A sanitorium in the Swiss Alps reflects the societal ills of pre-twentieth-century Europe, and a young marine engineer rises from his life of anonymity to become a pivotal character in a story about how a human's environment affects self identity. In this dizzyingly rich novel of ideas, Mann uses a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, a community devoted exclusively to sickness, as a microcosm for Europe, which in the years before 1914 was already exhibiting the first symptoms of its own terminal irrationality. The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition and irony, sexual tension and intellectual ferment, a book that pulses with life in the midst of death.
Joachim plans a military career, and he approaches the prescribed regimen as a military man—he follows it strictly. He has been told he needs another few months to be cured—he will stay those months and he will not be convinced otherwise by his cousin.
Three weeks pass—slowly or quickly? It depends on one’s perspective of the moment. Hans Castorp catches cold—an illness not allowed or recognized on the mountain. He falls in love with one of the patients during his three weeks. At the end of the three weeks he has not recovered physically or romantically. When he is diagnosed with a “moist spot” on his lung for which a stay is recommended, he quickly acquiesces.
The doctors: are they medical men or charlatans or both? The patients: are they truly ill or have they settled into life in a dream world from which they do not wish to awaken? Some die on the mountain and not even their bodies are returned to their homes. Some remain there, seemingly forever. Some come and go and return.
Seven years pass, but Hans Castorp does not know how long it has been. He follows endless philosophical debate between Herr Settembrini, the humanist and Herr Naphta, the communist. Does he learn? Does the reader learn? He is overwhelmed by Mynheer Peeperkorn, the personality. Joachim leaves and returns. Hans Castorp’s love—Clavdia Chauchat—leaves and returns. Death overcomes some of these important actors—is Hans Castorp affected? Does he change? Is he still a “delicate child of life”?
Hans Castorp finally leaves the mountain—but only because the Great War has begun. He returns to the flatland not as an engineer, but as a German foot soldier. We do not know whether he will survive to return to “normal” life.
Themes of time, music, death, naiveté, knowledge, power and, perhaps, growth are interwoven through this tale. It is not a modern novel. As a reader I at first did not like our hero, Hans Castorp. I questioned whether I should continue to read this very long book. I kept reading based upon encouragement from one who loves this work, and I was rewarded. I never liked Hans Castorp, but his story enthralled and challenged me.
Thomas Mann wrote: “Now what is there that I can say about the book itself, and the best way to read it? I shall begin with a very arrogant request that it be read not once but twice. A request not to be heeded, of course, if one has been bored at the first reading. A work of art must not be a task or an effort; it must not be undertaken against one’s will. It is mean to give pleasure, to entertain and enliven. If it does not have this effect on a reader, he must put it down and turn to something else. But if you have read “The Magic Mountain” once, I recommend that you read it twice.”
Is this book on your “ought to read” list? I recommend you try it. Then, if you finish it, I think you will be ready, as am I, to read it twice.
The Magic Mountain is shot through with melancholy. It is the feeling I had when I first read the book some years ago and it hit me again when I re-read it recently.
Melancholy today can be defined as a constitutional tendency to be gloomy or depressed or as feeling of thoughtful sadness. The link with depression gives a sense of demotivating or of a person locked into a syndrome where it is difficult to get out from beneath it and who sinks into despair. Thomas Mann was writing his Magic Mountain before, during and after the first world war, when the idea of melancholy had positive as well as negative aspects. It was not just sadness, sorrow and despair (although there is plenty of that in The Magic Mountain); it was tinged with sweetness, it involved the pleasure of reflection and the contemplation of what one loves or longs for. It provided an opportunity for indulgent self-reflection. Earlier during the Romantic Period melancholy was thought to be an aesthetic emotion, which could be induced by a sense of place, a desolate moor, a vast ocean or the grandeur of the mountains. These places would provide the solitude necessary for melancholy thoughts. Earlier still melancholy was seen in an even more positive light; Albrecht Durer at the dawn of the Renaissance saw it as an attitude of study by a seeker of knowledge and linked it all with alchemy.
"And every herb that sips the dew
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain
There pleasures melancholy give
And I with thee will choose to live"
(John Milton from Il Penseroso)
Hans Castorp chooses to live with his melancholy for seven years at the Berghof sanatorium and indulges himself in this most bitter-sweet emotion, like many of his fellow residents. Robert Burton in An Anatomy of Melancholy says:
"a most incomparable delight is to melancholize and build castles in the air, to go smiling to themselves acting an infinite variety of parts, which they suppose and strongly imagine they represent."
Our hero Hans Castorp an only child of a merchant family travels to the Berghof sanatorium high in the mountains and a refuge for tuberculosis sufferers. He is visiting his sick cousin Joachim, but his intended stay of three weeks lasts for seven years as the institutional life at the Berghof suits his temperament and his feelings of being unwell are diagnosed as a possible "moist spot" on his lungs. At first he is company for Joachim, but soon meets and comes under the spell of some more long term sufferers; the humanist Settembrini, the totalitarian Jesuit Leo Naphta, the god-like personality who is Mynheer Peeperkorn and last but not least the seductive Clavdia Chauchat. They along with the Director Behrens all act as pedagogues for young Hans, who develops from being a callow youth into a man of reason.
