Friday, March 9, 2012

488. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

 History: This book was first published in November 1924. Mann started writing what was to become The Magic Mountain in 1912. It began as a much shorter narrative, which revisited in a comic manner aspects of Death in Venice, a novella that he was then preparing for publication. The newer work reflected his experiences and impressions during a period when his wife, who was suffering from a lung complaint, was confined to Dr Friedrich Jessen's Waldsanatorium in Davos, Switzerland for several months. In May and June 1912 he paid her a visit and became acquainted with the team of doctors who were treating her in this cosmopolitan institution. According to Mann, in the afterword that was later included in the English translation, this stay became the foundation of the opening chapter of the completed novel.
The outbreak of the First World War interrupted work on the book. The conflict and its aftermath led the author to undertake a major re-examination of European bourgeois society, including the sources of the willful, perverse destructiveness displayed by much of civilised humanity. He was also drawn to speculate about more general questions surrounding personal attitudes to life, health, illness, sexuality and mortality. Given this, Mann felt compelled to radically revise and expand the pre-war text before completing it in 1924.
Plot: The narrative opens in the decade before World War I. We are introduced to the central protagonist of the story, Hans Castorp, the only child of a Hamburg merchant family who, following the early death of his parents, has been brought up by his grandfather and subsequently by an uncle named James Tienappel. We encounter him when he is in his early 20s, about to take up a shipbuilding career in Hamburg, his home town. Just before beginning this professional career Castorp undertakes a journey to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, who is seeking a cure in a sanatorium in Davos, high up in the Swiss Alps. In the opening chapter, Hans is symbolically transported away from the familiar life and mundane obligations he has known, in what he later learns to call "the flatlands", to the rarefied mountain air and introspective little world of the sanatorium.
Castorp's departure from the sanatorium is repeatedly delayed by his failing health. What at first appears to be a minor bronchial infection with slight fever is diagnosed by the sanatorium's chief doctor and director, Hofrat. Behrens, as symptoms of tuberculosis. Hans is persuaded by Behrens to stay until his health improves.
During his extended stay, Castorp meets and learns from a variety of characters, who together represent a microcosm of pre-war Europe. These include the secular humanist and encyclopedist Lodovico Settembrini (a student of Giosuè Carducci), the totalitarian Jew-turned-Jesuit Leo Naphta, the Dionysian Dutch Mynheer Peeperkorn, and his romantic interest Madame Clavdia Chauchat.
In the end, Castorp remains in the morbid atmosphere of the sanatorium for seven years. At the conclusion of the novel, the war begins, Castorp volunteers for the military, and his possible, or probable, demise upon the battlefield is portended.
Review: That Thomas Mann has fallen out of fashion is no real surprise. As with many eminently readable authors, it is simply that Mann’s books are of a type no longer widely appreciated, and only very rarely produced anymore. He does not fit into the curriculum. Full appreciation requires at least a layman’s familiarity with a wide breadth of classical and historical allusions. Sadly, such qualities probably serve to disqualify Mann from his rightful place in the modern pantheon—these days, allegory and allusion remain in currency only through their occasional appearance as ironic relics.
Traditionally, critical reappraisals begin with the re conceptualization of the artist in question, a recoloring of their signature virtues to fit modern notions of truth and beauty. Mann resists any such updating. He is, as much as can be imagined, a creature of history, and more so The Magic Mountain is an artifact of one particular moment in history. It does not provide a mirror for the modern mentality, except to say that in its broad scope and unerring rigor we see the degraded state of our own ideological interactions.
As has been repeated, The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas. Between its covers there is a multitude of ideas both large and small, as well as the interaction of ideas with ideology and the intersection of passion and precision.
The Magic Mountain can be read both as a classic example of the European bildungsroman – a "novel of education" or "novel of formation" – and as a sly parody of this genre. Many formal elements of this type of fiction are present: like the protagonist of a typical bildungsroman, the immature Castorp leaves his home and learns about art, culture, politics, human frailty and love. Also embedded within this vast novel are extended reflections on the experience of time, music, nationalism, sociological issues and changes in the natural world. Hans Castorp’s stay in the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain thus provides him with a panoramic view of pre-war European civilization and its discontents.
Thomas Mann’s description of the subjective experience of serious illness and the gradual process of medical institutionalisation are of interest in themselves, as are his allusions to the irrational forces within the human psyche at a time when Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming prominent. These themes relate to the development of Castorp's character over the time span covered by the novel, a point that the author himself underlined. In his discussion of the work, written in English, published in the Atlantic in 1953 Mann states that "what [Hans] came to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health . . . ."
