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The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain (1924)

by Thomas Mann

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5,96195701 (4.24)4 / 373
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You’re faced with a daunting task when you try to talk about The Magic Mountain – there are so many threads that to pull on one seems unfair to the others. For some it’s a meditation on time, for others it’s the foundational ‘sick-lit’ masterpiece; it’s an allegory of pre-First World War Europe, say one group of supporters; not at all, argue others, it’s a parody of the Bildungsroman tradition.

And yet despite the profusion of themes and ideas, this is a supremely contained book. ‘Insular’ you might almost say, were the etymology not so inappropriate; perhaps ‘hermetically sealed’ is better (and indeed that becomes an important phrase in the text). The world of this novel is a closed one, or so at least it appears – sealed off from reality, with its own rules, its own time, its own space. The extent to which the characters here can interact with the ‘real’ world is something they have to discover themselves through the book’s seven-hundred-plus pages.

The plot can be disposed of in a single statement: that a young engineer called Hans Castorp takes a three-week visit to see his cousin in a Swiss sanatorium and ends up staying for seven years. This is not a novel of events, but a novel of ideas. (The main idea was apparently, I wonder if I can write seven hundred pages where literally nothing happens?)

At first the set-up seems to anticipate the whole imprisoned-in-a-medical-facility trope that has subsequently become familiar – as Hans gets sucked into the routine, and gradually diagnosed with problems of his own that prevent his leaving, I was picking up on a vague One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe, and I also found myself thinking of the Alpine clinic scenes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or even the Timothy Cavendish bits of Cloud Atlas.

But the danger here is more subtle. The staff are friendly and accommodating (despite a sense that ‘above and behind [the Director] stood invisible forces’); you can leave for a trip into town, or even discharge yourself, whenever you wish. To paraphrase The Eagles, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never discount the possibility of a tubercular relapse forcing you to return with a collapsed lung. The patients claim they want to get out, but their attitude, in reality, is much more ambiguous. There’s a brilliant moment where Hans rails against the surroundings a little too much, and the director of the sanatorium calls his bluff with a quick examination:

When he was done, he said, ‘You may leave.’

Hans Castorp stammered, ‘You mean…but how can that be? Am I cured?’

‘Yes, you’re cured […]. As far as I’m concerned, you may leave.’

‘But, Director Behrens. You’re not really serious, are you?’

And suddenly we realise that Hans does not want to leave at all. He doesn’t want to go back to the responsibilities and expectations of his engineering job; here, in the sanatorium, he has freedom – freedom, and also a certain license in behaviour granted to the sick.

This is what lies behind the book’s treatment of time, and why the narrator can refer to the story as a Zeitroman, a ‘time-novel’. The inhabitants are in some sense degraded by being there, but they also cherish their privileged status, exempt from the world’s calendar. One character speaks of the sanatorium as an ‘isle of Circe’; it is a ‘life without time’, where the ‘true tense of all existence is the “inelastic present”’ (ausdehnungslose Gegenwart). In such an environment, there is a tendency for ideas, ideologies, dogma, to clash together unmediated – and also, conversely, for petty jealousies, flirtations and sexual desires to be unnaturally heightened.

Indeed this must be one of the most sexual novels ever written to involve so little actual sex. Everything is sublimated into various social conventions, so that Hans’s quasi-relationship with his mysterious fellow patient Clavdia Chauchat is initiated when he asks to borrow a pencil, and a climactic instance of sexual union is described, adorably, as a moment when ‘the use of informal pronouns achieved its full meaning’.

Psychoanalytic critics have had a field-day with the pencil-lending, not least because it reminds Hans of his homoerotic feelings for a childhood friend. But what makes the book truly Freudian in a less trivial sense is its close examination of the links between sex and death, eros and thanatos. One of my favourite chapters is the section called ‘Research’, where Hans stays up all night reading books about anatomy and biochemistry and feeling intimations of mortality mixed with a vague horniness. Life is imagined as ‘a secret, sensate stirring in the chaste chill of space’ – ‘matter blushing in reflex’ – while evolution is ‘the quintessence of sensuality and desire’, stirred into action ‘by reeking flesh’. Gazing out over the nighttime Alpine landscape, Hans sees only a cosmic, naked (female) human body:

The night of its pubic region built a mystic triangle with the steaming pungent darkness of the armpits, just as the red epithelial mouth did with the eyes, or the red buds of the breast with the vertically elongated navel.

