Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann

Thirty years ago this spring I read half of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) during travels in southern Europe and stopped when I was no longer spending long stretches of time on busses or ferries, waiting for same, or otherwise doing the things that young people do when they have plenty of time and little free cash. I also caught up with friends I had made somewhere in Greece who had taken their copy of Foucault’s Pendulum with them back to Hungary before I could finish it. So I traded Mann’s mountain for Eco’s erudition, and never really went back.

A thirty-year-old edition of Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann

I did leave a nice crisp 100-drachma note (about 30¢) on page 516, so I would know exactly where to start again if I ever returned to Mann’s story of a Swiss sanatorium in the early years of the twentieth century. The page itself is nothing special: it’s not the end of a section, much less a chapter, of which the thousand-page book has only seven. It’s just where I happened to stop on the last day when I read any of The Magic Mountain for the next three decades.

What did I remember? Hans Castorp, a young engineer from northern Germany, had gone up to the sanatorium to visit his cousin who was taking the cure there for tuberculosis. At first Hans found the patients there odd, but the longer he stayed the more he wanted to fit in. He was not-so-secretly pleased, if a little surprised, to receive a diagnosis of incipient tuberculosis and a recommendation that he stay for several months. I remembered that in the atmosphere up on the mountain, sickness was held to be more normal than health, and possibly preferable. There was an intricate rhythm of meals and times when the patients were meant to lie out on their balconies to rest and take in the mountain air, which was held to be essential to their cure. The administration was an absurd mix of the medical, the esoteric, and the militaristic. There was also an elaborate hierarchy among the patients — at meals, for example, there was a Good Russian table and a Bad Russian table, and the clinic director visited the various tables over the course of weeks, much like a monarch making a progress. Hans became friends with an enthusiastic Italian, Settembrini, an older man of humanistic ideals who took the engineer under his wing and introduced him to the heady world of ideas and philosophy. I’m sure there was a lot more — I have a vague recollection of a Walpurgisnacht that is stormy in more ways than one — but at a remove of thirty years that’s not too bad.

What about the second half? As with Karamazov, there is a vast secondary literature about The Magic Mountain, and I have no illusions about adding to it. The book was first published in 1924, so Mann is portraying the lost world of the belle époque, knowing full well that the international mix of people taking the cure in the elevated atmosphere of a Swiss clinic will break apart into the nationalisms of the Great War. He didn’t know that his own period was not post-war but rather interwar, but for a contemporary reader that makes the world Mann described doubly lost in two wars that ravaged the European continent and swept the entire era away.

If the first half of the book was a more or less coherent portrait of Hans’ integration into the society of the sanatorium and his worldly education as a whole, the second half splinters into longer set pieces that show aspects of his experience or extended meditations on other characters. The fragmentation reflects how European society drives itself apart as it heads toward the First World War, although when Mann finally makes this explicit in the penultimate section (Die Große Gereiztheit, “The Great Petulance”) he does so with a heavy hand. He means to show how the tense international political situation creeps into life among the patients, but it’s as if a switch has been thrown after the preceding section (Fragwürdigstes, “Most Questionable”), a lengthy bit about spiritualism, and suddenly characters are coming to blows.

Which brings me to the question of how seriously to take the whole endeavor. At times, Mann seems to want the reader to take his people and his subjects with the utmost seriousness. He is portraying life and death, and the proper approach to both. His characters debate God and morality, freedom and servitude, the correct roles of rulers and ruled, almost all of the big questions of life except for those relating to money. Mann takes page after page to give these ideas a full airing, and has capable characters on both sides of most questions; he doesn’t put his thumb on the scales by having a dumb or repulsive character taking the side he opposes. On the other hand, Mann does things like name the Hans’ main romantic interest Madame Chauchat. That could be translated as Madame Warm-Cat, but it could also be rendered Madame Hot-Pussy. How often is Mann having the reader on? Madame Chauchat is also the only significant female character; I’m pretty sure that Magic Mountain as a whole is a total Bechdel fail. Further, when she departs the stage, Hans seems curiously unaffected. Mann has turned his attention from one episode to another, and she is not important to the next, so Hans does not look back or miss her.

There are many brilliant scenes and sections in the second half of the book: Hans lost in a snowstorm, the travails of his cousin and how the sanatorium’s medical leadership reacts, the debates between Settimbrini and his Jesuit antagonist. The four parts regarding Mynheer Peeperkorn are a depiction of and a reflection on how a magnetic personality can affect both individuals and a society (in this case a small one), even when the content is much thinner than the impression suggests. These sections could be read as prefiguring the effects of charismatic leaders on European societies in the decade after the book’s publication, or they could be considered as a more general examination of how charisma works. Terrific though these are, they never cohered in a way that I hoped they would. Hans’ story winds up episodic, and I found that less than satisfying in a work of this length.

Mann himself suggested that one of the special qualities of the book was that, like a great work of music, a reader would gain greater and deeper appreciation in second and subsequent experiences of the work. Maybe in thirty years.

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  1. […] I did finish reading The Magic Mountain. Here are my remarks. […]

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