Book Review: Joseph and his Brothers

Everyone time we go on a vacation of more than a week, I take a lengthy book.  On vacation, especially at the pace that Steph and I usually prefer, there are frequent periods of some hours to fill.  I prefer to fill them with reading.  Moreover, I find that the long hours on planes or trains allow me to jump into a long, detailed, thick book (though some selections are much more ambitious than others).  I can still associate books with some vacations from the last few years.

  • 2006 Cycle Tour Vernon – Edmonton: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • 2008 Cycle Tour Nova Scotia: War and Peace by Leo Tolsoy
  • 2009 Cancelled Bicycle Tour due to injury (Stay at home vacation) – Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter
  • 2012 Quebec (including sitting on a train across the country): Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • 2013 Croatia: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • 2014 Anne’s Wedding: Middlemarch by George Elliot
  • 2014 Washington State Bicycle Tour: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The summer 2015 monumental book was Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann.  Published in four volumes in the 1930s and 1940s, the book is a 1500 page dramatic retelling of the second half of the book of Genesis, starting with most of the major events of Jacob’s life and finishing with his death.

The book is ambitious.  Among its many goals and accomplishments, I’d like to focus on four aspects that particularly struck me.

First, as you might expect for a book turning a 20 page story into a 1500 page novel, the characters are extensively filled out from their relatively sparse biblical descriptions.  All of the major characters in the original story, as well as some of the minor ones, are given detailed, rich, psychologically complex characterizations and motivations. Perhaps the most notable is the effort and detail given to Eni, Potiphar’s wife.  (Unnamed in the original, Eni is one of several names given to the character in Mann’s novel).  Given only three words in genesis: `Lie with me’, Potiphar’s wife has become a caricature of woman as temptress.  Mann goes to great lengths to redeem her character from that unfair and simplistic description.  Given a full 200 pages, the story of Eni and Joseph is expanded into a deep, complicated three-year tragedy of unrequited love.   The blame for the eventual crisis between Eni, Joseph, Potiphar is shared among all three characters and several other minor figures.  It’s compelling enough that I often found myself hoping for Joseph to give himself up to the affair and I felt heartbroken for both characters by the end.  The novel felt like a real story about mythologically-influenced by psychologically human characters.  This shatters the simplistic distance of the original myth in a marvelous way.

Second, the story is put in a vivid and intricate cultural context.  Extensively researched, the story connects the characters and their settings with the various towns, cities, empires, cultures and religions of the particular historical period that Mann has chosen.  Biblical scenes which give only the most basic details are now full of secondary and tertiary characters.  A good example is Joseph’s time in prison, where we are given great detail on the warden, his living situation, the role and organization of the prison, the location of the prison and its culture and atmosphere.   There is a temptation, probably from deeply buried impressions of childhood Sunday School stories, to see the biblical stories as isolated.  It never occurs to me, even rereading as an adult, to visualize the complicated surrounding world.  Mann does an amazing job giving that world in great detail.

The first two points are perhaps exactly what you would expect for a novelization of myth.  Myth has a sparse, simplistic form; a novel should extend both character and setting in a natural way.  Mann does this well, but I would have expected a similar effort from any talented writer.  The last two observations are much more surprising and particular to the goals of this author.

Third, Mann takes stories and archetypes from throughout both biblical testaments and mixes them into his story.  I noticed dozens of such examples and I’m sure I missed others due to lack of familiarity.  To give a sense, the stories and archetypes of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abram, Sarai, Eliezer, Jonah, Job, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul and others are applied to Jacob, Joseph and many other characters.  In particular, Joseph is more strongly set-up as a Christ figure than I have ever seen.  A long, complicated reason is given for treating his mother as a virgin, hence giving him a virgin birth.  Both his experiences in `the pit’ (the literal pit for three days before being sold, and the prison in Egypt) are treated as death and resurrection narratives.

Joseph as a Jesus-figure is an idea I have heard before, but Mann isn’t content with conventional parallels.  One of the more amazing and surprising choices was his mythology of the Pharaoh under which Joseph serves.  Mann has chosen the historical Pharaoh Akhenaten to be Joseph’s Pharaoh.  Akhenaten was historically notable for enacting a temporary shift in focus in the Egyptian pantheon, away from the previous sun-god Amun to a new sun-god Aten.   Aten is a more abstract deity (one of the few Egyptian deities to be represented as an object, in this case the sun, instead of a human or human/animal hybrid) and Mann makes Akhenaten’s story about searching for a universal monotheism.  A great part of the appeal of Joseph to Akhenaten is his monotheism, delivered in mythic stories about Abram turning his back on his Chaldean gods and seeking `the Highest’.  This, in itself, is fascinating, but when Akhenaten starts preaching about Aten, his quasi-monotheistic sun-god, the language Mann has chosen is a exact parallel of the the first chapter of the gospel of John.  Akhenaten himself is cast as the word-made-flesh.  The pharaoh, as mythologically the son of the sun-god,is on earth to show the glory of the One and Only.

Lastly, it’s not only biblical archetypes that Mann incorporates.  The surrounding archetypes of many ancient religions are also included with playful exuberance.  Moreover, they aren’t cleanly separated from the biblical archetypes.  Quite the opposite: the biblical stories are very intentionally presented as re-interpretations and adaptations of the stories of the surrounding religions.  All of the Christ-figure discussion of Joseph is also the story of Osiris and Horus and the death/tomb/rebirth narrative of ancient Egypt.  Likewise, it is also the story of the Cannanite and Babylonian gods, where death and rebirth are frequent themes.  The overwhelming impression given by this mixing is that the stories of Joseph are anything but novel.  Growing up with the Sunday school versions and becoming aware of historical biblical criticism as an adult, I found this impression absolutely fascinating.  One of the greatest things about reading this novel is getting a sense, through fiction, of one way the Hebrew stories might have originated among a rich cultural tradition of myths and archetypes, as opposed to the Deus-Ex-Machina delivery of the bible out of the ether that my childhood self tacitly assumed.  Mann does give the Hebrews some claim to originality when talking about the monotheistic idea of a singular higher power above all the Gods, though even here, he finds that same tendency in the Pharaoh Akhenaten.  The book is full of lovely mythological play between the surrounding culture informing and donating the stories of the bible and the Hebrews re-interpreting this gift in the understanding of Abram’s goal of serving a singular Highest.