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.

The Suppliants – Aeschylus

The Suppliants
Aeschylus
Philip Vellacott, translator
Ancient Greece, 463 BCE

My thought on first finishing Aeschylus’s The Suppliants was, “Well, that leaves you hanging…” The first and only surviving play in a trilogy, The Suppliants brings us the story of the Danaids, the 50 daughters of Danaus, who have fled their native Egypt for their ancestral homeland of Greece (they are descendants of Io, one of Zeus’ many conquests) in a desperate attempt to escape their cousins, the 50 sons of Aegyptus, who wish to marry the Danaids against the their will. The women are supported in this by their father, so it is not clear to me why his will isn’t enough to settle the matter, though perhaps it’s a matter of numbers. (This is one of those things–are we dealing with a cultural/social difference that I don’t know or is this just akin to a “plot hole” in a contemporary movie that isn’t really explained, it just is to make the story happen?)

Having arrived safely in Argos, the young women are now Suppliants before the gods–clinging to their alters while also pleading with King Pelasgus to not only let them stay, but protect them. Ever hanging in the background is the knowledge of their cousins’ pursuit and eminent arrival.

This single play is not interested in telling the entire story of the Danaids, which from the translator’s notes I know will eventually lead to the Danaids’ marriage to their cousins, after which 49 of the women murder their new husbands rather than remain their wives, with only one, Hypermnestra, sparing her husband. However, The Suppliants instead focuses on a single issue: will Pelasgus permit the Danaids to stay and grant them protection?

Although the Danaids can plead a shared heritage, the outcome of their request is not assured. Pelasgus insists the citizens of Argos must decide this weighty matter: to project the Danaids means likely war with the sons of Aegyptus. The tension then in this play all hinges around this will-they/won’t-they, the conflict between duties of hospitality and expectations of war. Consequently, the climax of the play is the announcement of the Argive’s decision. They subsequent arrival of Aegyptians thus becomes a hanging thread left unresolved in what seems that first act rather than a full play (at least by 21st century standards).

It becomes curious to me, then, the idea of survival–why the first play but not the others? Was it better regarded? Was the philosophical debate more important than the action to follow? Or is it all mere chance that some plays survived over others? I do wish the other plays of the trilogy had survived, because it seems the trajectory of the story over the three might have been fascinating. At the same time I am grateful for the plays we do have.

The Mystery of the Blue Train – Agatha Christie

Book Cover: The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Chrisite

The Mystery of the Blue Train
Agatha Christie
England, 1928

Continuing my way through the Agatha Christie’s, The Mystery of the Blue Train is up next. It is another in the series of Poirot stories, although this time without one of his personal narrators. Instead, each chapter hops between characters as we watch the mystery slowly unfold. A priceless and much coveted ruby necklace is sold to American millionaire, Rufus Van Aldin, who intends it as a gift for his headstrong daughter, Ruth Kettering. She is presently estranged from her husband, the philandering Derek. While she married him for his future title, he married her for money, and will be ruined–and lose his mistress, dancer Mirelle, as well–if Ruth follows through with her intended divorce. Of course Ruth is not blameless; she is intending to rendezvous in the Riviera with her French lover, the Comte de la Roche, a man Van Aldin knows to be a con artist. Somehow into this mix is added the newly wealthy Katherine Grey, also journeying to the Riviera for her first taste of wealthy society. But before anyone arrives at their destination, there is a murder on the Blue Train–and with such a mix of motives, it is a perfect little exercise for detective Hercule Poirot, conveniently on the train as well.

Although an enjoyable trip–reading in late February of what proved to be a cold, snowy winter, I quite enjoyed the virtual visit to the Riviera–it doesn’t strike me as one of the stronger Christie’s. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but I feel Christie is not at her best when swapping points-of-view constantly. Better the tighter confines of a single narrow viewpoint. Despite plenty of clues and misdirection, Blue Train also contains one of my personal pet peeves–the detective has knowledge related to the crime that the reader cannot possibly have. Although an improvement on The Big Four, I look forward to the better Christie’s I know are coming.

The Mystery of the Blue Train is my Mystery/Detective/Crime classic for Back to the Classics 2022.