Mann creates a hothouse atmosphere in the Sanatorium and its surroundings to explore themes of illness and death, the passage of time, the nature of love and the shaping of society. There are lively debates centering on humanism, radicalism and religion. There are sexual scandals, intense nationalism leading to fistfights, horrible deaths through illness and finally the frightening summoning of a spirit from the other side. Mann is able to weave all his themes throughout this massive book and where dramatic events occur they do not interrupt the flow of his elegiac prose.
Denis Diderot in his Encyclopeadia published in 1765 has this to say about melancholics:
"Melancholics are usually sad pensive dreamers, anxious, steady in study and meditation, tolerant of cold and hunger, they have an austere face wrinkled eyebrow and a tanned complexion....they can behave like kings and emperors"
I am not to sure about the wrinkled eyebrow but this strikes me as a fair description of Hans. His life in the sanitarium is conducive to those who are prone to melancholy. The rest cures that take up huge chunks of their day provide the perfect opportunity for solitude and reflection. The proscribed walks in the magnificent mountain scenery are the perfect backdrop for sublime thoughts.
Melancholy is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Settembrini is keen to engage Hans in purposeful activity he fears that Hans will all too easily slip into a state where nothing is achieved. Director Behrens himself is prone to melancholy; after showing Hans and Joachim his paintings he gets involved in an intense dialogue with Hans about medical issues leading him to think about corruption and death, he says "I'm beginning to feel melancholy, it just comes over me you see". At the Midsummer night celebrations Hans asks himself why people are so boisterous and merry and he says to Joachim:
" Is it melancholy mirth at the high point? I'm just describing it as I see it, in the words that come to mind. Melancholy mirth and mirthful melancholy-that's the reason why theses primitives are cheering and dancing around the flames. They do it out of constructive despair....."
Hans fears being left alone on the mountain when Joachim goes, he fears he will never find his way back to the flatlands and he has these thoughts as the cousins are going down to Behrens examination room, Behrens says "Greetings boys, in a dull voice, that was a further indication of a languid mood-melancholy general resignation. Hans before his epic walk in the snow expresses his wish to be alone "Two great wishes the first and stronger was to be alone with his thoughts to 'play king' and his balcony permitted him to do that." Hans when caught in the snowstorm and in danger of being lost becomes almost delirious and Mann says "All this came from those ambiguous attacks which he fought off feebly now. The familiar blend of languor and excitement which was the constant condition of a Berghof guest" Joachim finds illness and death shrouded in melancholy and his mother Frau Ziemessen feels it too when she comes upon Hans unexpectedly during her stay at the Berghof and Mann says " she pretended to be pleasantly surprised to find him there although her surprise betrayed a certain melancholy muffled by strain and worry about Joachim.
Music was thought to be a cure for melancholy, but when the gramophone device is commandeered by Hans it only serves to enhance his moods. A certain song can stir in him deep thoughts and Mann says:
"his fate might have been different if his disposition had not been so susceptible to the charm of the emotional sphere to the universal state of mind that the song epitomised, so intensely, so mysteriously. But that same fate had brought with it enhanced adventures and insights had stirred up inside him the problem of 'playing king'"
Music cannot set Hans free from his melancholy. Towards the end of the novel we find him increasingly 'playing king'. His melancholy, his experiences on the mountain and his role of pupil to some influential pedagogues have made him into the person that he has become. Even Joachim's ghastly apparition cannot shock him out of his demeanor. He is no longer physically sick if he ever was; Behrens as good as said so when Joachim made his wild departure and so all that is keeping Hans there is Hans himself and a feature of the melancholic is the enjoyment of their melancholy. External events play an increasing part in the novel, it is set in the period leading up to the first world war. preparations for the war finally have an impact on the relatively closed world of the Berghof and people start to leave in droves, there is frantic activity and Mann says of Hans:
"He saw that the enchantment was broken, that he was released set free - not by his own actions as he had to admit to his shame, but set free by elementary external forces, for whom his liberation was a very irrelevant matter."
Thomas Mann was writing the novel before and during the aftermath of the 1914-18 war. Writing is a lonely occupation and some writers are prone to melancholy. it is interesting to surmise whether Mann's emotional state seeped into The Magic Mountain. Whatever did seep into this book has made it one of the most unique and rewarding reading experiences. It is incomparable and indeed magic and I hope to be able to read it again some time in the future, when I feel in need of that bitter-sweet melancholy experience and a resolution to grapple with issues of life and death explored so majestically.
Translated from German by John E. Woods, 1995
It felt like something of an accomplishment just to finish this one, but really I only scratched the surface. Hans Castrop goes to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps for a vacation before starting his first real job. He is visiting his cousin, a patient. But things are different up on the mountain, and somehow Castrop ends up as one of the patients and spends seven years resting and recovering.
There are multiple themes explored in this book, and all with ambiguity and without answers, and at length. Reading the text only gets into part of the conversation, as it's only one layer, or more like a hallway of open doors with rooms to explore. The main theme I took from Hans was one of reflection. Young, an orphan, educated but unbiased, he's a blank slate willing to listen to or read anything and everything, and then think about it during his "rest cures". And things do happen to him, but it's not always clear what.
Another is the theme of time, the magic mountain seems outside real time.
