In Doctor Faustus, arguably his greatest book if not the greatest book ever, all of Mann's formidable gifts come together. Lying at the heart of Mann's concern is the central figure of Adrian Leverkuhn, theologian turned composer. In him all the warring impulses, all the contradictions of our age are focused. "Cold" by nature, inclined to mathematics and to "speculate the elements" as scientists do, he yet craves the freedom and unrestraint of art, specifically music, the most demonic of the arts. But the fearful complexities of modern composition and his own innate coldness form an insuperable barrier, he needs something to kindle him to his destiny as a great composer. This turns out to be the Devil, who in a memorable interview heavy with fate offers him a quick way out of his difficulties.
The book teems with unforgettable images. To pick a few at random: the extended description of Adrian's sojourn in the Italian countryside, where he meets the Devil and his fate is sealed; the wintry excursion to the Bavarian Alps; the vision of the children in the choir singing a motet to Adrian, bedecked with rubies on their fat hands while little yellow worms crawl from their nostrils down into their chests in the finest diabolic style. The density and vividness of Mann's imagery, its capacity to fill the mind and linger there, is Shakespearean.
Mann's treatment of his characters is sensitive, fine-grained, subtly ironic, and humanly engaging, with much wry humor. The amazing chapters dealing with Schwerdtfeger's vicarious wooing of Marie Godeau for Adrian, the piling up of layers of meaning and subcontext (including the latent homosexuality that runs like a provocative thread throughout Mann's writings), amount to a virtuoso performance whose incredible, sustained brilliance is rivaled only by Joseph's interview with Pharaoh in Joseph and His Brothers, also by Mann. Those readers who complain that the narrator Serenus Zeitblom is a tedious boor, that the other characters are lifeless cardboard cutouts, and that nothing ever happens, simply haven't gotten to first base with this novel.
What then is the problem? It is one that Mann himself wrestled with and which for a time led him to consider the work a failure, although he was determined to finish it. The problem is that the story cannot just unfold naturally and tell itself. A certain amount of history, of context, is needed to motivate the character of Adrian Leverkuhn; readers must be made to understand why the problems he wrestled with are not peculiar to him but arise inevitably and are universal -- in short, our problems as well. This context-building necessitates a rather long, abstract, and careful development. With his daughter Erika's help, the original manuscript was cut extensively to leave only the most essential material, but even so this development occupies the first third of the book. Anyone interested in Western history will find it fascinating, while those who aren't will be richly rewarded for persisting, for the narrative pace, at first imperceptible, does pick up and toward the end becomes irresistible, like the final running out of the sand in Adrian's hourglass.
Given that Adrian's concerns are ours as well, what are we to do about them in our own very different age? What meaning does the concluding high G on the cello in Adrian's final work, that abides like a light in the night, hold for us? When we strip away all the inanity, futility, and trash of our era, what is left? Not art, alas, for art is a finite store that has been exhausted. But there is science, which is unlimited and inexhaustible, and it is specifically the scientific aspect of Adrian's nature, his tendency to "speculate the elements", that is meaningful for us. Modern biology now offers the prospect of understanding and manipulating the essence of life itself. Will it just be more "devil's juggling", more falling down in the dust to worship the quintillions, from which Zeitblom protested nothing human can ever emerge? Can man be trusted to resist temptation in carrying out such a program? Can the devil and the humane even be separated from this vital substance? No one can tell us, yet the essence of the problem is already fully present in symbolic form in Doctor Faustus. This is the triumph of Mann's representative art, of the Artist way. As we continue on the precarious, ever-changing path of self- and world-discovery, Mann's book stands as a guidepost and a warning. This is the enduring significance of Doctor Faustus and the reason why it will always be with us for as long as we remain recognizable as a species.