The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)
Thomas Mann
Germany, 1924
John E. Woods, translator, 1995

First and foremost: there’s the air up here. It’s good for fighting off illness, wouldn’t you say? And you’d be right. But it is also good for illness, you see, because it first enhances it, creates a revolution in the body, causes latent illness to erupt […]

216, “The Thermometer”

There is so, so, so, so much in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg).

It is a novel of many parts, many pieces. Reading it over these last six-and-one-half weeks (about twice as fast as I should have liked to read it, but book club deadlines dictated), I came to think of it like an onion made of many layers to be peeled back one by one. (And perhaps make you cry with the effort of chopping through it, but that may be taking the simile too far!) There is the surface story, of young, and not-so-young, people, living out their days in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the heights of the Swiss Alps. The bildungsroman or hero’s (non-)journey followed by Hans Castorp, the central character. There are the layers of ideas, of philosophical debate. The constant meandering into meditations on time, by Hans as well as by the unnamed narrator. The countless references: mythology, art, music, history (current events?). And this perhaps undersells it. In his series on the book, Tom(Amateur Reader) treats it as three novels in one, a helpful framework that illustrates just how complex it can be.

This is not to say it is inaccessible – one of those “novels” is a comic sanatorium novel after all. The basic premise is thus: Hans Castorp makes a trip to visit his cousin, Joachim* Ziemssen, for three weeks at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Switzerland. And then doesn’t leave for seven years, not until the outside world intrudes, dramatically, with the outbreak of WWI. It is episodic, with chapters that could stand alone, but there is also the underlying throughline of Hans’s experiences, most notably his interactions with the philosophizing Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta, and his love for the elusive Clavdia Chauchat. Mann plays with time throughout, spreading out the opening days and weeks of Hans’s stay over many pages then compressing the final years into fewer pages, and in such a manner that neither the reader nor Hans really know just how long he’s been there. It’s only in the closing chapter that we learn that’s it’s been seven years—three weeks turned to seven years! As Hans comes out of his “slumber” on the mountain the comic novel turns chillingly sober, ending with a stark depiction of a WWI battle. Just as Hans awoke, so did Europe—but to the nightmare, not from it.

There were many times I made note of a sort of foreshadowing—not of the course of the novel, per se (though Mann did that as well), but of the course of history. In a sense this is historical fiction, in that it’s set in the years before WWI, though published years after (Mann started writing before the war, but was interrupted by it, prompting a change in direction from his original intentions of a comic response to his Death in Venice), and Mann hints throughout of what is to come—hints that would have been only too clear to his first readers. Curiously, there were a couple statements made that I thought could almost foreshadow the darker times yet to come in Europe—future events that no-one would have yet been aware of, though perhaps I am over-reading into things.

Love stands opposed to death—it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts. […] Oh, what a clear dream I’ve dreamed, how well I’ve ‘played king’! I will remember it. I will keep faith with death in my heart, but I will clearly remember that if faithfulness to death and to what is past rules our thoughts and deeds, that leads only to wickedness, dark lust, and hatred of humankind. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts. And with that I shall awaken.

588, “Snow”

Although I say there is a throughline—a plot—it is true that not much actually happens in many of the chapters, with some dramatic exceptions. For instance, although “Snow” (my favorite chapter) narrates Hans getting lost in a snowstorm, he is literally going in a circle, and the narration becomes mostly his thoughts, his observations, his dreams. It is here he realizes the truth he has been looking for—only to “fall asleep” again once the storm departs. It seems the key of the novel, but I am not sure if Mann means this as part of his satire—satire of the bildungsroman, satire of the hero’s journey?—or if it is part of his critique of a pre-war Europe: so many ideas, yet asleep to the nightmare that will soon awaken.

Despite its length and difficulty—there are whole sections I’m not sure of what I read (though Tom’s third post suggests that some of these are intended to be gibberish, phew)—I feel this is a book to be read again—demands it, really. It’s all that stuff, all the layers—rich enough to reward a reread.

*Anyone know how “Joachim” would be pronounced in German? I default to the Spanish pronunciation, but that doesn’t seem like it would be correct.


8 thoughts on “The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann”

  1. I also don’t know the pronunciation of Joachim, LOL.
    You transported me to my youth when I first read and devoured this book. Your thoughts on it and that idea of three novels in one rings true. I agree that one will have to read it twice to grasp more. I too remember some difficult parts in it. All in all I loved it.

    1. It was interesting, when my book club met, you could tell what languages people had in school by how they pronounced “Joachim” – unfortunately, the lady who speaks German was out of town, so she couldn’t weigh in.

      I’m happy to provide a bit of “time travel” for you! 🙂 Also glad to see someone else who has read it – I couldn’t find too many others who’ve blogged about it. It was nice to have the conversation with book club though – as long as it is (and tedious in spots), I’m not sure I would have finished it on my own.

  2. Oh my, I see that, like me, we posted in June and now in December! But you have been reading, me, not so much, some self help, interesting self help, and finally a novel. But I want to get back to my reading life, if not as prolific, at least a bit more consistent.

    1. Yes, for me, the reading got in the way of any blogging. Maybe I’ll do better this year–we’ll see (I don’t know about you, but I always have high hopes in January). I hope you are able to get back to books more this year!

    1. Tom, yes, I did find them useful in helping get my mind around the book. It both was and wasn’t what I’d expected, but in a good way. So very glad I read it.

  3. I have positive but blurry memories of this one. I’ve heard learned Germans say that The Magic Mountain needs to be read at least three times to even start to understand it. Phew! Which means it must be re-read at some point but I want to read his Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice first.

    1. Cleo, I think any good book demands a reread or more, although some are more tempting to reread than others. I’d like to reread The Magic Mountain when I’m not so pressured for time, but as you say, I’d also like to read Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice first. Someday I will have time for all these!

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