"So then, what is time? Will you please tell me that? We perceive space with our senses, with vision and touch. But what is the organ for the sense of time? Would you please tell me that? You see, you're stuck. But how are we going to measure something about which, precisely speaking, we know nothing at all--cannot list a single one of its properties. We say time passes. Fine, let it pass for all I care. But in order to measure it...no, wait! In order for it to be measurable, it would have to flow evenly, but where is it written that is does that? it doesn't do that for our conscious minds, we simply assume it does, just for the sake of convenience. And so all our measurements are merely conventions, if you please."
A masterpiece of sorts, I can't say this changed my life, but when I look back at the hours I spent reading, some of them very difficult and challenging hours, I don't regret a moment of them. If the stars align right and I get in the mood to read this again, to give it a little more of the time it deserves, it will be with anticipation.
Hans is educated, and encounters the wide and sociopathic world of Europolitics pre-WWI, and I suppose there's a certain amount of presentism in this on Mann's part, but Herr Settembrini is one of the best, most heroic "good teachers" I can think of in literature (without being lionized, as those guys often are), and Herr Naphta is as memorable as a serpent. Assailant!
Hans Castorp falls in love, and I think doing the whole wooing scene in French is a cute conceit. I see with relief that the newer translation I bought has it in English--I'm sure I'll get to it, especially since Mann recommends reading the book twice. Like music, you need to come back to it to hear the texture. Really you should read every good book twice.
And you are enchanted and intoxicated and exhausted and start to feel like you too may have a spot on your lung, or at least like staying up reading in a cold basement can't be the best for your health. And then you think, what the hell, the magic mountain! I don't think like that! But it is nice, like hanging up your hat and brushing off your jacket every time you come in from the cold, getting all set in your fur sack and going back out into it for an extended stay,but with a tiny heissschokolade this time. When the real magic happens, it's wonderful but almost a distraction. I will visit the Berghof again, as sure as I will the real "hier in oben."
Not sure how to write a review of Der Zauberberg with something of value added to what others have written. Other reviews have included the important plot elements and themes. All pretty monumental: the relativity of time, illness as metaphor, life and death, civilian life vs. military duty, forebodings of catastrophe, repressed desire, liberal humanism, revolutionary philosophy, East vs. West, Apollonian vs Dionysian world views, music as a dangerous influence, paranormal experiences, dreams and visions as a special reality, it's all in there. Einstein, Freud, and Marx all get a workout, without the names ever being mentioned. So instead of a comprehensive review, a few details perhaps:
Mann loves the new technologies becoming available in the early 20th century. His intensely detailed and poetic description of an ordinary record player is enchanting even today after it has been superseded by newer technology. And he loves the concentric grooves of the record itself. Later I saw a photograph of him watching a record play,and his whole body language shows how he is entranced. His family called him "Der Zauberer", the magician. But his magic was possible because he himself is susceptible to the magic in ordinary things.
And what he does with ordinary x-rays, never using the common German word based on the name of the inventor Roentgen. It's Lichtbild, or some other substitute identification. Hans Castorp is horrified and enchanted by the process of looking into the body and seeing the heart. Castorp treasures an x-ray of the lungs of the woman he loves. That's a bit creepy, and adds to the erotic Venusberg mood of the mountain top hospital.
I think Mann may have studied the savage news photos coming out of World War I. They were circulated widely not just in newspapers, but as millions of postcards with scenes of battlefields and destruction. I have no documentation that Mann was fascinated by them, just a little internal evidence. There is a fleetingly weird and incongruent glimpse of cannibalism in one of Castorp's otherwise idyllic visions when he is dazed out in the snow. Disturbing photos of cannibalism were circulated after the Russian Revolution, part of an attempt to solicit international aid. And the concluding scene of the novel seems based on these postcard depictions of battlefields, and possibly early documentary film footage.
Nature has its magic: the snow storm is the favorite scene for most reviewers. For me the waterfall scenes are the most beautiful, and the waterfall plays a role at several pivotal moments: when newly arrived Castorp has a nosebleed by the waterfall and decides he must be ill somehow too. When Peeperkorn delivers a rant no one can hear because of the noise of the rushing water, but it doesn't matter that no one understands, because his words never make sense anyway...but the rant precedes his suicide.
Beyond the weird magic of ordinary things and the spell cast by nature, there is the entertaining magic of different personalities. Each character seems to have an attribute like classic gods and Catholic saints. Marusja, the woman that Castorp's cousin is in love with, is always giggling into an orange-scented handkerchief. Frau Stoerr mutters one malapropism after another, to great effect. Castorp's love interest, Clawdia Chauchat has a number of attributes: poorly manicured hands, letting doors slam, touching the back of her head to smooth her hair. He is initially put off by these characteristics, and gradually they become part of her seductive charm. Mann plays with these attributes, setting little traps that spring shut later in the story. When his beloved Clawdia returns, Castorp anticipates hearing the door to the dining room slam behind her, but for once it doesn't. She's accompanied by a new lover, Peeperkorn, who holds the door for her. The non-slam ushers in the dramatic confrontation between the two men, leading to the lover's suicide, Clawdia's second departure, and Castorps recovery from an imaginary illness.
