"The thorn was in my flesh," Mann said about the genesis of Doctor Faustus, which was composed during World War II. "I knew what I was setting out to do and what task I was imposing upon myself: to write nothing else than the novel of my era, disguised as the story of an artist's life, a terribly imperilled and sinful artist."
Adrian Leverkuhn, a former theological student who has become a composer, enters symbolically into a pact with the devil in exchange for two and a half decades of inspired work. Narrated by Serenus Zeitblom, Leverkuhn's faithful friend, this retelling of the Faust legend turns on the composer's slow descent into syphilitic paralysis. Densely orchestrated with musical constructions and what Mann called historical "montage", the book discourses on the tragedy of Germany, the Schonbergian twelve-tone system, Nietzche, the life of Tchaikovsky, and the introduction of syphilis into Europe. Mann described Doctor Faustus as "difficult, weird, uncanny, sad as life."