I realise that I am in the minority, as most reviewers and professors of literature believe this to be a masterpiece, and probably the best book to come out of Germany in the twentieth century Then again, Hans Christian Anderson s boy who recognised the nakedness of his Emperor as those around him admired the splendour and wonderful colours of their leader s new clothes, was also in the minority Perhaps, then, I shouldn t feel too bad about my opinion of this amazing piece of creative writing It may also explain why English literature was the only O Level that I failed, despite having been a prolific reader all of my life It just happened that the books that were chosen for my studies for those exams also bored me to tears Following some comments on this review, I have added these notes 27 9 09 I have always been a prolific reader, sometimes having up to five books on the go simultaneously I read most novels at the rate of 80 100 pages per day With The Magic Mountain, I found that I had been reading a few pages at a time for well over a month, and had only waded through 170 There is so much description attached to the narrative that all that had happened by this stage was that the main character had arrived at the sanatorium, met his old friend and most of the patients It had also come to light that he really wasn t there for his own medical benefit He isn t really ill Rather that he was there for a bit of a rest, and escape from the drudge of life in Hamburg with his guardian, and to be with his best mate If the descriptions were interesting, and succeeded in conjuring up a wonderful picture in my mind, I wouldn t feel quite so bad about it Encouraged by some of the other reviews, I revisited the book, and read the passage describing Hans s adventure in the snow, as that was said to be the best part of the book I remained unimpressed Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book if my German language were up to the standard required to read the original, but I doubt it I am not alone in my disillusionment Several of my friends and family, some of them professors and schoolteachers, share my views, and I have yet to meet anyone who has survived to reach the end It is obvious that there are many who have read, re read, and thoroughly enjoyed The Magic Mountain I am happy for them and I rejoice that the world is full of variety, particularly of taste Wouldn t life be dull without that 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 happensAt 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 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 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 I think about it, the 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.
De Toverberg Is Een Bildungsroman In Duitse Traditie, Het Is Een Tijdsdocument Een Spiegel Van En Kritiek Op De Westerse Cultuur Maar Vooral Is Het Een Satire Op De Geschiedenis Van Het Duitse DenkenHoofdpersoon Hans Castorp Bezoekt Aan Het Begin Van De Roman Zijn Neef In Een Sanatorium Deze Bevestigt De Diagnose Van Castorps Doktoren Een Lichte Longaandoening Reden Voor De Pati Nt Om Zeven Jaar In Het Sanatorium Te Kuren In Deze Tijd Valt Hij Ten Prooi Aan De Van Het Leven Daarbeneden Afgesneden Sanatoriumsfeer, Waarin Fysieke Indolentie Gepaard Gaat Aan Een Intens Spiritueel En Zinnelijk Beleven En Doorleven Van Dingen En Gedachten Thomas Mann Geeft Schitterende Portretteringen Van De Mensen Om Castorp De Artsen Behrens En Krokowski, De Italiaanse Vooruitgangsideoloog Settembrini En Van Diens Sinistere Reactionaire Tegenstander Naphta, Maar Vooral Ook Van Madame Chauchat, Die Een Betoverende Invloed Uitoefent Op Hans Castorp Imagine hiking up a steep mountain You are not quite winning the game of hide seek with the Sun and it has got its fiery eyes firmly on you Your legs are chewing your ears off with incessant grumbling With each step you take, a wish to flop down right there grows stronger One of these steps carries you to a spot where a spectacular vista suddenly opens up before you For the briefest moment, the scene in front of you consumes not only your vision, but your consciousness It is only in the next moment that it registers that the arduous climb is over and you know it was a worthwhile endeavor The Magic Mountain is one such hike No other book has made such heavy demands on my patience not even Tommy Ruggles Gravity s Rainbow, I think The Magic Mountain is incredibly dense and often slow going But then there are places where the narrative sprouts wings and soars Not to say that I didn t like the other bits of the book, but it was these few outstanding chapters that confirmed that effort vs reward dynamic was in my favor.
It is certainly not a book with a high degree of obfuscation Mann doesn t make it any difficult than it needs to be He narrates and explains everything with a lot of patience and wisdom The book description refers to The Magic Mountain as a dizzingly rich novel of ideas and that s exactly what it is It is a highly erudite read all the way through comprising of many a intellectual discussions and debates One of the frequently occurring themes in the book is the philosophy of time The subjective nature of time is explicated in great detail In fact, the book itself has an onomatopoeic quality, in that the narrative seems to move slow when time is not passing swiftly for Hans Castorp, and its picks up the pace when Hans feels that time is flying by.
