The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)
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.