The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ah yes, irony! Beware of the irony that flourishes here, my good engineer.
In my freshman year of college, I took a literature course to fulfill a core curriculum requirement: Sexuality in Literature. It was a great class; we read Plato’s Symposium, Sappho’s poetry, the Song of Solomon, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. But of all the great books we made our way through that semester, the one that most stuck with me was Mann’s collection of short fiction, which included Death in Venice.
I was a negligent student of literature in high school. Only rarely did I do my assigned readings, and so I had a remarkably poor vocabulary. (In fact, a friend recently borrowed my copy of Death in Venice, wherein I underlined every word I didn’t know; “Man, your vocabulary sucked,” he said as he returned it.) So you can imagine what it was like for me to try and tackle the enormous erudition and sophistication of Thomas Mann. I was underprepared and overwhelmed. It was work enough to simply understand a sentence; unweaving his sophisticated themes and symbols was beyond my ken. Yet I still managed to enjoy the collection; more, I even savored it. The acute joys of reading fine literature, so alien before, were slowly opening themselves up to me.
The point of this autobiographical digression is that Thomas Mann has earned himself a special place in my reader’s heart. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I recently walked into a book store and bought a copy of his most iconic novel: The Magic Mountain.
Now, seven long weeks later, I have set myself the difficult task of reviewing this book. And, make no mistake, the task is difficult; for The Magic Mountain is perhaps the most ambiguous and elusive work of literature I’ve ever read. Even perhaps more so than Ulysses, the novel is a throwing down of the gauntlet, a tremendous, impudent challenge to any would-be critic. So I hope my reader will excuse me if this review it a bit disorganized, a bit slipshod, as I wrestle with this novel’s hydra heads in no particular order.
The premise is simple: Hans Castorp, a likable, if simpleminded, young man visits his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, in a sanatorium for a three-week stay, and ends up staying seven years. All of the action takes place on the titular mountain—a reference to a sentence in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche is himself referring to Mount Olympus—as the young, impressionable Castorp gets sucked into the environment. He toys around with ideas, he listens to learned discussions, he befriends interesting personalities, he acquaints himself with death, he falls in love, he indulges in food and alcohol—in a word, he dabbles. He almost entirely forgets about his former life as an aspiring engineer “down there” in the “flatlands”—as the residents of the Berghof call the hustling, bustling world of the healthy below.
When characterizing the style of this novel, one falls naturally into paradoxes: the book is both carefully realistic and deeply allegorical, it is both poetic and prosaic, both lyrical and didactic, both ironic and earnest, both knowing and naïve. Mann accomplishes this feat of ambiguity by adopting a narrative voice of the most gentle and subtle irony. Mann’s own opinions of any of the ideas and characters presented in the book are difficult, if not impossible, to guess at. Simply put, Mann takes no sides; he never professes unguarded allegiance or admiration; everything, in short, is coated in an understated mocking humor. And this ambiguity is summed up perfectly well in the person of our protagonist Hans himself, who dabbles in all things and commits to none, and who is constantly vacillating in his dilettante fashion.
Perhaps as a result of this essential abstruseness, the novel seems to make reference to everything at once. Dostoyevsky often comes to mind, as Mann involves his characters in long philosophical debates, à la The Brothers Karamazov. And like Dostoyevsky’s fiction, Mann creates characters which are allegories for certain philosophies of life: we have Settembrini the rational humanist, Naphta the religious radical, Madame Chauchat the symbol of lust, and, my personal favorite, Mynheer Peeperkorn the hedonist. But then suddenly the novel will take a distinctly Proustian turn, as the narrator indulges in long, lyrical discussions of time, music, and the passing seasons. We sometimes get doses of Faust or even Don Quixote, as Hans, our would-be scholar, our wandering knight-errant, trundles about with Joachim in tow, often getting himself into farcical situations. And then suddenly Dante will appear, with Settembrini as Virgil, Madame Chauchat as Beatrice, and the sanatorium itself as the Mountain of Purgatory—where the patients come to be purged of their sickness, rather than their sins.
What is so arresting about all of these literary parallels is that Mann manages to evoke them in the context of story wherein—it must be admitted—almost nothing at all happens; at least, nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no plot to speak of, no major obstacle to overcome, no central struggle, and even no consistent theme. Rather, the story is episodic in nature (here we are reminded of Cervantes again), and is quite realistic to boot. In fact, on the surface, The Magic Mountain is a fairly conventional novel; at least, it isn’t nearly as difficult to read as either Proust or Joyce. Mann’s sentences, though sometimes long, are rarely rococo; and his dialogue and characterizations are, on the surface at least, rather orthodox. Again, here we see Mann as a master of subtlety, evoking the whole Western cannon in the course of a conversation between a patient and his doctor.
