Young Joseph. By Thomas Mann. Translated from the German by F. T. Lowe-Porter. 311 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50.
“Young Joseph” is the second volume of a trilogy which Thomas Mann is building about the last fourteen chapters of Genesis. Those who missed the first volume, “Joseph and His Brethren,” with its long and decidedly difficult epistomological researches, will be just as well off if they begin the trilogy here, for only in “Young Joseph” does Mann begin to unleash those faculties of subtle and dynamic narrative, of laying bare the teleology of human behavior, and of miraculously keen observation of motor causes which have won for him the ill-disputed title of the greatest of living novelists.
The purpose of the first volume can be largely served if the reader is reminded that Mann views Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, for all I know, not as actual historical or semi-historical or even symbolical chronicles, but as the accretion of tales and knowledge and lore around those ancient epic heroes, the patriarchs.
Thus, according to Mann, it may well have been one Jacob who set the peeled poles over against the watering troughs of Laban’s flocks, and another Jacob distinct in time of space who stole the birthright of Esau; the old Hebrew tale-spinners hung their favorite yarns on Abraham and Jacob ### as we today pin our pet theories on Roosevelt or the King of England.
It is important to remember this, for Mann does not point it out again, nor does he try to separate once more the different individuals who actually partook of the experience of the patriarchs. Rather, he avails himself of the splendor and majesty of the synthesis which the imaginations of the Hebrews achieved; he writes of Jacob (who, rather than Joseph, is his epic hero) as if he were the embodied experience and spirit of a whole race. As Lewis Gannett has written, the story of Jacob in Mann’s hands becomes “the lucid record of the human spirit, rather than of a single human being.”
As for the actual narrative, Mann does little enough violence to the Biblical incidents. True, he introduces a strange old man, a sort of earth-spirit, who holds mysterious and prophetic colloquies with Joseph and with Reuben; true also, he insists upon identifying the Midianites and the Ishmaelites, who in the Bible played separate parts in the rescue of Joseph from the pit.
But these factual variations are of small consequence, since the major adherence is there. If Mann had merely retold the story, however, “Young Joseph” would be but a pale shadow of the original. It is because of Mann’s ability to round out the human aspects of the characters and to penetrate the mysteries of causation and purpose in human actionâ€”mysteries which have teased Biblical commentators through the agesâ€” that this book is a positive contribution to literature.
Here I can only try to touch on the high spots of Mann’s interpretation of the characters and actions of Joseph and Jacob. As for Jacob, Mann sees in his life a parable once more setting forth the great message of the Jews to the world: cast down the flesh and fortify the spirit. For the fears and hopes of mankind are playthings in the lap of God, both in joy and in grief. Had not Jacob been raised to his greatest bliss on the night that he believed Rachel to have come to his tent, only to discover it as illusion ? And, Jasob, “very old must thou become before thou learnest that nought but illusion and trickery was thy sorest anguish likewise.”
Here Mann, of course, refers to the great, heedless, blasphemous grief which overcame Jacob when the shepherds from the vale of Shechem brought him the bloodied remnants of the coat of many colors and he believed that Joseph had been devoured by a lion. This grief of Jacob’s is something stupendous, primeval; it is time-stopping and world-shaking. We would like to quote endlessly from the noble passages describing it, but must do with one, the last, concerning Jacob’s reconciliation with God:
Life and love are beautiful; but death also has its good side, hiding and preserving the beloved in the past and in absence; so that where there were once care and fear there is now perfect calm. Death, after having preserved, restores. What had Jacob done to restore Joseph, since he had been dismembered? Death itself had seen to that, and quickly. Death had recomposed a whole . . . recomposed it in laughing beauty, and thus preserved him more sweetly and better than the people of the evil land of Egypt preserved their dead with bandages and spices: inviolate, unchanged, unchangeable, that dear, vain, brilliant, wheedling youth of seventeen, who had sat on white Hulda and ridden away.
So remained Joseph for Jacob; and so how shall any say that death has not its good side, however chill and hollow it may be? Jacob adapted himself to it. He looked back with chagrin upon his bickering and arguing with God in the first flowering of his grief, and no longer found it reactionary, but splendid and worthy of reverence instead, that God had not crushed him out of hand, but rather in silent forbearance had let him give rein to the intemperance of his misery.
In these paragraphs, too we are given a resume of Mann’s attitude toward Joseph. Joseph was a beautiful childâ€”but what is beauty? “A conception pallid as it is loftyâ€”a schoolmaster’s dream.” But he was also a brilliant student, and this his ten brothers resented as much as the fact that he was his father’s favorite. But, despite beauty and brain, do not imagine that Mann portrays Joseph as perfect. For if he was dear, he was also vain; he was also overweening; in short, he was a spoiled child. And character is destiny, in the Greek. The seeds of Joseph’s fate lay in his character; and those same seeds made him at once an instrument and a victim in the hand of God.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.