Mann plays constantly with language. Ordinary words are introduced and then recombined in extraordinary ways. Rest treatments are a Liegekur, two common words made into something odd. Joachim is obsessed with military duty, and his attribute is devotion to military service or Dienst. Out of this Mann comes up with Liegedienst...obligation to rest at designated times. Ordinary things start to seem weird, and odd things seem to be accepted reality. Some kind of alienation. He likes to take the common term for something and translate it root by root into German, so he doesn't use Psychoanalyse, instead he writes Seelenzergliederung...again alienation and a bit of magic.
Once I finished the book, reality started to look a bit unreal. Ordinary things took on abstract meaning, even getting a fever seemed like a moral question that required extensive examination. And I can hear Settembrini and Naphta commenting on the things I buy at the grocery store. These unreal characters have taken on a life of their own off the page.
And yet despite the profusion of themes and ideas, this is a supremely contained book. ‘Insular’ you might almost say, were the etymology not so inappropriate; perhaps ‘hermetically sealed’ is better (and indeed that becomes an important phrase in the text). The world of this novel is a closed one, or so at least it appears – sealed off from reality, with its own rules, its own time, its own space. The extent to which the characters here can interact with the ‘real’ world is something they have to discover themselves through the book’s seven-hundred-plus pages.
The plot can be disposed of in a single statement: that a young engineer called Hans Castorp takes a three-week visit to see his cousin in a Swiss sanatorium and ends up staying for seven years. This is not a novel of events, but a novel of ideas. (The main idea was apparently, I wonder if I can write seven hundred pages where literally nothing happens?)
At first the set-up seems to anticipate the whole imprisoned-in-a-medical-facility trope that has subsequently become familiar – as Hans gets sucked into the routine, and gradually diagnosed with problems of his own that prevent his leaving, I was picking up on a vague One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe, and I also found myself thinking of the Alpine clinic scenes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or even the Timothy Cavendish bits of Cloud Atlas.
But the danger here is more subtle. The staff are friendly and accommodating (despite a sense that ‘above and behind [the Director] stood invisible forces’); you can leave for a trip into town, or even discharge yourself, whenever you wish. To paraphrase The Eagles, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never discount the possibility of a tubercular relapse forcing you to return with a collapsed lung. The patients claim they want to get out, but their attitude, in reality, is much more ambiguous. There’s a brilliant moment where Hans rails against the surroundings a little too much, and the director of the sanatorium calls his bluff with a quick examination:
When he was done, he said, ‘You may leave.’
Hans Castorp stammered, ‘You mean…but how can that be? Am I cured?’
‘Yes, you’re cured […]. As far as I’m concerned, you may leave.’
‘But, Director Behrens. You’re not really serious, are you?’
And suddenly we realise that Hans does not want to leave at all. He doesn’t want to go back to the responsibilities and expectations of his engineering job; here, in the sanatorium, he has freedom – freedom, and also a certain license in behaviour granted to the sick.
This is what lies behind the book’s treatment of time, and why the narrator can refer to the story as a Zeitroman, a ‘time-novel’. The inhabitants are in some sense degraded by being there, but they also cherish their privileged status, exempt from the world’s calendar. One character speaks of the sanatorium as an ‘isle of Circe’; it is a ‘life without time’, where the ‘true tense of all existence is the “inelastic present”’ (ausdehnungslose Gegenwart). In such an environment, there is a tendency for ideas, ideologies, dogma, to clash together unmediated – and also, conversely, for petty jealousies, flirtations and sexual desires to be unnaturally heightened.
Indeed this must be one of the most sexual novels ever written to involve so little actual sex. Everything is sublimated into various social conventions, so that Hans’s quasi-relationship with his mysterious fellow patient Clavdia Chauchat is initiated when he asks to borrow a pencil, and a climactic instance of sexual union is described, adorably, as a moment when ‘the use of informal pronouns achieved its full meaning’.
Psychoanalytic critics have had a field-day with the pencil-lending, not least because it reminds Hans of his homoerotic feelings for a childhood friend. But what makes the book truly Freudian in a less trivial sense is its close examination of the links between sex and death, eros and thanatos. One of my favourite chapters is the section called ‘Research’, where Hans stays up all night reading books about anatomy and biochemistry and feeling intimations of mortality mixed with a vague horniness. Life is imagined as ‘a secret, sensate stirring in the chaste chill of space’ – ‘matter blushing in reflex’ – while evolution is ‘the quintessence of sensuality and desire’, stirred into action ‘by reeking flesh’. Gazing out over the nighttime Alpine landscape, Hans sees only a cosmic, naked (female) human body:
The night of its pubic region built a mystic triangle with the steaming pungent darkness of the armpits, just as the red epithelial mouth did with the eyes, or the red buds of the breast with the vertically elongated navel.
(This whole virtuoso section reminded me of university, spending all night poring over textbooks while trying to manage teenage hormones.)
So much for the metaphysical games, the grand narrative theories. I’d expected something of the sort just from the novel’s reputation. What I had not expected – and it came as a very pleasant surprise – was to find that The Magic Mountain is a comic novel. In fact the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it’s this tone that lifts it, for me, into the first rank. Apart from anything else, it’s so important for the reader that they have some counterpoint to the grandiose theories so many of the characters want to expound upon, and Mann provides exactly that through the endearing character of Hans himself, our ‘thoroughly unpretentious’, ‘unheroic hero’. High-minded comments – and there are many – are rarely allowed to stand without an invitation for us to smile at them:
‘Did you know that the great Plotinus is recorded to have said that he was ashamed to have a body?’ Settembrini asked, and with such earnest expectation of an answer that Hans Castorp found himself forced to admit that this was the first he had heard of it.