Now let me try to unravel some of the themes heard in Mann’s great symphony. One obvious theme is that of sickness and death. Hans encounters a wide variety of attitudes towards illness during his stay. First, we have the medical staff, represented by Dr. Behrens, who sees sickness and death as just matters of business and biology—a matter for science. Contrasted with Behrens, we have Dr. Krokowski, the aspiring psychologist, who sees sickness as unrequited love, as a product of mental tensions. Then, we see Settembrini’s proud disdain of sickness, for it the enemy of vital human life, of social progress. Castorp is inclined to see something poetic in sickness—a kind of ennobling suffering, which parallels the genius’s intellectual struggle. Naphta is wont to praise sickness, for it weakens man’s love of the flesh, and turns his attention to the ascetic Spirit. And we cannot forget the dutiful Joachim, who hates sickness, because it prevents the accomplishment of one’s duty.
Amid the great themes of the novel, we also encounter innumerable smaller motifs. One is that of music. Castorp becomes obsessed with a gramophone; the narrator speculates on the experience of time in music and literature; Settembrini famously calls music “politically suspect.” Another is politics, as the reader gets absorbed in the intellectual clashes between the humanist Settembrini, who champions liberalism and enlightement, and the caustic Naphta, who is a monomaniacal Christian-Marxist-Hegelian. Mann also displays his talents in evoking sexual tension, as Castorp eyes the alluring Chauchat for months and months, just as Aschenbach observed Tadzio.
But perhaps the major theme of this novel is time. In the Berghof, time is experienced differently. Down below, in the flatlands, time is measured in days, hours, minutes, seconds. Up here, in the sanatorium, time is measured in weeks, months, years. Time forms the whole basis of their stay; for their sickness is often likened to a prison sentence, a sentence which is constantly increased. Their day is carefully divided into segments—five meals, “rest cures” (which consist of just laying down for hours on end), and little strolls. They regularly measure their temperature—holding the thermometer in their mouths for seven painful minutes—and chart their fevers through the passing weeks, hoping to see it normalize. One is often even reminded of Einstein’s theory, for time seems to be supernaturally stretched out, dilated and distended, up in the mountain.
Connected with the leitmotif of time is that of acclimatization. When Castorp arrives, he is a stranger in a strange land. Everything is unfamiliar to him. His habits are all out of sync; he finds the patients’ behavior odd and uncanny. But slowly Hans gets used to things (or, as it’s put by Behrens, he gets used to not getting used to things). The reader, too, experiences a sort of acclimatization, as we acquaint ourselves with the Berghof and its many residents. The world of rest-cures and the half-lung club are, to us as well, strange at first, but gradually become intimately familiar. How much the reader himself has gotten used to things is made clear when Hans gets a visit from his uncle. Hans’s uncle goes through the same process as did Hans when he first arrived; but whereas we were outsiders for Hans’s arrival, we are locals for his uncle’s. We are inclined to laugh at the uncle’s incredulity and foreignness; we are now part of the knowing club, and can wink to each other when the flat-footed visiter from the flatlands commits a faux-pas.
Because so much of this novel has to do with getting used to things, it almost demands to be read slowly—a little bit at a time, over many weeks. Indeed, I was almost dismayed at how much time it took me to get through; for not only does the novel take a long time to read, but it feels long. This book simply revels in its own length. One can even go further and say that the experience of reading the novel—to a degree that is almost eerie—mirrors the experience of Castorp as he stays in the Berghof. I picked up the book from the bookstore in almost the same spirit as Castorp when he arrived to visit his cousin—a casual impulsiveness. And gradually, inevitably, I got absorbed in it, entranced by it. I too committed more time than I expected to toy with ideas, to acclimatize myself to a strange place, to put normal life on hold and indulge in an aesthetic experience.
When the reader gets to the 700th page, and reflects that he has been with Hans Castorp for seven whole years, and has gotten to know so many characters so well, he, too, may feel that he has gotten himself a little lost. The atmosphere of the novel, so rich in ambiguity and so full of ideas, may also awake some lingering sickness of soul, or maybe just make us a little dizzy. And now, as I take my leave of the book, I am, like my companion Hans, thrown back into the hustle and bustle of the buzzing flatlands, expelled from the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain—a little wiser, a little more experienced, and, with any luck, a little healthier.