Background: I grew up in a manse, the home of a pastor, in which a favourite utterance negatively correlated the reading of family devotions with divorce. After dinner we’d “get the book down,” hearing a passage and awkwardly discussing it before the meal’s final Pavlovian prayer: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good and His mercy endures forever!” A breath later, I’d be somewhere else.
For a while our family devotion book was a graphic novel version of the Old Testament. My father would point to a caption, doing the voices of say David and Goliath. I still remember this text’s rendering of Joseph and His Brothers, in which the story was told in two dozen handsome pages. Last week I recalled them, often, during Thomas Mann’s one thousand four hundred and ninety-two.
“Let there be no misunderstanding,” insists the narrator of the awful Joseph and His Brothers: “we have nothing against deletion.” But that’s followed by a sentence that should have been deleted, waxing lyrical about deletion itself. “At the beautiful feast of narrative and reawakening, deletion plays an important and indispensable role,” writes someone electing to tell rather than show.
The book’s genre is Christian fan-fic, in which literary gestures to the New Testament are tossed out to those in-the-know. Ah, the stone that was rolled away, the virgin mother of a lamb, that sort of thing. This works best at its least appropriate, namely when Joseph and Akhenaten discuss the nature of the Godhead as if in perfect agreement both with each other and future Christians. This religiosity may also shed light on the language of the four novels, weirdly pompous after the alpine clarity of The Magic Mountain, containing sentences like “these, then, the tidings” – surely acceptable only in a game of verbal jousting in which each word must begin with the letter T.
Let me give you a couple of the sentences. First, something rather nice about teaching:
Children are not being inattentive when their teachers scold them for it; they are merely attending to things that are perhaps more essential than those their practical instructors have in mind.
And this, which were it not from page 977 of a library book would have been torn out, being the worst sentence I’ve read:
A banal conjecture, but one that is certainly warranted alongside other more pious, more profoundly dreamy explanations of his behaviour – which is to say, the far too playful but profoundly exciting idea of his having died and become the god Usarsiph and of the sacred state of readiness that this implied, but over which, to be sure, there also hovered the curse of the adulterous ass.