Later, after a similarly earnest apophthegm from another character, we are allowed to eavesdrop on Hans's thought process: ‘Well, there’s a Delphic remark for you,’ he says to himself. ‘And if you purse your lips tight after delivering it, that will certainly intimidate everyone for a bit.’ In fact even when Hans is the one delivering the sententiousness, he can’t take himself very seriously:
‘There are so many different kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst. Hello! Why, I think I’ve just coined a phrase, a bon mot. How do you like it?’
(‘Very much,’ comes the deadpan reply. ‘I cannot wait for your first collection of aphorisms.’) Without these ironic shifts in register, the book would still be fascinating but it would be monotone: with them, the effect is almost orchestral.
Such things are brought out especially well by John E Woods in his 1996 translation, an improvement on the old 1927 Lowe-Porter version in every way. Lowe-Porter, it has been said, succeeded in translating the novel into German, and having tried the first few pages of her translation I admit I found it almost unreadable. I had to order the Woods from the US, but it was worth it, despite the godawful cover and font design used by Vintage, and passing over also the Americanisms scattered through the text (catercorner being perhaps the most jarring; Woods also silently amends the patients’ temperatures from Celsius to Fahrenheit!).
Towards the end of the book, we finally suspect that Mann is pushing us beyond the ‘hyperarticulate’ arguments and towards real-world applications of these theories – to ‘leave logomachy behind’, as the narrator says at one point. The final couple of pages of this book move for the first time beyond Davos, to show us the Western Front – and we realise with a terrific jolt that it is 1914 and time has not stopped moving after all. Suddenly we appreciate the full importance of the novel’s investigation into how love and life can be made to emerge from death.
But now I am in danger of just rephrasing the book’s final lines in less felicitous language. Suffice to say that the whole mountainous project comes together in the climax, and it all ends, characteristically, in a question mark. Readers today may be better-placed than they wish to supply the answers.
A great many false ideas have been spread about the nature of boredom. It is generally believed that by filling time with things new and interesting, we can make it "pass," by which we mean "shorten" it; monotony and emptiness, however, are said to weigh down and hinder its passage. This is not true under all conditions. Emptiness and monotony may stretch a moment or even an hour and make it "boring," but they can likewise abbreviate and dissolve large, indeed the largest units of time, until they seem nothing at all. Conversely, rich and interesting events are capable of filling time, until hours, even days, are shortened and speed past on wings; whereas on a larger scale, interest lends the passage of time breadth, solidity, and weight, so that years rich in events pass much more slowly than do paltry, bare, featherweight years that are blown before the wind and are gone. What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony - uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death.
As Hans Castorp abandons himself to the uniformity of life at the Sanatorium Berghof, where time is never measured in units smaller than the month and a casual three-week visit can easily stretch into a life-altering sojourn of seven years, he experiences both this compression of time, and the fluid lack of certainty that comes with the unobserved passage of years. In this comfortable, cosmopolitan, yet hermetically sealed mountain environment, far above the bustle of the "flatlands," breathing in air that "had neither odor nor moisture nor content, that evoked no memories," he loses track of how long his stay has become. He even takes to saying "yesterday" when he means "a year ago," and "tomorrow" for "next year." Each time he sits down to one of the Sanatorium's lavish meals (and there are five of them every day), he has the eerie sensation that no time has passed at all since the last one: "once he sat down it would be as if he had never stood up." He finds himself in a state of mental suspended animation, despite the fact that he continues to move around, conduct conversations and love affairs, and despite the gathering world conflicts whose effects can be felt even at the cloistered sanatorium.
Because another thing that connects In Search of Lost Time and The Magic Mountain is the First World War, which interrupted the composition of both works, and looms large in the retrospective vision of the second. Mann's novel was begun in 1912, radically expanded and revised after 1918, and published in 1924, although it's set during the escalating hostilities that led to World War I. Whereas the War seems like little more than a footnote in Proust, it casts a sinister allegorical light over the whole of The Magic Mountain. The impression of a narcissistic Europe, detached from the catastrophic reality toward which it is careening, blissfully taking its collective temperature and gazing at its collective navel, is brilliantly communicated via the antics of the Berghof guests. The civilians are ignorant and self-absorbed, easy prey for any passing fad, and the soldiers (like Hans Castorp's cousin Joachim Zeimssen) just want to do battle, with no regard for the justice or injustice of any particular war. The intellectuals, represented by the self-proclaimed humanist Settembrini and the medievalist totalitarian Naphta, are hopelessly confused in their labyrinthine arguments: the humanist seems to believe in eugenics in the name of progress and war with Austria in the name of a united world, whereas the religious man advocates communistic terrorism in the service of God. The sanatorium director seems by turns melancholic and crass, concerned mainly with "puffing" the reputation of the place and retaining his bevy of pan-European guests (one hardly ever hears of a patient released from the place as cured). Mann's cuttingly ironic narrative voice, which I found hilarious as well as sobering, takes careful aim at the ridiculous in everyone, whether it be Hans Castorp's unthinking bourgeois triviality,
"I don't understand," Hans Castorp said. "I don't understand how someone can not be a smoker - why it's like robbing oneself of the best part of life, so to speak, or at least of an absolutely first-rate pleasure. When I wake up I look forward to being able to smoke all day, and when I eat, I look forward to it again, in fact I can honestly say that I actually only eat so that I can smoke, although that's an exaggeration, of course. But a day without tobacco - that would be absolutely insipid, a dull, totally wasted day. And if some morning I had to tell myself, there's nothing left to smoke today, why I don't think I'd find courage to get up, I swear I'd stay in bed."
