particularity as our source does here,
and seldom have we been more acutely aware than in this instance of
how unfair laconic abridgment is to truth."

Mann is unsurpassable on this category of "life's bitter and
exacting particularity": he turns the cipher of Potiphar's
wife--for whom he invents both a formal name, Mut-em-enet, and a
nickname, Eni--into a character as ravaged by desire as Dido in
Carthage or Gustav von Aschenbach on the Venice beach. The harlot
of tradition becomes here "the Smitten Woman," frustrated by her
eunuch husband, inflamed by Joseph's beauty, and eventually, after
three years of longing, "more than beside herself," destroyed by a
passion that distorts her beauty and corrupts her mind. At first,
disturbed by a romantic dream about Joseph, she asks her husband to
dismiss him, but Potiphar (here identified by the Egyptian name
Petepre) refuses, pleading Joseph's great value as a servant. Egged
on by a Beatrice-and-Benedick routine performed by another of her
husband's retinue, a malicious dwarf who anticipates his own
elevation with Joseph's downfall, she allows herself to grow closer
to him, and their relationship progresses from so-called chance
encounters in the garden to friendship. Finally she sends him a
love letter containing the notorious phrase, which, the narrator
again protests, has been misinterpreted, "because it came not from
a harlot but from a woman who had been overwhelmed." (True to its
mission of "exactitude," the text reproduces the hieroglyphics of
her letter.)

Does Joseph return her love? It is never entirely clear, since the
two hundred pages over which the tragedy plays out--a novel within
the novel, really--are told from Eni's perspective; but he does not
seem to. He does not respond to her note until she calls him, and
in a ten-page dialogue he rejects her suggestion that they kill her
husband and run off together. (Eni has deliberately bitten her
tongue "because it imperiously demanded that she say aloud" what
she had written, and so she is reduced to lisping, "Thleep with me.
") The rejection is unbearable, and she begins to lose her mind. She
gathers a group of ladies for a tea party and arranges for Joseph
to enter the room just as they are peeling oranges with sharp
knives. When the women, distracted by his beauty, cut their
fingers, she cries, "I have not simply told you it--I have shown it
to you, the reason for my deathly exhaustion and all my misery....
For you merely cut yourselves in the finger at the sight of him, but
love for his beauty has slashed my heart and I am bleeding to
death." In a last act of desperation, she seeks out a servant who
agrees to channel a deity she calls "The Bitch" to entice Joseph to
Eni's bed, "a sign that she had renounced her lover's soul and
would be happy simply to hold his body, or better, his warm corpse,
in her arms--or if it did not make her happy, it would at least
leave her sad but sated." Finally the two have their ill-fated
confrontation: alone in the house, Eni tries to seduce Joseph, but
he escapes at the last moment, leaving his robe behind in her hand.
She screams that he has tried to rape her-- "The Habiru monster
came to me in order to do with me as he pleased and to insult
me"--and Petepre, though he loves Joseph and mistrusts his wife, has
no choice but to send him to prison.

A fair amount of this narrative can be traced to various sources:
the story of the ladies distractedly cutting themselves appears in
a number of them, including Tales of the Jews and (in different
form) the Koran, as do other minor details. (In the age of Google,
at least one source for even the mysterious "Bitch" episode can be
tracked down: the deity invoked seems to be Ishat, the Canaanite
fire deity known as "the bitch of the gods," an enemy of Baal.) But
in this instance Mann seems to have rejected more than he
incorporated. In the midrash, Potiphar's wife is called Suleika; it
is unclear why Mann chose the Egyptian name Mut-em-enet for her.
More significantly, other versions of the story have happier
endings. In the Koran, Joseph is vindicated when the woman
eventually admits that he was telling the truth. (In both the Bible
and Joseph, Joseph does not try to defend himself, and other
versions condemn Potiphar's wife as harshly for her perjury as for
her lust: Dante puts her in the Inferno's Eighth Circle, together
with Sinon, the Greek who unlocked the Trojan horse and betrayed
his army.)

The Persian legends imagine that after Joseph's imprisonment,
Potiphar's wife retreats to an isolated hut for a year to
recuperate; and later her beauty is miraculously restored to her,
and the lovers are re-united. Mann explicitly rejected this idea in
Joseph the Provider: "It would be fascinating to describe such an
encounter; but there is nothing to describe here, for nothing of
the sort ever took place.... The silence maintained in this part of
the story by the standard version accepted in the West ... is not a
deletion, or only to the extent that it deletes a negative: the
explicit statement that something did not happen, which is to say,
that after his removal from the courtier's household Joseph never
again met either his lord or his mistress." Mann had his own ideas
about the passion of Potiphar's wife, and he was not going to let
his research get in his way.


