REVIEW: Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann regarded his monumental retelling of the biblical story of Joseph as his magnum opus. He conceived of the four parts–The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, and Joseph the Provider–as a unified narrative, a “mythological novel” of Joseph’s fall into slavery and his rise to be lord over Egypt. Deploying lavish, persuasive detail, Mann conjures for us the world of patriarchs and pharaohs, the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, and the universal force of human love in all its beauty, desperation, absurdity, and pain. The result is a brilliant amalgam of humor, emotion, psychological insight, and epic grandeur.

Warnings: Violence, Slavery, Rape, Incest, Racism

Category: M/F

Joseph and his Brothers, originally published in German, is an epic four book series of novels that re-tell the classic Bible story of Joseph, of the famed multi-coloured coat. It’s a big, sweeping epic of a novelization, and took me a very long time to read through, but despite it’s verbosity, complicated prose, and problematic elements, it was a very fascinating read, and one I have been so very looking forward to reviewing.

While the author of this novelization, Thomas Mann, is more well known for his novella Death in Venice, this particular work did not gain the same fame despite the author considering it his magnum opus. The forward at the beginning of the book notes that one of the reasons audiences at the time of it’s original publication did not take to it, is its “turgid and dense, almost unreadable prose.” To say its not exactly light reading is an understatement; this is very complex prose indeed, the sort of which you need to read in small chunks and then ruminate on for a while to fully grasp all of the author’s meanings and turns of phrase. That said, I found that very engaging most of the time, and really enjoyed interacting with its complicated ideas and descriptions. However, it did have its moments where the narrative dragged on and on and lost me, most notably for the first half of book 3, Joseph in Egypt, which is taken up with chapter after chapter of travel descriptions before Joseph actually makes it to Egypt. All in all, in order to read a book like this one you have to be willing to let the reading process be a kind of exercise in thought experiments and contemplation, rather than an exciting entertainment. The story this book follows is familiar if you know your Bible stories, and starting with Jacob was a very nice choice. There is also a fair bit of wit, humour, and light-heartedness in the story, particularly in character interactions if you know how to spot it, which makes it even more engaging. I really enjoyed how much reading this book challenged me, even if at times it was on the dry side.

The style of this prose, which is a very top-down view, omniscient narrator voice, doesn’t really lend itself so much to intensive emotional connection to characters. Instead of letting us have a connection to the emotions of the principle character, what this book does do instead is create a narrator voice that conveys a sense of affection and wonder for the principle character. It is worth noting that Death in Venice, the author’s more well known work, is a story about gay pining, and notes from his diaries reveal that this work was based in part on some of his own experiences. The fact that Mann was very likely gay and closeted lends a certain light to shine on how he approached writing the character of Joseph, or, more accurately, how his narrator voice speaks about the character of Joseph. From early on in the story we get descriptions of Joseph as being the most beautiful human to ever live, of how he was so beautiful and so charming that people routinely mistake him for a deity, of how despite his arrogance and self-obsession Joseph is an object of desire and admiration to all who meet him, and the narrator hardly feels excluded from these numbers. Thus, the reader experiences a real sense of that pining and that longing for Joseph, which is a fascinating experience and creates a kind of warmth for the character that Mann is so lovingly bringing to life in this story.

The worldbuilding here might be some of the most ambitious I have ever seen, and this aspect of the narrative is equal parts fascinating, and problematic. The second reason the forward cites for audiences of its day not gravitating to this work is the fact that it is, from a religious standpoint, intensely sacrilegious. However, non-religious audiences had no interest in reading Bible stories, so this book was left without much of an audience at all. Mann is undertaking here the task of cobbling together various ancient belief systems and religions into one larger mythology, blending together various notions and ways of thinking of the Divine. Joseph is, multiple times, presented as a pre-Christ Christ figure complete with lines and speeches from the Gospels, and also as a reincarnation of Osiris. There is a theme running through the work of repeating narratives, of time as a circle where the same figures play out the same stories with slight differences over and over again, one figure becoming another, and symbols being indistinguishable from the literal. Needless to say, none of this is particularly in keeping with either the teachings of Judaism or Christianity, and it is not surprising that religious audiences of its day found it offensive, though I believe that if you are willing to engage with the narrative from a secular perspective, it’s quite an interesting weave. From a modern perspective however what is an even worse problem is how deeply the thread of racism runs through the crafting of the world. Various times this or that group of people are referred to as uncivilized, less than human, etc, though each group tends to view the other through similar lights, ie Joseph’s family think ill of Egyptians while Egyptians think ill of anyone non-Egyptian etc. The narrator takes this and presents this often as a matter of fact which can certainly leave a bad taste in the mouth. The treatment of a certain villainous dwarf character, as well, rubbed me quite the wrong way.

Talking about sex and sexuality in this book is very interesting. On the one hand, there is no explicit sexual material present in the book, but on the other hand there is from time to time allusions to sex or mentions of sexuality. A lot of the philosophical waxing can meander through the subjects of sex and gender and what gender means and if God is plural gendered or sexless, and all of this is really quite fascinating to read. When it comes to actual sex within the narrative however, we look most prominently to the treatment of Potiphar’s wife, who so infamously attempts to seduce Joseph. Her sexuality is a subject of considerable fixation within the story, and the narrator details her transformation from a virginal maiden, a chaste priestess (as Potiphar is presented as a eunuch here) through her sexual awakening and subsequent pursuit of Joseph. These passages are… interesting in their conception of female sexuality, and describe love and lust as a force that somehow alters and changes the woman’s appearance, causing her breasts to swell and for her to take on a sensual attractiveness that is absent of beauty. This certainly makes me circle back around to the immense amount of pining over Joseph present in the narrator’s voice and the high likelihood that the author may have in fact been gay, because the amount to which the narrator seems to be disturbed by women’s sexuality is pretty interesting. There is also a substantial thread of purity culture running through the narrative of female sexuality here, as when Joseph eventually marries we are treated to a philosophical exploration of the idea that sex and the loss of virginity is a kind of death, that women are destroyed by sex as a natural part of the circle of death and life, that marriage is a kind of abduction and rape. All this very strange and problematic and yet very compelling as a way to engage with the idea that death, like sex, is a natural part of our cycle of life.

Altogether one of the most difficult texts I have managed to get through. I loved and hated this tome at various times, and find the author’s stylistic verbosity very interesting- at times engaging and other times incredibly boring. Most modern audiences probably would find this book a bit too difficult to bother with, but if you can make up your mind to let the book challenge you, even when you disagree with it’s premises, I can see why Mann considered it his greatest literary accomplishment. I certainly consider it one of my most impressive reading accomplishments!

Have you read Joseph and his Brothers? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!


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