Where the Old Testament provides a statement of fact, Mann provides heightened and detailed drama.
Anyone with the least literary pretensions has read one or another work by Thomas Mann. Some will have read “Buddenbrooks,” his saga about a Baltic German mercantile family as its energy peters out; others, “The Magic Mountain,” that most philosophical of novels, set in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Switzerland. One is likely to have encountered the novella “Death in Venice,” or one of his many splendid short stories. But not many people, I suspect, will have read “Joseph and His Brothers,” his 1,207-page tetralogy of rich and rewarding complexity.
I, a man of extravagant literary pretensions, had not read it until recently. Fifteen or so years ago, I made a run at it, but hit the wall roughly at page 60. What goaded me to take another shot was finding a clean copy at a used-book store. What I discovered is a true masterpiece of a most extraordinary kind. Not the least unusual thing about this vastly ambitious work is that Mann chose to tell a story that everyone already knows.
It’s the Old Testament account of Jacob, son of Isaac, brother of Esau, and his 12 sons, and of the most impressive of those sons, Joseph, who goes on to become Pharaoh’s principal administrator, his Grand Vizier, during the seven fat and seven lean years visited upon Egypt. Mann used this best of all Old Testament stories—one of overweening vanity, betrayal, reunion and forgiveness—as, in effect, an outline, which he filled in and retold with the narrative power of the great novelist that he was.
In the Old Testament, for example, in a mere half page we are told that Potiphar’s wife, enamored of Joseph’s good looks, attempts to seduce him, Joseph refuses, she then falsely accuses him of attempted rape, and he is sent off to prison. Mann, or his narrator, claims to be “horrified at the briefness and curtness of the original account” in the Bible. In Mann’s version, 80 or so pages are spent on the incident, with Potiphar’s wife’s beauty, cosmetics, handmaidens, seduction methods and much else persuasively described. Where the Old Testament provides a statement of fact, Mann provides heightened and detailed drama.
Mann took 16 years, between 1926 and 1942, to complete “Joseph and His Brothers”—the tumultuous time of world-wide Depression and Adolf Hitler’s rise. Nazism forced Mann and his family into exile—first in Europe, then in the U.S. But he pressed on with his novel. In early 1930 he traveled to the Middle East, where “with my physical eyes I saw the Nile country from the Delta up (or down) to Nubia and the memorable places of the Holy Land.” This book, during these hard years, was “the undertaking that alone vouchsafed the continuity of my life.”
“Joseph and His Brothers” is an astonishing feat—a book in which an artist, through scholarship and above all through imagination, has worked his way back through time and insinuated himself into the culture of the biblical Jews and the more elaborately exotic culture of the ancient Egyptians. Mann, ever the ironist, at one point early in the book writes: “I do not conceal from myself the difficulty of writing about people who do not precisely know who they are.”
The book is studded with exquisite touches. Laban, Jacob’s exploiting father-in-law, possesses “the hands of a having man.” Of Jacob’s love for Rachel, Mann writes: “Such is love, when it is complete: feeling and lust together, tenderness and desire.” Apropos of Jacob’s agedness, he writes of “the touching if unattractive misshapenness of old age.” Potiphar’s wife, distraught over her passion for Joseph, is barely able to eat “a bird’s liver and a little vegetable.” Rachel’s labor in giving birth to Joseph is so well described as to leave the reader exhausted.
Past and present are interwoven throughout this novel. “Men saw through each other in that distant day,” Mann writes, “as well as in this.” Recurrence is a leitmotif that plays through the book. “For we move in the footsteps of others, and all life is but the pouring of the present into the forms of the myth,” he notes. Through the novel Joseph is aware that his is a role in a script already written by God—and this gives him the courage to carry on: “For let a man once have the idea that God has special plans for him, which he must further by his aid, and he will pluck up his heart and strain his understanding to get the better of all things and be their master.” The woman Tamar, who in the disguise of a prostitute allows herself to become pregnant by Joseph’s brother Judah, does so because she, too, wants to be inscribed forever in the history of this important family.
One could create a dazzling anthology of aphorisms from “Joseph and His Brothers.” “It takes understanding to sin; yes, at bottom, all spirit is nothing else than understanding of sin.” And: “We fail to realize the indivisibility of the world when we think of religion and politics as fundamentally separate fields.” And: “No, the agonies of love are set apart; no one has ever repented having suffered them.” And again: ‘Man, then, was a result of God’s curiosity about himself.”
In another of the book’s aphorisms, Mann writes: “Indeed resolution and patience are probably the same thing.” How often must that sentiment, over the years he spent composing this grand prose epic, have occurred to Mann himself. At the end of his foreword to the single-volume edition, he wonders if his tetralogy “will perhaps be numbered among the great books.” He cannot know, of course, but as the son of a tradesman he does know that only quality endows the products of human hands with endurance. “The song of Joseph is good, solid work,” he writes, “done out of that fellow feeling for which mankind has always been sensitively receptive. A measure of durability is, I think, inherent in it.”
Mann was correct. In “Joseph and His Brothers” he created a masterpiece, which is to say, a work built to last.
—Mr. Epstein’s latest book, “Essays in Biography,” will be published this autumn by Axios Press.A version of this article appeared August 25, 2012, on page C13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Putting Literary Flesh on Biblical Bones. WSJ.com – Putting Literary Flesh on Biblical Bones*