At the core of this complex work is an encyclopaedic survey of the ideas and debates associated with modernity. Mann acknowledged his debt to the skeptical insights of Friedrich Nietzsche concerning modern humanity and embodied this in the novel in the arguments between the characters. Throughout the book the author employs the discussion with and between Settembrini, Naphta and the medical staff to introduce the impressionable Castorp to a wide spectrum of competing ideologies about responses to the Age of Enlightenment. However, whereas the classical bildungsroman would conclude by having "formed" Castorp into a mature member of society, with his own world view and greater self-knowledge, The Magic Mountain ends as it has to for "life's delicate child" as a simultaneously anonymous and communal conscript, one of millions, under fire on some battlefield of World War I.
The novel stretches a full seven years—seven years during which young Hans Castorp, fresh from university and ready to begin his commission as a civil engineer, is unexpectedly derailed while visiting his cousin Joachim at the Sanatorium Berghof. Joachim is undergoing an indefinite stay while recovering from tuberculosis. During what was designed to be a brief three-week visit, Castorp is himself diagnosed and prescribed to stay—which he does, for the long duration.
If Castorp is presented to the reader as a cipher, it is not because he lacks in convincing psychology, but merely that he represents a forgotten archetype almost wholly alien to the American character. Castorp is the conscientious and methodical student, well aware of his own ignorance and unwilling to be considered callow, an empty vessel as yet unfilled. As he falls into the orbits of the Italian pedant and scholar Settembrini (undoubtedly named for the Italian radical Luigi Settembrini, who maintained that literature “is as the very soul of the nation, seeking, in opposition to medieval mysticism, reality, freedom, independence of reason, truth and beauty”), and subsequently the German pedagogue Naphta (naphtha is a Persian word for “volatile, flammable liquid”), he is slowly filled, not so much with pure knowledge as the awareness and elaboration of dichotomy. Much as the Hegelian dialectic finds synthesis through opposing thesis and antithesis, Settembrini’s brittle, redeeming humanism and Naphta’s verdant, overripe, and essentially decayed romanticism form the two poles between which Castorp’s spiritual and intellectual struggles are contextualized. Here we see not just Castorp’s gradual awakening but the whole spectrum of European—and particularly German—thought in the years leading up to the First World War. The conflict between “cold” rationality and “hot” passion—for the sake of simplicity, between French civilization, as represented by Voltaire and Emile Zola, and German classicism and German romance, represented by the ultimate Dionysian impulses of Wagner and Goethe—eventually came to define Germany’s disastrous ideological ruin.
In the context of the broad metaphysical struggles that form the heart of the book, The Magic Mountain is also, in an indirect manner, deeply autobiographical. Mann became estranged from his brother, Heinrich, during the First World War as a result of Heinrich’s general castigation of the war and outspoken support of the French intellectual character. Thomas became incensed and was inspired during the war years to produce a reactionary philosophical tract entitled Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, directly opposed to the notions of Western European “civilization” in favor of Germanic “romance”. But the Reflections were published in 1918. By the time The Magic Mountain was published in 1924, Mann had seen the folly of Germany’s martial ambitions, and had reconciled with his brother on both a personal and political level. Although Mann is careful to paint both sides of his debate as deeply flawed, there is no doubt that ultimately the forces of life and progress must back the rational humanist against the passionate reactionary.
From 1928 until the early 1980s, the only legal English translations of much of Mann’s work were those of Helen Lowe-Porter. For the fifty years during which Lowe-Porter’s work enjoyed a monopoly, bilingual scholars and critics grumbled that not only were her translations exceedingly sloppy, but in many places stunningly inaccurate. (For an excellent examination of this, please see David Luke’s introduction to the 1988 Bantam Classic edition of Death in Venice.) When Lowe-Porter’s exclusive copyright finally lapsed, a multitude of scholars leapt into the breach. John E. Woods’s translation, published by Knopf in 1995 and here presented as the latest addition to Random House’s venerable Everyman’s Library collection, carries the weight of authority that will help establish it as the new standard.
Opening Line: “An ordinary young man was on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graubunden.”
Closing Line: “And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round – will love someday rise up out of this, too?”
Quotes: “It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death.”
Rating: Could not read.


  1. I love your blog and have been following your reviews for a long time now. I've just noticed that there were quite a few you've rated as "could not read" or "could not finish."

    I'd love to know why it is you couldn't read/finish them. For some, e.g. Finnegan's Wake, it's obvious. But for the Magic Mountain, is it simply you don't have time or something more related to can't-be-botheredness.

  2. Judging from your response to my comment, I'll take it as the latter...