or Settembrini's bizarrely tainted idealism:
As technology brought nature increasingly under its control, he said, by creating new lines of communication - developing networks of roads and telegraph lines - and by triumphing over climatic conditions, it was also proving to be the most dependable means by which to bring nations closer together, furthering their knowledge of one another, paving the way for people-to-people exchanges, destroying prejudices, and leading at last to the universal brotherhood of nations. The human race had come out of darkness, fear, and hate, but now it was moving forward and upward along a shining road toward a final state of understanding, inner illumination, goodness, and happiness - and technology was the most useful vehicle for traveling that road...But to achieve this goal, it was necessary above all to strike at the Asiatic principle of bondage and obduracy at its vital center point, at the very nerve of resistance - in Vienna. One must deal a fatal blow to Austria and crush her, first to avenge past wrongs and second to open the way for the rule of justice and happiness on earth.
I think the last two quotes give a good idea of the humor and elegance of Mann's prose, which made this novel a delicious reading experience for me and helped me through some of the denser philosophical passages. And despite the ridiculousness of the characters, there is also much in them that's likable. They are almost deliriously irrational, but Mann makes it clear that they live in an irrational world - how else can they react? How is one to "choose life," to be life-affirming and constructive, in a Europe veering wildly yet nonchalantly toward meaningless destruction? Settembrini repeatedly argues that Hans Castorp ought to leave the sanatorium, to return to "real life" down below, and that choosing to stay in the artificial protection of the sanatorium is choosing to glorify death and illness. And yet is Castorp's final departure, heading for trenches as the war finally erupts, a choice of life? The final battlefield scene evokes perhaps more life and more death, more strong feeling and more ambiguity, than any other part of the novel. Which is perhaps only appropriate.
There were moments when, as you "played king," you saw the intimation of a dream of love rising up out of death and this carnal body. And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round - will love someday rise up out of this, too?
That's arguably all you really need to know about this book, if you haven't read it, and it was pretty much all I remembered from the first time I read it (quite some time ago). Mann himself encourages readers to read it twice. More than twice would probably be better, but there are limits to how many times you can plough through a work this long. I certainly hope it won't be my last time...
So what is it really about? As usual with Mann, you can take your pick. It's a book with a lot of discussions of serious political and philosophical topics, with characters who explicitly argue for and are obviously meant to represent abstract principles and schools of thought, but it's also a book full of apparently trivial superficial detail about the everyday life of the sanatrium. The international clientele of the sanatorium is obviously sometimes parodying the clumsy process by which Edwardian/Wilhelmite Europe lurched towards war, but at other times the symbolism is more existential than political, as the patients step back from the real world to flirt with the seductive attractions of illness and death.
Basically, it's a book where you can find just about anything discussed to just about any depth, with no apparent rule to fix how much analysis should go on - say - the best way of wrapping yourself in blankets, as opposed to the utility of revolutions, the physics of the gramophone, the history of Freemasonry, or tonight's menu. Endlessly fascinating, occasionally infuriating (no-one but Mann could take over a hundred words to tell us that a record was the last act of Verdi's Aida), always magnificent.
(This was my 1000th review on LibraryThing!)
"The Magic Mountain" took me much longer to read than anything in recent memory. I've read the first four volumes of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" and also Joyce's "Ulysses" recently, and they were really smooth sailing (and much more enjoyable) when compared to this one. While reading, I found the book variously boring, obvious, and pedantic. After about the half way point - I'd guess close to the introduction of Naptha, the novel got much more interesting. But then the end seemed to tack on several completely unnecessary chapters. I understand that the Peeperkorn character probably represents the decay of culture, but it just seemed superfluous to be. Also, the several sections which were essentially just reviews or critiques of musical selections were, I think, tediously unnecessary.
I've read two other of Mann's novels: "Death in Venice" and "Doctor Faustus," and I liked both of those quite a bit better. There were certainly some very good sections in "The Magic Mountain." I especially enjoyed the skiing incident; I also appreciated the romance in the novel - I appreciated that it ultimately was not the point.
Well, this is a short book! I'm joking, of course, because it's about 850 some pages long...and worth every one of them.
