The Magic Mountain
] (Vintage International
by Thomas Mann [translated from the German by John E. Woods]
Hey, have you heard the one about the perfectly ordinary young man who went to visit a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps for three weeks and then stayed for seven years? If not, pull up a chair! Having now been a party to Mann's 706-page, lip-smacking orgy of storytelling awesomosity twice in the last year and a half, I have over 1,400 pages worth of ecstatic reactions to the novel to share but I still don't know where to begin with the damn thing. The sometimes addled but increasingly extravagant philosophical debates on the intersection of literature and politics? The lofty musings on time and mortality and the treatment of same in fiction? Those stupendous set pieces dedicated to séances, duels, extraordinary friendships, exemplary suicides, and even a humble love affair involving the exchange of x-rays depicting tuberculosis pulmonum
? All too intimidating. Instead, I give up
in the form of a few notes on some of my random favorite moments in the colossus. Although Hans Castorp, the likable hero of our Teutonic tragicomedy, is clearly doomed from the start, I loved the way the novel's narrator uses misdirection and an occasional malicious sense of humor to call the diagnosis into question. "For we do not see ourselves as Hans Castorp's eulogist," he cheekily intones early on in an introductory sketch on the leisure-loving character's alleged "mediocrity or more-than-mediocrity" (33). And yet once Castorp's stay at the International Sanatorium Berghof commences, the over the top description we get of his bad nosebleed abruptly changes to this pre-The Man Without Qualities
nod to criminality: "His face was as pale as linen and his suit was bloodstained, so that he looked like a murderer fresh from his awful deed" (122). It may help to note that poor Hans is attending a lecture by Dr. Krokowski, whose talks, as we read some 500 pages later, "had always had a subterranean character, the whiff of the catacomb" (644). As the protagonist's stay at the sanatorium continues, there's more than just a whiff of the catacomb evident as eternity beckons in the x-ray room--"And Hans Castorp saw exactly what he should have expected to see, but which no man was ever intended to see and which he himself had never presumed he would be able to see: he saw his own grave.... With the eyes of his Tienappel forebear--penetrating, clairvoyant eyes--he beheld a familiar part of his body, and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die" (215-216, ellipses added)--and various other characters die off around him. Amazingly, the novel never struck me as lugubrious even as one character is cavalierly described by another as bearing "graveyard blossoms on her cheeks" (147) and the deathbed scene of another moves sanatorium director Behrens to offer "consolation" to a grieving mother via the cryptic comment "I know death, I'm one of his old employees. He's overrated, believe me" (526). Of course, if the Castorp character can and maybe should be criticized for letting time slip away from him up on the mountain as the storm clouds of World War I gather among the flatlanders below, suffice it to say that the reader should fear no such time drag from Mann whilst spending time with his even better than advertised memento mori
. Always pushing the entertainment envelope, The Magic Mountain
is rich in both humanistic soundbites (Herr Settembrini: "Opinions cannot live unless they have a chance to do battle" ; "Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil" ) and crackpot descriptions of sickness ("disease was life's lascivious form" ; "the psychoanalyst had made special mention of epilepsy, which in preanalytic days had been seen variously as a holy, indeed prophetic affliction or as a sign of demonic possession, but which he described in half poetic, half ruthlessly scientific terms as the equivalent of love, an orgasm of the brain" ) alike and is so imbued with life from an audacious storytelling standpoint that Mann even manages to pull off the improbable twin feat of successfully embedding stories having to do with one character's death by crucifixion and two others whose hair literally stands on end in one case and who engages in audible gnashing of teeth in the other--I kid you not. Of course, Mann also impresses with his forceful handling of more, ahem, earnest and traditional material as in this wrenching scene from the "Danse Macabre" chapter where a terminally ill teenager ("nineteen years old, a slip of a thing, with smooth oily hair, eyes that shyly tried to hide a glint that matched the hectic flush of her cheeks, and a distinctively husky but sympathetic voice. She coughed almost incessantly and had bandages on all her fingers, the result of open sores from the toxins in her body") takes a walk with Hans Castorp and his cousin and gets a glimpse of her none too distant future with the same sort of penetrating, clairvoyant eyes Castorp is said to have had in the x-ray room (308). Not that you should care about it or anything, but I don't mind letting on that this passage has destroyed me two times in a row now. No joke. Let's get on with it already then (316):
Somewhere deep in the press of resting places, toward the midpoint of the meadow, between two mounds whose gravestones were hung with artificial wreaths, was a flat, regular, unoccupied space, the length of a human body--and the three visitors stopped instinctively beside it. There they stood, the young girl a little ahead of her escorts, reading the tender message of the stones--Hans Castorp relaxed, his hands clasped before him, with open mouth and sleepy eyes; young Ziemssen at attention, not merely erect, but even leaning backward a little. The cousins, both at the same moment, cast stolen sidelong glances at Karen Karstedt's face. She noticed, however, and as she stood there, bashful and demure, she thrust her head forward at a slight tilt and smiled affectedly with pursed lips, blinking her eyes rapidly.
Thomas Mann (1875-1955)
I read The Magic Mountain
this second time around in the company of Frances of Nonsuch Book
and Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza
. Links to Bellezza's post will appear here when she finishes it.