(This whole virtuoso section reminded me of university, spending all night poring over textbooks while trying to manage teenage hormones.)

So much for the metaphysical games, the grand narrative theories. I’d expected something of the sort just from the novel’s reputation. What I had not expected – and it came as a very pleasant surprise – was to find that The Magic Mountain is a comic novel. In fact the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it’s this tone that lifts it, for me, into the first rank. Apart from anything else, it’s so important for the reader that they have some counterpoint to the grandiose theories so many of the characters want to expound upon, and Mann provides exactly that through the endearing character of Hans himself, our ‘thoroughly unpretentious’, ‘unheroic hero’. High-minded comments – and there are many – are rarely allowed to stand without an invitation for us to smile at them:

‘Did you know that the great Plotinus is recorded to have said that he was ashamed to have a body?’ Settembrini asked, and with such earnest expectation of an answer that Hans Castorp found himself forced to admit that this was the first he had heard of it.

Later, after a similarly earnest apophthegm from another character, we are allowed to eavesdrop on Hans's thought process: ‘Well, there’s a Delphic remark for you,’ he says to himself. ‘And if you purse your lips tight after delivering it, that will certainly intimidate everyone for a bit.’ In fact even when Hans is the one delivering the sententiousness, he can’t take himself very seriously:

‘There are so many different kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst. Hello! Why, I think I’ve just coined a phrase, a bon mot. How do you like it?’

(‘Very much,’ comes the deadpan reply. ‘I cannot wait for your first collection of aphorisms.’) Without these ironic shifts in register, the book would still be fascinating but it would be monotone: with them, the effect is almost orchestral.

Such things are brought out especially well by John E Woods in his 1996 translation, an improvement on the old 1927 Lowe-Porter version in every way. Lowe-Porter, it has been said, succeeded in translating the novel into German, and having tried the first few pages of her translation I admit I found it almost unreadable. I had to order the Woods from the US, but it was worth it, despite the godawful cover and font design used by Vintage, and passing over also the Americanisms scattered through the text (catercorner being perhaps the most jarring; Woods also silently amends the patients’ temperatures from Celsius to Fahrenheit!).

Towards the end of the book, we finally suspect that Mann is pushing us beyond the ‘hyperarticulate’ arguments and towards real-world applications of these theories – to ‘leave logomachy behind’, as the narrator says at one point. The final couple of pages of this book move for the first time beyond Davos, to show us the Western Front – and we realise with a terrific jolt that it is 1914 and time has not stopped moving after all. Suddenly we appreciate the full importance of the novel’s investigation into how love and life can be made to emerge from death.

But now I am in danger of just rephrasing the book’s final lines in less felicitous language. Suffice to say that the whole mountainous project comes together in the climax, and it all ends, characteristically, in a question mark. Readers today may be better-placed than they wish to supply the answers. ( )
  Widsith | Jun 20, 2015 |
Enough here that perhaps I should revisit, and there are many warnings against the older translation which I read, and kudos for the re-translation by Woods. There are some remarkable episodes, some luminous moments. On the other hand, the bourgeois liberal worldview guiding this novel of ideas, even as ironized deftly by Mann, just seems hopelessly inadequate to me these days. Here we are almost a century after that looming war to end all wars, with vicious imperial conflicts still ravaging much of an increasingly degraded world where nothing but technology has truly been radicalized. The consequences are too devastating for the mild moral hand-wringing of bourgeois liberalism to address, no matter how skillful the artistry it's couched in. Mann's muddled caricature of extremism in Naphta is another tiresomely familiar liberal dodge, right down to today. It's all a bit too much like the PBS version of reality. ( )
1 vote CSRodgers | Apr 19, 2015 |
Ott 2013
Sette mesi che sei li'.
Ti finiro', prima o poi.
Pero' la presenza della copertina telata e' rassicurante, domestica, acquietante.
E ogni pagina e' cosi' bella e profonda che è quasi sciocco procedere velocemente.