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Book Cover: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe
1722, England

One of the earliest English language novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders relates the story of the eponymous (but anonymous) title character, who as a young woman without known family is taken in during adolescence by a wealthy family whose matriarch has taken a shine to Moll. From there many adventures and misadventures follow her attempts to make a better–wealthier–life for herself. It is a first-person narrative, and remarkable for both the voice and agency it gives to a woman and a relatively poor one at that. It purports to be an autobiographical narrative, in the style of Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe, as well as a story of spiritual redemption: after a life of deceit and crime, mostly thievery (and bigamy, though Moll seems not to count that among her sins, which I assume means that marriage was much more informally contracted and enforced in the 18th century than in subsequent eras), Moll finally lands in prison with the likelihood of execution looming before her. It is her repentance–which she claims as sincere and the minister meeting with her believes and convinces the judiciary of–that saves her from the gallows and sends her to the Colonies (Virginia, in this case).

I’m not convinced.

Moll is a classic unreliable narrator. Granted, anyone telling their life story is bound to get some things not quite right–memories can play tricks–but Moll is open about her lies and deceit as she makes her way through life. From her first relationship with the eldest son of her foster family to her post-jail life with her final husband, she doesn’t just keep secrets, she constantly lies to do so. Although there is not particular reason for her to lie to her reader, especially in a spiritual redemption story, her history of deception leaves a nagging suspicion in the back of the mind–how do we know she is not lying now? That she didn’t fake redemption to save her skin? After all, even after gaining her freedom, she still lies and seems to have no compunction with doing so. If this is the case, Moll has performed quite the coup: the end of the story, after years of tragedy and suffering–for no matter her own character flaws and crimes, we cannot deny that she has incredibly bad luck–is almost fairy-tale like in the arrival of happiness and wealth. Which gives me pause in my doubts. Would a writer such as Defoe, in that era, really reward an unrighteous character? From what I know of the times, probably not. It is more likely I apply my morality (truthfulness and honesty) to a time and place unlike my own.

Yet at the same time, Moll profits from her crimes–money that enables her New World life (buying out her servitude contract) comes from her life of thievery. This also seems in conflict with expected “Puritan” morality. So what is Defoe really saying–it’s OK to reward a life of sin financially as long as you’ve confessed it? This may not be an unreasonable thought; rewarding confession and repentance are surely more encouraging to the errant than punishing the repentant. Or does Defoe rather primarily intend it as a critique of the society that in a sense forces Moll–and so many others, men as well as women–into the crimes she initially commits for mere survival? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of approaching the novel from a 21st century perspective, especially when I don’t have a full context for the social/cultural/religious setting. There is definitely a critique going on, though, and that may outweigh concerns of morality in rewarding Moll–not for repentance but survival.

There really is so much to dig into in Moll Flanders, so many ways to approach or think about. I didn’t find it the easiest novel to get through–there is a complete lack of chapter or section divisions, combined with a steady first-person narrative in a more archaic style, without even conversation to break it up–but there is plenty to it, both in events and elements to consider. It is unlike most other novels (all?) I’ve yet read, but perhaps a wider contextual understanding (of the society/culture/history, as well as literature) would even further reward my understanding. Reading paths for future consideration…

The Big Four – Agatha Christie

Book Cover: The Big Fout by Agatha Christie

The Big Four
Agatha Christie
England, 1927

After the cleverness of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, its successor, The Big Four comes as a bit of a surprise. No small town or manor house mystery novel, it is presents a tale of international intrigue, presenting Hercule Poirot’s attempts to bring down a major crime syndicate, represented by devious criminals from the US, France, China, and England who always seem to be just ahead of the famous Belgian detective. Hastings makes a return to narration, and we find ourselves chasing along with the pair as they attempt to head off “the Big Four’s” ever-masterful plots. It is almost a Sherlock-vs-Moriarty adventuring.

The premise appears promising; however, I unfortunately found it the least compelling of Christie’s mysteries to this point. It seemed to me it was more a series of mediocre short stories in search of a unifying plot. Only after finishing did I learn that the chapters actually did start out as short stories, and the novel was cobbled together at a low point in her personal life when writing was difficult. A bit of a disappointment, really.