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.