When I started reading it, I was in a very "this is a serious book and ought to be approached as such" mindset; but fortunately, the novel beat that out of me, which was good - or else I would not have appreciated it half as much. Yes, it is a serious novel, but it's also a fun novel, an interesting novel, a hilarous novel (what else to a say in a story where characters lie about how high their fever is to get respect?). The plot can be described in two sentences: Young man goes to a sanitorium. Young man gets stuck in sanitorium: brilliance ensues. The cast of characters is fantastic, from the lewd, but strangely sexy and sophisticated Frau Chauchat, to the perfect military cousin Joaquim (who comes back in a seance later), and the director, who probably has tuberculosis himself). Readings this book, you start to wonder if anyone DOESN'T have tuberculosis - it seems that once you get onto the mountain, the atmosphere sucks you in, and you develop the disease just to avoid leaving! And the atmosphere is incredibly thick and powerful, we readers are sucked into it as much as the hero Hans is.I've never read a novel as obsessed - and as intelligent in its obsession - with time as this one, which not only philosophizes on time, but also applies that philosophy in the structure of the novel itself - more than half of the novel takes place during the first year, and the next six get progressively less time.
What else to say about this book? A book where the attraction is expressed in terms of anatomy: " derived from and perfected by substances awakened to lust via means unknown, by decomposing and composing organic matter itself, by reeking flesh."
The beauty of sickness: " There was something perfectly delighful and enjoyable about a tickle in the depths of your chest, that got worse and worse until you reached down deep for it, squeezing and pressing to let it have its way."
Perhaps what this book is about is living life in the constant presence of death, and the way it's written, this seems almost like a good thing.
The basic idea is quite simple - Hans Castorp, who is a regular German guy, arrives at this sanatorium to visit his cousin Joachim who is suffering from consumption. Hans thinks he's just going to pay his cousin a short visit but he soon discovers that maybe he's not as fit as he thought he was and ends up as a patient there himself. The sanatorium is full of unusual characters who Hans gradually meets and there is a strong comic element to the narrative. Hans falls in love with a Russian woman and the only language they share is French. They have a long conversation at one point which is entirely in French and which is not translated. There are also lots of earnest philosophical debates between the humanist Settembrini and the Marxist Naphta. As for what the book is actually about, that's a tough question. Possibly the book is a metaphor for the state of Europe in the early 20th Century. The book is certainly a melting pot exploring life, love, death, music, illness, politics and philosophy. It's a book of ideas with moments of humour and pathos.
From the point of view of narrative, Mann sustained my interest throughout. The account of young Hans Castorp, on the brink of a career, who goes to pay a brief visit to a consumptive cousin in a Swiss sanatorium but ends up staying so much longer; the description of life in an institution - albeit a luxurious one; the treatment of the disease in the early years of the 20th century were of great interest. And as events take their toll, and we reach the seance scene - and indeed the ending of the story - Mann's lovely writing brings tears to one's eyes.
However the narrative is interspersed with great sections of philosophical musings, as Hans becomes acquainted with two opposing mentors, Settembrini and Naphta, ('it was again impossible to distinguish which side was in the right, where God stood and where the Devil, where death and where life') whose lengthy and obscure harangues made this reader's heart sink, and felt like wading through porridge. I absolutely confess to only getting the drift of a small percentage of this, coming to identify with the character Ferge, "to whom all elevated thoughts were foreign."
Rating the novel is thus difficult, as I fully realise that loftier minds than mine have been able to appreciate Mann's work. And that the author himself, in his postscript, requests 'that it be read not once but twice' to get 'a deeper enjoyment.'
I shan't be re-reading it; I have to say that when I finally reached page 716 I shouted 'hurrah! I've done it!' It's lovely in parts but mighty heavy going.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
This is really a mountain of a book, about 725 pages in the Franklin Library edition I read. It became difficult as page after page was philosophical argument, but I could not stop reading it because I became so interested in the characters and their fates. Mann describes a tuberculosis sanitarium in Switzerland, and as I judge it by the ending at the onset of world war one, from 1907 to 1914. There is satire and implied criticism of the management of these places, but the main theme is how a young man is persuaded to set aside striving for the continued comforts of the sanitorium. The second theme is death; several characters die, two by suicide, and the protagonist, Hans Castorp was twice and orphan, fascinated by the deathbed and funeral, to the point of instituting visits to the dying. The details of the medical procedures, including constant fever charting, resting in cold air, rib resections, laryngeal and skin tuberculosis, pneumothorax and pulmonectomy were all fascinating for a physician. I don’t know if it was ever true that the mountain air and rest effected more cures than continuation of ordinary life, but it seemed this was accepted knowledge. The two intellectuals, Setembrini and Naphta, argue about communism and liberty incessantly, going on for pages in the novels with so many assertions and twisted logic that I could not tell if these were serious positions, or satire. The end of the Hans Castorp’s story was disappointing, and it seemed that Madame Chauchat disappeared without leaving an impression on him. I would recommend this for a long voyage, since it is a voyage to a mythical place.
The book has many sub-stories (not subplots): little vignettes that add to the subject matter, but have no real bearing on the main story. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that these tangents are strictly diversionary and ultimately damaging to the continuity of the story, some are immensely insightful and complementary.
Time, or the perception of time, being a major them throughout the book, it should be noted that at Berghof, where every day is like the next, time does not exist. Hans notes that “The scholastics of the Middle Ages claimed to know that time is an illusion . . . and that the true state of things is a permanent now.” This idea of timelessness and its relationship to eternity are central to the theme of this book. In addition to this idea of eternity, Hans and other characters are constantly referring to the two main doctors by names that are associated with mythical gods that judge the dead. There are heavy undertones of existentialism and transcendentalism throughout: whole segments of inner dialogue that Hans calls “playing king” (Ex.“For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts.”). This philosophizing is what I found most intriguing about the book, not the interpersonal struggles that occurred in the closed environment of the sanatorium.
