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.
Now the award-winning translator John E. Woods gives us a definitive new English version of Joseph and His Brothers that is worthy of Mann’s achievement, revealing the novel’s exuberant polyphony of ancient and modern voices, a rich music that is by turns elegant, coarse, and sublime.
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Joseph and His Brothers
By Thomas Mann
Random HouseThomas Mann
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AT THE WELL
It was beyond the hills to the north of Hebron, a little to the east of the road from Urusalim, in the month of Adar, on a spring evening flooded by moonlight bright enough to render writing legible and to reveal-in precise tracery yet shimmering like gossamer-the smallest detail of the leaves and clustered blossoms of a solitary tree, an aged and mighty terebinth, which despite a rather short trunk flung its sturdy branches wide. This beautiful tree was sacred. Beneath its shade counsel might be obtained in various ways, both from the mouths of men-because those who were moved to share their experience of the divine would gather listeners beneath its branches-and by higher means. For those who had slept with their heads leaning against its trunk had, in fact, repeatedly received instruction and prophecy, and during the many years of burnt sacrifices offered at this spot-as attested by the blackened surface of a stone slaughtering table where a slightly sooty flame guttered-the behavior of the smoke, a telling flight of a bird, or even some sign in the heavens had often reinforced the particular fascination that such pious acts at the foot of the tree enjoyed.
There were other trees in the vicinity as well, though none so venerable as the one standing off to itself. Some were of the same species, but there were large-leaved fig trees, too, and stone pines, whose trunks sent aerial roots down into the well-trodden soil and whose evergreen boughs-halfway between needle and foliage, but pallid now in the moonlight-formed thorny fans. Behind the trees, to the south in the direction of the hill concealing the town and partway up its slope, were dwellings and stables, from where the night's silence was occasionally broken by the muffled lowing of an ox, the snorting of a camel, or the initial agonized strains of an ass's complaint. To the north, however, the view lay open. A good-sized enclosure, its moss-covered walls set in two courses of roughly hewn stones, gave the precinct of the oracle tree the appearance of a terrace with low parapets; the plain beyond-bathed now in the luster of a moon at three-quarters and high in the heavens-extended as far as low rolling hills closed by the horizon. The landscape was sprinkled with olive trees and tamarisk copses and crossed by dusty paths, but in the distance it became treeless pasture where here and there the blaze of a shepherd's fire could be seen. Cyclamens, their purples and pinks bleached by the moon, blossomed along the walled parapet; white crocus and red anemone dotted the moss and grasses at the foot of the trees. The air here bore the scent of flowers and aromatic herbs, of moist vapors from the trees, of wood smoke and dung.
The skies were glorious. A broad ribbon of light encircled the moon, whose glow was so intense in its gentleness that it was almost painful to gaze directly into it; and stars had been sown and scattered by the handfuls, so to speak, across the wide firmament-here more sparsely, there more lavishly in thronging, glittering ranks. In the southwest Sirius-Ninurta stood out, a living blue-white fire, a radiant gemstone that seemed to be set in array with Procyon, standing higher to the south in the Lesser Dog. Such splendor might have been matched by King Marduk, who had taken the field shortly after the sun withdrew and would shine all night long-but the moon dimmed his brilliance. Not far from the zenith and a little to the southeast was Nergal, the foe with seven names, the Elamite, who decrees pestilence and death and whom we call Mars. But Saturn, the constant and just, had preceded him above the horizon and now sparkled to the south in the meridian. Orion, with his dominant red light, presented his familiar, showy self-he, too, a hunter, girded and well-armed, sinking toward the west. And there as well, but more to the south, the Dove hovered. Regulus in the constellation of the Lion saluted from directly overhead, to where the yoked oxen of the Wagon had likewise climbed, while reddish yellow Arcturus in the Herdsman stood lower in the northeast and both the yellow light of the Goat and the constellation of the Charioteer had already slipped down toward the realms of evening and midnight. But far lovelier than these, fierier than any portent or the whole host of kokabim, was Ishtar, the sister, wife, and mother-Queen Astarte, low in the west in pursuit of the sun. Her blaze was silver, casting fleeting rays, flaring spikes, and one tall flame seemed to stand atop her like the point of a spear.