Purtuttavia bisogna, perche' non abbiamo tutto il tempo di Hans, e dobbiamo tornare in pianura, perche' le battaglie ci attendono, la vita va avanti, le giornate ci chiamano... I libri si impilano non letti, e questo tomo blocca gestalticamente altre aperture, altre introduzioni, altre storie...

Mann, Mann, maledetto furbacchione...
Gen 2014


Pero' stavolta la fatica ha superato il gusto, in molti punti.

Pagine e pagine di cui per mia ignoranza mi sfugge il senso; pile di parole e concetti di cui ho solo intuito la portata ma che non saprei spiegare a un bambino; dialoghi esclusivi, per una persona di conoscenze non profonde.

Non credo che nella prima lettura la comprensione sia stata maggiore; forse li' era la sorpresa dell'opera e dell'estensione a nascondere una frustrazione che senz'altro sarà stata presente.
Adesso mi riposo un po' e parto con Faust.
--- ( )
  bobparr | Dec 14, 2014 |
This is a book with very little plot - the young Hans Castorp is sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland where he talks at length with various intellectuals about philosophy. However, that simple description can't do justice to this magnificently eloquent novel of ideas. ( )
  bodachliath | Nov 4, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mann, Thomasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Byatt, A.S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Caro, HerbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Castelló, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fonseca, GonzaloIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Giachetti-Sorteni, BiceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hawinkels, PéTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kaila, KaiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowe-Porter, H. T.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marques, BernardoCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mattson, EllenAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosoman, LeonardIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wallenström, UlrikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winter, G.A. vonAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wood, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Woods, John E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Курелла, В.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Станевич, В.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Die Geschichte Hans Castorps, die wir erzählen wollen, - nicht um seinetwillen (denn der Leser wird einen einfachen, wenn auch ansprechenden jungen Mann in ihm kennenlernen), sondern um der Geschichte willen, die uns in hohem Grade erzählenswert scheint (wobei zu Hans Castorps Gunsten denn doch erinnert werden sollte, dass es seine Geschichte ist, und dass nicht jedem jede Geschichte passiert): diese Geschichte ist sehr lange her, sie ist sozusagen schon ganz mit historischem Edelrost überzogenund unbedingt in der Zeitform der tiefsten Vergangenheit vorzutragen.

An unassuming young man was travelling, in midsummer, from his native city of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Canton of the Grisons, on a three weeks' visit.
The story of Hans Castorp, which we would here set forth, not on his own account, for in him the reader will make acquaintance with a simple-minded though pleasing young man, but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us highly worth telling - though it must needs be borne in mind, in Hans Castorp's behalf, that it is his story, and not every story happens to everybody - this story, we say, belongs to the long ago; it is already, so to speak, covered with historical mould, and unquestionably to be presented in the tense best suited to a narrative out of the depth of the past.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679772871, Paperback)

In this dizzyingly rich novel of ideas, Mann uses a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps--a community devoted exclusively to sickness--as a microcosm for Europe, which in the years before 1914 was already exhibiting the first symptoms of its own terminal irrationality. The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition and irony, sexual tension and intellectual ferment, a book that pulses with life in the midst of death.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:22 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A sanitorium in the Swiss Alps reflects the societal ills of pre-twentieth-century Europe, and a young marine engineer rises from his life of anonymity to become a pivotal character in a story about how a human's environment affects self identity. In this dizzyingly rich novel of ideas, Mann uses a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, a community devoted exclusively to sickness, as a microcosm for Europe, which in the years before 1914 was already exhibiting the first symptoms of its own terminal irrationality. The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition and irony, sexual tension and intellectual ferment, a book that pulses with life in the midst of death.… (more)

» see all 5 descriptions

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