Considering how deeply Mann relied on his sources, is it fair to
consider Joseph and His Brothers a novel at all, let alone a great
one? The book is over- the-top in every way: its absurd length, its
show-offy litter of detail, its gargantuan reach into the
prehistory of humanity. Mann readily admitted to his "epicwriting
pedantry" and "mania for treatment ab ovo." The book, he worried in
his diary, was "already outdated, and must seem overelaborate and
oversophisticated, a piece of Alexandrianism, the more so thanks to
its self- consciousness." In recent years Joseph has fallen out of
favor, and out of print, among readers who prefer the domesticity
of Buddenbrooks, the philosophy of The Magic Mountain, or the moral
fervor of Doctor Faustus. But its publication in this excellent new
translation by John E. Woods is a cause for celebration: first,
because Joseph and His Brothers is in fact a great novel that will
now be discovered by a new generation of readers; and second,
because Woods himself is to be credited with an extraordinary

To begin with, the "mania" of Joseph is not an aberration for Mann.
It represents the epitome of the technique that he pursued, without
exception, in all his novels. For Buddenbrooks, he scrutinized his
own family's history; for The Magic Mountain, he would later say,
he became a bit of a doctor; for Doctor Faustus, he steeped himself
in music theory. "Only thoroughness can be truly entertaining," he
remarks at the start of The Magic Mountain. This idea finds its
culmination in the gigantism of Joseph. The astounding thoroughness
that Mann brought to all his writing extended not only to facts,
but also to character and psychology.

Mann's fiction gains its effect from the steady accumulation of
leitmotifs, which build slowly and inexorably into a grand edifice
that is imperceptible until it is nearly complete, just as a
building under construction remains invisible to passersby until it
has attained its final outline. In Death in Venice, the primary
motifs are freakishness and sickness, grotesque apparitions pop up
throughout: the strange figure in the bast hat whom Aschenbach meets
in the cemetery in the book's early pages, the horror-provoking man
who frolics with the young shop assistants on the boat, and finally
the perverted parody of youth that Aschenbach finally becomes at
the hands of the hotel barber at the height of his decay, creating
a crescendo of perversity and pathos. Joseph takes the same method
and applies it on a greatly magnified scale.

Consider the theme of filicide, a motif that repeats in surprising
ways throughout the novel. At the beginning of the first volume,
Jacob imagines himself challenged by God to sacrifice Joseph, as
Abraham was tested to sacrifice Isaac: in his fantasy he is unable
to fulfill God's command, because his love for Joseph is too great.
(The nightmare presages the sacrifice that will later be made for
him with Joseph's disappearance.) Then Dinah, after her rape in
Shechem, discovers that she is pregnant, and her brothers force her
to abandon the baby, whereupon she withers away from grief, never
again to appear in the story. Laban, too, murders his infant son by
shutting him up in a clay pot that is embedded in the walls of his
house during its construction, in a misguided observance of an old
tradition; and he, too, will be punished for it. And so on up to
Potiphar's parents, who commit a similar crime against their son by
castrating him according to another outdated custom: "No ram had
appeared for them to turn into the gelded ram of light, and instead,
being bereft of God, they had gelded Potiphar, their squirming

The theme of filicide is significant not only for the powerful
psychological work that it accomplishes throughout the novel, but
also because of where it leads. For Joseph, too, becomes a child
who is sacrificed, though eventually brought back to life. The
story of Jesus--in which God must sacrifice his own son--is the
most obvious implication: Joseph remains in the pit for three days
before the stone at its mouth is rolled away by the Philistines; and
when Serah, Asher's daughter, sings to Jacob of Joseph's return,
she uses the phrase "He is arisen!"; and when Joseph and his father
are finally reunited, Joseph says that God sent him to Egypt--a
land always equated with death, both in the Bible and in the
novel--so that he could eventually save Israel by providing food
during the famine.

But Mann had in mind other mythical archetypes as well, including
the Babylonian god Tammuz, a shepherd or fisherman whose death and
rebirth corresponds to the changing agricultural cycle, and also
the Syrian Adonis, another vegetation god. For Mann, the
identification of Joseph with this tradition has both personal and
spiritual implications. "I think I am on the right track in making
Joseph a kind of mythic confidence man who early begins to
`identify' himself as a man-god figure and is reinforced in this
sense of himself by the people around him, who have a tendency to
draw no sharp distinctions between being and meaning," he wrote to
his friend Ernst Bertram, who shared his interest in comparative
mythology. "What attracts me, and what I should like to express, is
the transformation of Tradition into Present as a timeless mystery,
or the experiencing of the self as myth."

These complicated patterns would unravel were they not bound
together by Mann's remarkable language. The language of Joseph is
not the language of the Bible, even in Luther's accessible German
form. In his translator's introduction, Woods describes Mann's
language as "an exuberant hodgepodge, happily at home with both
anachronisms and archaisms, now elegantly sublime, now comically
coarse." Mann lards the narrative with words in Hebrew, Egyptian,
Babylonian--some appropriate, some deliberately not. (Abraham
anachronistically goes on a hegira; Shimeon and Levi, Jacob's wild
twins, are Dioscuri.) The characters speak in colloquialisms, or
something like them: "Hm, that might work," Jacob remarks to Laban,
while the servants in Potiphar's house gossip that "the mistress is
hot for the young steward."