Fame and Reality
There were eyes here, skilled at differentiating and making sense of all this, dark eyes lifted upward and mirroring such manifold luster. They moved along the causeway of the zodiac-that sturdy embankment where order was established in the surging heavens and the arbiters of time stood watch-along the sacred array of signs that in quick succession had now begun to grow visible after the brief twilight of these latitudes. First came the Bull, for since those eyes were shining on an early spring night, the sun stood in the sign of the Ram and both had descended together into the depths. Those knowing eyes smiled to the Twins as they turned now from the zenith toward evening; glancing eastward, they found the ear of wheat in the Virgin's hand. But irresistibly drawn by the pure and soft dazzle of the moon, they turned back to its domain of light and shimmering silver shield.
They were the eyes of a young man sitting on the edge of a stonework well not far from the sacred tree. An arch vaulted above the open watery depths of the well, and leading up to it were circles of cracked steps, where the young man was resting his bare feet, wet now with the same spilled water dripping from the stones along that side. Nearby, where the wall was dry, lay both his coat, its wide rust-red pattern set against a yellow background, and cowhide sandals, which, with their tapering sides that allowed heel and toes to be thrust deep into them, were almost shoes. The youth had let fall his shirt of bleached but coarse rustic linen and had wrapped its wide sleeves around his hips. In proportion to his childlike head, his upper body seemed rather heavy and full-with shoulders so square and high-set that there was something Egyptian about them-and in the moonlight his tanned skin took on an oily sheen. For beside him stood an opaque iridescent glass pot filled with scented olive oil, and, after having washed himself with very cold water from the cistern, raising its roped pail several times and drenching himself with the dipper-to bring desired relief from the day's intense sun and at the same time to observe a holy precept-the lad had rubbed his limbs supple with the oil, but he had not removed either the myrtle wreath plaited loosely in his hair or the amulet hanging by a bronzed cord from around his neck to the middle of his chest-a small packet, into which potent threads of protective roots had been sewn.
He appeared now to be engaged in devotions, for with his face lifted to the moon shining full upon it, he held both arms against his ribs, but with forearms erect and open palms turned up and out; and as he sat there rocking gently back and forth, his voice added a kind of low chant to the words or sounds formed by his lips. He wore a blue ring of glazed stoneware on his left hand, and the nails on his fingers and toes showed traces of brick-red henna, presumably applied on the occasion of the town's most recent festival-a dandy's attempt to please the ladies on the rooftops-although he could easily have done without such cosmetic precautions and depended solely on the handsome face God had given him, which despite a still childlike oval was really very charming, thanks in particular to the gentle look of his black, slightly slanting eyes. Beautiful people think they need to enhance nature and "spruce themselves up," presumably as a way of conforming to the pleasing role they play in life or of providing a service for gifts received-which, when taken as a kind of piety, is certainly excusable, whereas there is something sad and foolish about ugly people decking themselves out. But beauty, too, is never perfect and for that very reason incites to vanity; for beauty works hard to achieve what it finds lacking in its own self-imposed ideal-yet another error, for beauty's secret actually consists in the attraction that comes from imperfection.
Around the head of this young man whom we see before us now in reality, hearsay and poetry have woven a veritable halo of fabled beauty, giving us some cause for wonder in the presence of flesh and blood-even with the moon's precarious magic of soft dazzling light lending its aid. As days have multiplied upon days, what all has not been proclaimed and asserted, in song and saga, in apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, in praise of his appearance-praise which, now that we behold him, might well cause us to smile. That his countenance could have shamed the splendor of sun and moon is the least of what became fixed in memory. It has been said that he literally had to cover his brow and cheeks with a veil so that people's hearts might not be ignited by earthly passion for this man sent from God, and that whoever had seen him without his veil would-"now lost in deep and blissful contemplation"-no longer recognize the lad. Oriental tradition does not hesitate to declare that one-half of all potential beauty was bestowed upon this young man, and the other half doled out to the rest of humankind. A Persian bard of great authority outdoes even that conception with the eccentric notion that if all the world's beauty were melted into a single coin weighing twenty-four drachms, then twenty drachms, so our poet enthuses, would have fallen to him, the incomparable paragon.
