The Magic Mountain

Thomas Mann

Cover of The Magic Mountain

Rank: A-
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Spring-Summer, 2009

Author Name: Thomas Mann

Review: I went blindly into The Magic Mountain, and I think that was a good thing.

I received the book from my grandfather, who’s slowly been getting rid of his fiction for many years now, and let it sit on my shelf for many years. I glanced at the back and saw the word “sanatorium”, and seeing as my grandfather is a psychologist, I assumed it had something to do with mental sickness. That, and the fact that Thomas Mann was German, were the only two things I knew about this book when I picked it up at the beginning of this year for the Great Reading Competition.

As you might’ve surmised by the grade I’ve given it, I did enjoy the book, but the going was slow, and the entry rough. Until I began this book, I would have said that, without a doubt, Henry James was the most detailed, meticulous and precise writer there ever was. I’m not sure if it was Mann’s goal to out-James James, but if it was, mission accomplished. I have never read another author more invested in minutiae than Mann. At times (I won’t lie to you), it’s insufferable, for Mann’s level of detail differs from James. In James, there’s always the sense that in the details, in the meticulous description, something remains hidden. What is that hidden something? Sometimes James himself doesn’t know, I’ll bet. But the mystery is maddening and intoxicating. It makes me want to read more and more. With Mann, it’s often quite the opposite. The description is so even and prosaic that it can be downright dull. There is no sense of mystery at all, or the promise of action to come. I think, though, that may have been the point…

Before I get ahead of myself, let me give you the plot. A young man (early 20s) named Hans Castorp travels up to visit his cousin Joachim Ziemssen who is staying at a sanatorium called the Berghof in the Swiss Alps. Ziemssen is there because of his tuberculosis (he really wants to join his regiment), and Hans goes up to kind of boost his spirits, and take a rest himself for three weeks before he begins his profession. After a little over a week, though, Hans, availing himself of the medical staff at the facility, discovers he has a “moist spot” in his chest, and is advised to stay at the Bergoff for a month or two. This couple of month turns into six, which soon turns into a year, which turns into seven. The “action” of the novel takes place during these seven years wherein Hans turns slowly from visitor to patient.

So, what happens all this time, seven years and seven hundred pages? Virtually nothing. Hans Castorp falls for a woman who leaves the Berghof; he meets a friend who discusses politics and philosophy with him; he meets several people staying at and passing through the Berghof. At one point in time he gets caught in a snowstorm, but he comes out of it unscathed.

How then, you might ask, does this take up seven hundred pages?! The reader, if they’re anything like me, will find themself asking the very same question as they read. The answer, I think, is emblematic of the very raison d’être of this novel.

The major theme of The Magic Mountain is time. Mann, as the narrator, pontificates about time at length at various points throughout the book, as does Hans Castorp himself. One of the first ways in which Hans Castorp has to adjust to life in the Berghof as opposed to life in the “flatlands” (i.e. everywhere that isn’t the Berghof) is that the smallest unit of time up there is the month. The week, the day, the hour, the minute are meaningless. When the head doctor, Behrens, suggest Hans stay up there for three to six months (at which point they’ll reevaluate and see how things are), he’s astonished. By the end of the novel, an entire year passes in the blink of an eye.

Why, one might ask? Ahh, this is why The Magic Mountain, much like Oblomov, is a dangerous book. What Mann does with this novel of little action that moves at a snail’s place is illustrate just how easily one’s life, one’s youth, one’s livelihood can slowly but surely slip away. Each step, incrementally, seems reasonable: Hans’s visit of three weeks; his stay of a month; then three; then six; then eight; then a year; then two; then five… It happens so slowly and so naturally that one barely notices. But, before long, Hans Castorp is no longer communicating with his family; his profession, which had been waiting for him, is now a distant dream. And soon his entire life is completely and entirely absorbed by the activity (or inactivity) of the Berghof. The most noteworthy event of the week may very well be going for a walk, or visiting a friend—this for a youth in the prime of his life, who, as the reader is led to suspect all along, is not actually very sick at all!

Hans Castorp’s situation, in fact, reminds me of internet addiction—in particular, the addiction to MMORPG’s. Especially when considering what I haven’t yet discussed (I’m getting there), one might wonder, is this novel relevant? Does it still have something to say to a modern audience? I’m afraid that the hardcore gamer will find Hans Castorp’s slow descent into a life of inactivity hauntingly familiar.