This fantastic melange poses obvious difficulties for the
translator. Until now, the only English version of Joseph and His
Brothers was by Helen T. Lowe- Porter, who enjoyed the exclusive
right to translate Mann for more than fifty years. Her achievement
in bringing his enormous body of work into English for the first
time should not be gainsaid. But her versions are slowly being
displaced, and with good reason. In keeping with the style of her
day, Lowe- Porter's translations tend toward effusiveness, which is
unfortunate with regard to any writer but deadly when it comes to
Mann. In a novella such as Death in Venice, a few extra adjectives
have a relatively minor impact on the text; but in a work on the
scale of Joseph and His Brothers, unnecessary floridity is a
disaster. Consider only the book's justifiably famous opening line:
Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit, or, in Woods's faithful
rendition, "Deep is the well of the past." It is as elegant as can
be: rhythmically graceful, thematically rich, not an extraneous
note. But Lowe-Porter rendered it as "Very deep is the well of the
past." The "very" adds nothing except bulk; "deep" is deep enough,
linguistically and metaphorically.

Lowe-Porter seems to have consciously echoed the language of the
King James Bible, a decision that was obviously mistaken, since
Luther in German sounds nowhere near as archaic to modern ears as
the King James does. The problem is inherent to a crucial
difference in German and English grammar. Like most European
languages, German has two versions of the "you" pronoun, the
informal du and the formal Sie. Lowe-Porter, following the King
James model, turned the dus into "thous," adding in, for good
measure, the complementary "-eth" verb endings and various other
gratuitous archaisms, such as the liberal use of "forsooth" and the
frequent substitution of "brethren" for Joseph's brothers. (The
title is emphatically not Joseph and His Brethren.) The result is,
in a word, ridiculous. Here, for instance, are the narrator's final
words of the second volume, directly addressing Jacob, who has just
been told that Joseph has been killed, in Lowe-Porter's

Ah, good old man! Didst thou divine what amazing favour still lay
behind the silence of thy dread and wonderful God, and with what
incredible rapture thy soul was still to be shaken, according to
His word? ... Very old must thou become before thou learnest that
naught but illusion and trickery was thy sorest anguish likewise.

And here is Woods's version:

Ah, pious old man! Could you ever have imagined what bewildering
goodwill is hidden yet again behind the silence of your curiously
majestic God, and, by His counsel, with what incomprehensible
rapture your soul is to be mutilated? ... You will have to grow
very old in order to learn that, by way of compensation, your
bitterest suffering was also deception and illusion.

John E. Woods has now retranslated all of Mann's major novels. If
one considers the sheer number of pages involved, his achievement
is comparable to a single-handed re-translation of all of Proust--
a project that, in the recent Viking/ Penguin undertaking, required
the labors of seven people. His translations of Buddenbrooks, The
Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus have been universally lauded for
their clarity and sensitivity; but nowhere is his skill more
visible than in Joseph and His Brothers. Woods tackles the
challenges of Mann's wide-ranging diction with exuberance. Where
Lowe-Porter's archaisms obscured, he allows all the variety of the
original to shine through: its ironic pedantry, its bawdy humor,
its profound pathos. And he is bold enough to enrich the text
subtly with allusions drawn from English literature, which serve as
an appropriate counterpoint to the untranslatable references and
puns in the original. I have admired other recent new translations
of Mann, such as Michael Henry Heim's rich Death in Venice. But
Joseph has convinced me that Mann has finally found his ideal
English translator in Woods.

Joseph and His Brothers represents the perfect showcase for the
translator's craft in another way as well. For the translator's
charge, understood most simply, is to re-tell a story; and this, in
the end, is also Mann's primary purpose. Throughout the novel,
characters re-tell the biblical stories as if they themselves had
experienced them, and this method of narration is presented as
being the ideal form of wisdom. Thus Eliezer, whom the novel
represents as a recurring figure of the servant, tutors Joseph in
his history by telling the story of Isaac's sacrifice in the first
person. Later Joseph, at the deathbed of Mont-kaw, his beloved
overseer in Potiphar's house, will draw on his store of wisdom,
spending "his heirloom of most marvelous stories, trying to ease
his conscience with wit and eloquence and to tie the steward to the
here and now for a little longer."

The Joseph narrator, too, occupies his own position in this lineage
of storytellers: like his subject, he at times resembles another
Scheherazade, that ancient spinner of stories who sought so
desperately to prolong their telling. Even after Jacob has died and
the pages have mounted up, Mann could hardly bear to let go of his
narrative: "Do stick around!" he implored his audience. By
conjuring the story of Joseph "as it actually happened," he offered
his readers--and himself--a trapdoor to 1400 B.C.E. just as life in
the "here and now" was at its most unbearable. When the despair of
his own times temporarily defeated him as a novelist, he followed
the true novelist's impulse: he found a universal human tale to
tell, and tell again, until the darkness lifted.

For what finally makes Joseph and His Brothers an extraordinary
novel is its author's never-ending push to dramatize, to
psychologize, to humanize this elusive story. It may have
originated in the sacred, but Thomas Mann redeemed it for the
profane. "The sphere rolls, and one can never determine where a
story has its first home: in heaven or on earth," he wrote. "Truth
is served by stating that all stories take place both there and
here, simultaneously and in correspondence."

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