How to Hiss and Huff

Robert Alter

Thomas Mann wrote this engaging novella in a few weeks in 1943. (The new translation by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, which is brisk and direct, is a welcome replacement of the fussier and less accurate English version done by Helen Lowe-Porter for the original publication.) The novella was written after Mann helped pitch a film on the Ten Commandments to MGM. The film never got off the ground, but this text appeared as part of a rather uneven volume on the subject to which ten prominent writers contributed. The obvious intention of the volume, assembled at a dark moment in the war, was to offer a defence of the Bible’s ethical code at a time when it was being vilified by the Nazis. The stories in the 1943 volume were prefaced by the account of a purported conversation involving Hitler, Goebbels and Streicher, in which Hitler, striking a vulgarised Nietzschean note, ranted about liberating the German people from the slave morality of Judaism and Christianity.

Mann’s deep interest in the ancient Hebrews considerably antedated the Ten Commandments project, as he had spent much of the 1930s on his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers (the last volume appeared in 1943), immersing himself not only in the Bible itself but in biblical scholarship, early rabbinic interpretation, comparative religion and anthropology. His instrument was perfectly tuned for this quick performance in the middle of the war. The story he wrote incorporates some shrewd exegetical insights and many beguiling inventions that one could call midrashic. It is not merely about the Ten Commandments but is an imaginative biographical portrait of ‘the man Moses’, as the biblical text calls him several times in a kind of zero-degree epithet. Mann recasts all the miracles in naturalistic terms, some of them quite bold in their inventiveness. He puts forth, for example, a dark, veiled hint that the killing of the first-born in Egypt was carried out by death squads led by Joshua. This idea accords with the fascinating notion about the exercise of violence that Mann introduces at the very beginning of his story: the first narrative report the Bible gives us of Moses is his killing the abusive Egyptian slavedriver, ‘so he knew better than those with no experience that to kill may be sweet, but to have killed is ghastly in the extreme, and that you should not kill.’ How to imagine an ethic that limits violence in an appallingly violent world becomes a central burden of the narrative.

What is especially noteworthy about The Tables of the Law among Mann’s fictions is its playfulness. Gravity is the more characteristic trait of Mann’s writing, the reason Nabokov dismissed him as a pretentiously self-monumentalising nonentity. One scarcely thinks of playfulness in connection with Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain, and Joseph and His Brothers, whatever comic interludes it may include, tends to sink under the weight of its narrative detail and its narrator’s lengthy lucubrations. Only the picaresque Confessions of Felix Krull, a sometimes hilarious novel that still retains its sprightliness, is an exception to this rule. By contrast to his long biblical novel, the rapid-paced brevity of The Tables of the Law is a distinct advantage, often pointing up the comic aspects of serious matters. Here, for example, is its paraphrase of part of the biblical code of laws, which sounds almost Voltairean, though without Voltaire’s animus towards his subject:

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