Although very interesting and thought provoking at times there is some redundancy in the book that is unnecessary; the author could have just stated that life at the sanatorium was monotonous. There are also large sections devoted to debates between Hans’s two polarized “pedagogues” (opinionated intellectuals who are also patients) that become tedious and tend to obfuscate. Understandably, these characters are essential to the struggle of opposing viewpoints, but the subject matter tends to become purely theoretical and trite. One final negative point about the book is that different languages are used throughout. Luckily I read the newest version that translated much of the non-English text, but I now have a couple bookmarked translation websites because of this book. Unless you have a working knowledge in French, Italian, German, Latin, and Spanish, you will find yourself translating at least small sections of text every couple of pages; not to mention that you will most likely be using the English dictionary quite a bit as well.
Obviously an extremely intelligent person, hence the Pulitzer, Mann provided something for me to take away from the read. Although this is true, I’m sorry to say that I’ve gleaned much more from books with less pretention and girth. I was originally drawn to this book because I had read some by Hermann Hesse and was looking for other German authors. Although this is the best, and only, “time novel” I have read (the author labels it that within the book), I found Steppenwolf to be a far superior book as it relates to personal introspection and the polarity of ethics. This epic should be a ways down your list of books to read. If you really want to read Thomas Mann, try Death in Venice and then give this book a shot.
This novel has a profound effect on readers as they are linked to and limited by Castorp's perceptions. We are passively exposed to ideas and events as Hans travels to the sanitorium for a brief stay. Weeks become months as Hans receives a vague diagnosis, and we share his fate. Time slows to a virtual standstill during some days and accelerates to another season a few pages later. Years go by as we are exposed to the cultural views of the era. Ultimately, Hans must accept responsibility for his own life and death as we do page by page. This is a remarkably life-changing novel, particularly for readers intimidated by their own death.
In terms of genre, The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas and rather removed from what we would expect from a novel nowadays. As A.S Byatt points out:
‘Novel-readers expect certain emotional satisfactions -- love and liking, drama and tension, insights into the motivations and drives of characters. At first, and at second glance these things are deficient in this story . . . Nevertheless, I think, we persist in trying to read this story as a novel, and not simply as an allegory. This is partly at least because Mann always raises his structure of meaning on a foundation of the real, the solid, the banal, the observable.’
It is undoubtedly an impressive intellectual work with a lot of scholarly discussion and many poignant insights, but it struck me as ultimately a work of longing and unfulfillment. Everybody there is longing for something they cannot get, whether at the intellectual or emotional level. No love is reciprocated, no teacher convinces a follower, no mystery of life’s conduct or social contract is resolved. The only resolutions come through death. To put it in Mann's words, 'Death is the beginning and the end. Death is part of Life. Death is not the opposite of Life, Love is'.
In the end the novel is quite wonderfully humane and contemporary. Even though Mann remains both aloof and mildly sarcastic towards all his characters and himself throughout the narration, there is a lot of humane intensity there.
It was interesting to learn that Naphta’s views were fashioned on Thomas’ early political and philosophical views influenced mainly by Nietzsche, and the humanistic views of Settembrini on his brother’s, Heinrich. It turns out that Thomas, a German nationalist early on (despite the fact that both his mother and wife were Jewish), was against democracy and progress. His views changed diametrically after WWI and became close to those of progressive communism later on in his life. The Nazis evicted the family from their home and burnt Mann’s books.
Part of why I found this novel so delightful was that I could closely relate to the ordeal of the protagonist, Hans Castorp, who as a young man finds himself unexpectedly confined to a hospital. In his case, he makes a trip to a sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps to visit his cousin. The patients are all receiving treatment for tuberculosis, and since most have been there for quite a long time, he finds himself in a very different culture than the "flatlands" from which he came. Just before leaving, Castorp asks for a physical exam to determine the cause of a fever which was plaguing him during his stay. But to his disappointment, the doctor finds that he has a mild case of tuberculosis himself! Our poor hero will be staying on for much longer than three weeks he had planned, and not as a guest, but as a patient.
One of the most interesting themes in the novel is the treatment of time. Far up in the mountains, completely removed from the normal iterations of daily life, time takes on a different dimension. Each day is strictly regimented to best facilitate the recovery of patients. The residents move from bedroom, to dining hall, to outdoor "rest cure," and back, in an utterly predictable manner. Far from what one might expect, this apparent tedium does not cause time to slow down, but rather speed up, since each day is nearly indiscernible from all others. Thus, Hans Castcorp learns, his original three week stay is hardly worth mentioning: up here, a month is the smallest measurable unit of time.
Besides our hero, there are two other outstanding characters: Settembrini, a boisterous Italian literary humanist, and Naphta, a sharp-tonged communist Jesuit. Castorp takes on the role of student when listening to the rhetorical fireworks of these bombastic speakers. These three men, along with a cast of other patients with tuberculosis, fill hundreds of pages of fascinating narrative and dialog. Put it on your Christmas list now