Fame so extravagant and overweening that it no longer assumes it will be verified is somehow both confusing and alluring to anyone beholding the reality. It can prove dangerous to a sober observation of fact. There are many examples of the power of suggestion inherent in an exaggerated evaluation that gains such general acceptance that individuals allow themselves to be dazzled by it, even to the point of frenzy. Some twenty years before the time now engaging our attention, a man very closely related to this lad had, as we shall hear later, offered sheep for sale in the region of Haran in the land of Mesopotamia, sheep that he had bred himself, but that enjoyed such a reputation that people paid him absolutely absurd prices for them, although anyone had to have seen that these were not heavenly sheep, but quite normal and naturally bred specimens, however excellent. Such is the power of our human need to submit to others! Although determined not to let our minds be darkened by fame that, given our situation, allows us to compare it with reality, we ought not err in the opposite direction either and yield to an exaggerated desire to find fault. Posthumous enthusiasm of the kind that we sense can threaten healthy judgment does not, of course, come out of nothing and nowhere; it has roots sunk firmly in reality and was demonstrably offered, at least in part, to that person while still alive. In order to comprehend this, we must above all accommodate ourselves to the viewpoint of a certain darkling Arabic taste, the aesthetic perspective operative at the time, according to which the young man was indeed so handsome, so beautiful that on many an occasion he was taken at first glance to be, more or less, a god.
We wish therefore to be careful with our words and, yielding to neither a feckless indulgence of rumor nor a hypercritical spirit, shall offer the statement that the face of the moon's young devotee beside the well was a pleasant one, even in its defects. The nostrils, for example, of his rather short and very straight nose were too thick; but since that gave them a flared effect, they added to his countenance a certain liveliness, passion, and fleeting pride that corresponded nicely to the cordiality of the eyes. We shall not censure the expression of haughty sensuality caused by the pout of the lips. That can be misleading, and besides, when it comes to the shape of the lips, we must maintain the viewpoint of the land and its peoples. Whereas we would consider ourselves justified in finding the area between the mouth and nose as too fully arched-or we would, had it not been part and parcel of an especially appealing contour at the corners of the mouth, so that a simple meeting of the lips, without any tightening of muscles, produced a serene smile. Above the strong and handsome line of the brows, the lower part of the forehead was smooth, but farther up it bulged slightly beneath the thick, black hair, which was adorned, of course, with that myrtle wreath and tied back in a pale leather band that gathered the hair at the nape of the neck, but left the ears free-ears that would have been perfectly in order had the lobes not turned out a bit fleshy and too long, evidently the result of unnecessarily large silver rings inserted in early childhood.
So was the lad praying now? He was seated too comfortably for that. He should have been standing. The murmurs and sotto voce singsong with raised hands seemed more a diversion lost in self-forgetfulness, rather like a soft dialogue with the heavenly body that he was addressing. He rocked and mumbled: "Abu-Hammu-Aoth-Abaoth-Abiram-Haam-mi-ra-am..."
The ideas muddled together in his improvisation were elaborated and associated in every conceivable way, for although he included within it the Babylonian pet names for the moon, calling it Abu, father, and Hammu, uncle, he was also playing both with the name of Abram, his true and presumed ancestor and, in a chain of permutations on that name, yet another honored by tradition: the legendary name of the Lawgiver Hammurabi, which means "My divine uncle is exalted." Although these syllables proceeded by way of the star worship practiced in ancient eastern homelands to a commemoration of family, they were also intended to move beyond the concept of fatherhood, culminating in stammered attempts at something new and yet to be, something that shared the spirit of what was so passionately cherished, debated, fostered by those closest to him...
Excerpted from Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann Excerpted by permission.
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