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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924, 720 pages)

"Only the exhaustive can be truly interesting".  

"This is one of those works that changed the shape and
possibilities of European literature. It is a masterwork, unlike
any other. It is also, if we learn to read it on its own terms, a
delight, comic and profound, a new form of language, a new
way of seeing."  A. S. Byatt

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1875 to 1955-Germany-Nobel Prize 1929) is one of the major works of 20th century European literature.    It has been on my to be read list ever since I first learned of it as a young teenager when I read Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan.   It is a huge, I must say it, mountain of a book that does its best to capture the full spectrum of knowledge, philosophical attitudes and culture found in Europe in the opening decades of the 20th Century.   

Thomas Mann left Germany for Switzerland in 1933 when Hitler came to power.  In 1939 he moved to the USA, teaching at Princeton.   In 1944, while living in California, he became a USA citizen.   He was married and had six children.

The story opens around 1910.   A young man, Hans Castrop is about to enter his career in the shipbuilding business but first he wants to make a two week visit to his cousin staying high up in the mountains at a sanatorium for the cure and housing of affluent people with tuberculous.    There are all sorts of people from lots of countries there.   Sadly it turns out he has consumption (as TB was once called in a kind of hiding from death euphemism).   He ends up spending seven years there.   While staying there he has extensive conversations with characters that are representative of the major competing philosophies of the time.   He also receives an extensive education in many cultural and scientific matters.   Magic Mountain is really almost an encyclopedic work from which one could nearly reconstruct the knowledge of Europe in the first decades of the 20th century.    It also gives is a good look at the business side of the treatment of tuberculous and at times it did seem the institute was keeping people, maybe even Hans, there primarily to make money from them.

The words from Mann's preface to the book let us see what he was aspiring to in The Magic Mountain.


The exaggerated pastness of our narrative is due to its taking place before the epoch when a certain crisis shattered its way through life and consciousness and left a deep chasm behind. It takes place—or, rather, deliberately to avoid the present tense, it took place, and had taken place—in the long ago, in the old days, the days of the world before the Great War, in the beginning of which so much began that has scarcely yet left off beginning. Yes, it took place before that; yet not so long before...


We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail—for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reason of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.

Some might exchange the word "exhausting" for "exhaustive" but this really is a fascinating work for those of us who like novels that turn on ideas.

There are some interesting kind of quirks in  the book.  Mann does not portray Russians in at all flattering way, treating them almost as sinister orientals speaking a "guttural language" and representing a degenerate phrase in Oswald Spengler's cycles of civilizations.    The Russians seems to always sit to together at their own tables at meals.  I can see why Vladimir Nabokov did not speak highly of Mann at times.    Meals, by the way, were quite spectacular affairs and I admit I would not mind being a guest for a couple of weeks as everything is totally taken care of for the patients.

The Magic Mountain is a wonderful, very rich  book.   It ends on a note of futility as Hans now that his years on the mountain have transformed into a person of real cultural depth is going to be drafted to fight in WWI, probably to be killed in a  senseless war.

The Magic Mountain is a complex work of art full of layer upon layer of meanings and deep irony.   I profited a lot from reading A. S. Byatt's introduction to the book (in another edition than the one I read).

The edition I read was translated by Helen Tracy T. Lowe-Porter who had exclusive rights to translate Mann for many years and first made his work available to readers of English.   This edition of the translation was first published in 1927.

You can read Byatt's  essay HERE.

I am glad I finally read The Magic Mountain.  

Mel u





20 comments:

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

I didn't like Siddhartha, so I wasn't keen on reading The Magic Mountain. Your post made the book sound really interesting, though, and I can't wait to check it out now. I found those philosophical conversations particularly interesting. :)

Rikki said...

Re the Russians, I liked that there was a good and a bad Russian table at mealtimes. So he did not lump them all together, :).

Shannon Young said...

I spent a lot of my senior year of college reading this book before bed. I'm afraid I didn't finish it, but I agree that the meal scenes were spectacular. The ideas in this book stuck with me and I think I need to go back and finish it. Thanks for the review.

mel u said...

Darlyn(It is Your Move Dickens)thanks for the comment)I would love to read your post on this one day

Rikki-very insightful point about the Russians-thanks very much for your visit and comment

C.B. James said...

I got a copy of this soon after I read Death in Venice. I've not read it yet, however. Maybe it will be my big book project in 2012, after I finish reading Trisram Shandy.

mel u said...

Shannon Young-thanks for your comments-I the meals were great!-give it another try when the time is right-thanks very much for your comment and visit

mel u said...

C. B. James-I will look forward to your thoughts on Magic Mountain-I am starting Tristram Shandy on Oct 1 -maybe you can read along with me-nice to have some company

parrish lantern said...

This was a part of my European reading tour, when I was in my late teens - early twenties along with likes of Hesse and I've a vague memory of it being a book that sent me off on a path of reading other books, in the aim of understanding it better, so all in all a great book.

parrish lantern said...

This was a part of my European reading tour, when I was in my late teens - early twenties along with likes of Hesse and I've a vague memory of it being a book that sent me off on a path of reading other books, in the aim of understanding it better, so all in all a great book.

Fred said...

Mel u,

_The Magic Mountain_ is one of my top ten favorite novels. It is a magnificent work, one that I have read at least 3 or 4 times and will read it again that many times, assuming I live long enough.

It is not something one can read in short segments, but one that requires time to immerse oneself in it.

Thanks for providing a link to Byatt's essay. I wasn't aware of it.

I think it's one of those novels that should be on everyone's "must read" list.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Nabokov was just as hard on emigré Russians as Mann was. VN thought Mann was something much worse than mean to Russians - an incompetent stylist.

JoV said...

I don't know many German writers and Although I heard about Mann but had never read anything from him. Perhaps I need to assign a year to German read, that will be an awesome idea!

mel u said...

Parrish Lantern-yes for sure a great book and a super educational one

Fred-I also hope I will live long enough to reread this work several times

Amateur Reader (Tom)-I recall VN said that Mann was a dwarf compared to Kafka-

JoV-a German themed reading year would be very powerful-I also have now Mann's Death in Venice and seven of his short stories and will read them soon-

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Not that anyone has to agree with Nabokov! But VN and Mann are good representatives of different, even opposing, aesthetic traditions.

Fred said...

Nabokov is a classic example of why I seldom if ever pay any attention to writers who criticize their rivals.

If there is a dwarf in the comparison between Nabokov and Mann, then Nabokov should look in the mirror--he just might see the top of his own head.

mel u said...

Fred/Amateur Reader (Tom)-I did some checking on Nabokov's remarks on Mann-he did consistently express contempt for his work-calling The Magic Mountain "Topical Trash"-among other writers he designated unworthy of their status are Balzac, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Rilke, and Gide-of course in the class room setting in which he first made these remarks, no student is going to challenge him-writing Pale Fire may make him a great writer but he also had a huge ego and makes little attempt to justify his negative judgments beyond the mere assertion of them

mel u said...

In his 1939 (or so) great work, the March of Ford Madox Ford called The Magic Mountain a "great masterpiece"

mel u said...

In his 1939 (or so) great work, the March of Ford Madox Ford called The Magic Mountain a "great masterpiece"

HYDRIOTAPHIA said...

But maybe also it ends with a sense of liberation and escape from the confines of a sanatorium in the final pages as Hans enjoys the sport of ski-ing down the mountain.

mel u said...

HYDRIOTAPHIA-interesting comment-it could be a further irony that Hans joy on escaping the sanitorium by ski-ing down the mountain will be followed by a bloody senseless war that will negate all the values he learned on the mountain-I hope you will visit again