And that brings me to my initial impression of the book. I remember after reading the first chapter, I had the distinct impression that this book was intended to be a horror novel. It seemed to be borrowing the standard conventions of a horror story right at the outset, and I wondered if it was intentional. Consider it for yourself. Hans Castorp, a young, healthy youth who leads a happy life travels by train up a narrow, winding mountain road to a hidden sanatorium where they treat diseased patients. When he arrives, he meets his cousin, Joachim, who appears ill-at-ease, and has a strange expression. He then tells him, off-handedly, how during the winter, when the roads are snowed over, they have to send the dead bodies down the mountain in toboggans. After this, Joachim also lets it slip that the Hofrat (the head of the sanatorium) has lately been subjecting his patients to “psychoanalysis”.

I’m telling you, the entire set-up (the first chapter) reads and sounds like a classic horror story! Whether or not this was intentional, I think it’s appropriate, because by the end of the novel, it is rather horrifying to realize that Hans Castorp has essentially thrown away seven years of his life, and that it has happened almost unintentionally. And if one thinks too long and hard about it, one is left with the often horrifying (or, at the very least, unsettling) question, what is life really worth? What is one supposed to be doing? What is and isn’t worthwhile?

All that aside, before picking up a book of this length, one should have an idea of whether or not it will be worth it. I, personally, am glad I read this book, but I will caution the reader of this review that almost NOTHING happens in this book. Ever. If you’re looking for plot, this is the last place to go. In fact, of all the books I’ve currently reviewed on this site, this book has the lightest plot of them all by far (with a special exception made for Samuel Beckett’s experiments in torture).

What there is in this book is some fascinating philosophizing, a lot of satire, a kind of experimental, “musical” structure (according to Mann, at least; I found it fairly straightforward), and a few passages (five, if I’m counting right) of utter brilliance. The first of these nearly knocked me out of seat. After pages and pages of prosaic prose, the section wherein Mann discusses Hans Castorp’s childhood attraction to a young boy with blue eyes is so astonishing it’s like being woken up by having a bucket of champagne thrown in your face. Reading that passage was an experience I’ll never forget.

For the modern reader, there are also two dated sections that are fascinating simply because they’re relics. The first is a brilliant passage where Mann describes Hans Castorp seeing an x-ray for the very first time (the use of these at a place like the Berghof was still brand new at the time this book was written). Getting an x-ray is described as a kind of violation that’s at once sexual and at the same time unholy—something that man is not meant to see. An x-ray, in my mind, has never been anything other than utterly ordinary—a tool—so reading this description, for me, was like taking a glimpse into the past, and seeing what it was like to encounter this, to be honest, life-altering technology for the very first time.

Another is the description of Hans Castorp’s fascination with the gramophone. I’d say gramophones (or phonographs) were pretty common in the US by 1910, but by the account given in The Magic Mountain, I’d say they were still fairly uncommon in Germany and Switzerland. Towards the end of his stay, the Berghof obtains a gramophone, and Hans Castorp falls in love. And thinking about it, the invention must have been earth-shattering. This wasn’t simply a move from cassette tape to CD, or from CD to mp3: this is the first time that someone was able to hear music that wasn’t being performed live pretty much at will. Hans Castorp stays up all night listening to records of operas and German folk tunes over and over again. In our lives, whether we can listen to a song or not is a question of whether or not we have it, and are willing to go out and get it (or, nowadays, if we’re willing to go listen to the song at a place like Last.fm). I’ve lived music from the very beginning (as far back as three years old, I had my own record player and my own albums [one of my favorites was Disney’s Peter and the Wolf]). I can’t imagine life without recorded music, and so reading this description of Hans Castorp’s introduction to recorded music for me was quite exhilarating.

In addition to this, there are several characters that are unforgettable, chief among which is Pieter Peeperkorn, who is introduced so late in the book one simply has to scratch one’s head, but who is so incredible, so larger-than-life, that he’s impossible to resist. Elsewhere, the kind of pseudo-climax involving the philosophical combatants Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta is probably the high point of the book. What begins as a petty intellectual squabble takes on such real, and such epic proportions that the aftermath stays with one for quite awhile (I’m still thinking about it, two weeks later).

If you do decide The Magic Mountain is for you, a word of caution. I read the Vintage International edition translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. I’ve read many an excellent book published by Vintage, but I must say, I was disappointed by the quality of this one. The number of typos present in the text is well above average (something Vintage isn’t known for), and the translation (which, by the way, is a British-English translation) is less than stellar. A good friend of mine began reading the book at the same time and he told me he was hooked from page one, specifically because of the writing. I don’t think it was an accident that I found the writing so…strained. The translation is adequate, but not brilliant, and that’s why I’m not at all surprised to see that the current Vintage edition (which is linked to above) is the work of a different translator: John E. Woods. I haven’t read it, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it was a lot better.

If you’ve come all the way to the end of this review for a short summary, I will leave you with the following paradox: This book is long. This book is tedious. There is no plot, and little action in this book. This book is worthwhile.

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