Some of the other themes include life, death, illness, love, humanism, progress, modernism, irrationality of society, effect of war and then some Did I say it was dense Many of the characters are representational of one idea or another The character of the protagonist, however, goes through a wonderful growth during the course of the novel His character development, both spiritually and intellectually, is certainly one of the highlights It may look like this book has a very serious disposition, but really there is plenty of humor and irony in the way Mann writes.
You may have seen some other reviewers mentioning the transcendent chapter Snow I can t go without mentioning it as well It is by far the best thing about the book A beautiful, sublime piece of writing Hans Castorp comes out transformed by the experience, and so does the reader While other reviewers don t mention it, Danse Macabre was fascinating as well For people living in a sanatorium, death takes on a very urgent position Danse Macabre, literally meaning Dance of Death, looks into that very abyss.
Thomas Mann said that The Magic Mountain should be read twice I have read through once, but I can t say I have twirled all the ideas around on my fingers and looked at them from all the sides I do want to re read it some day For my next dose of ideas, I will perhaps be knocking at Musil s door.
Imagine being stuck in a place where all sense of time is lost in the web of inactivity, a place which enables people to lead a life devoid of any greater purpose and only focused on recuperation from a queer illness, a place almost hermetically sealed and self controlled, successfully keeping the repercussions of wars and diplomatic feuds between nations at bay Imagine being rid of all your earthly woes of finding means of survival and all the elements that stand as pillars supporting the normative structure of life during a sojourn in a special, secluded place Imagine a miniature diorama of a society thriving on its own, divorced from society at large If you haven t been successful in imagining a real life scenario fitting aforementioned descriptions, do not despair You can always discover this specially constructed safe haven in a certain fictional sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where our protagonist Hans Castorp languishes for seven whole years.
The experience of reading this book is akin to a painstaking hike up a dangerously steep slope Excuse the overused analogy but it happens to be quite apt There are long dry stretches requiring ritualistic finding of one footing after the next, ensuring that as a reader you do not slip and tumble headfirst into the gaping chasm of incomprehension And then there are the moments of perfect clarity when snippets of Mann s wisdom filter in like errant rays of sunshine through the drear of many tedious descriptions of long walks and repetitive conversations, making the long and difficult climb seem worth it all of a suddenBut he who knows the body, who knows life, also knows death Except that s not the whole thing but merely a beginning, pedagogically speaking You have to hold it up to the other half, to its opposite Because our interest in death and illness is nothing but a way of expressing an interest in lifeThe summit of this magic mountain becomes the location of a metaphorical watch tower from where the spectacle of our collective civilizational march is viewed, dissected and analyzed with precision The quirky patients inhabiting the sanatorium become mere proxies for some nations or disparate points of view, their inter relationships often symbolic of some deeper ideological conflict woven intricately into the fabric of existence.
But despite the sheer brilliance of this premise, there s something off about this book Something that prevented me from according that final star Even if this remains a lengthy and eruditely presented discussion on Europe s inner contradictions, its juxtaposition of progress in all spheres of life and violence brewing under the veneer of that sanctimonious progress, as a work of literature it is somehow imperfect and rough around the edges Since I was often tempted to believe it would have worked better as a nonfictional philosophical discourse It s sort of like what my eloquent friend Dolors saysThe book lacks a soulHow succinctly put read her well argued review here The characters are employed as mere mouthpieces, never resembling well drawn sketches of actual people with their own stories The situations and backdrops are mere contrivances specifically begotten to tout ideas on life and death It s as if the whole narrative is an elaborate ruse developed to convey Mann s thoughts on the state of Europe prior to the First World War During my moments of exasperation with the book I was able to recall a few of Nabokov s thoughts in his article on LolitaAll the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at MannClearly a jibe at TMM if I have ever seen one Not that I agree with Nabokov s opinion on TMM being topical trash but it surely gives rise to the suspicion that if you strip the book of all its allegorical significance, almost nothing substantial remains And with the turn of the last page, it leaves the reader with a sense of indescribable dissatisfaction about having just finished a journey neither very rewarding nor enjoyable Maybe a re read some time years later on in life will restore the elusive star Maybe it will not originally posted on 31st October, 2013 Some novels are like low hills And some are like high mountains Love stands opposed to death it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts.
The sanatorium is a powerful metaphor of civilisation there is everything love and hate, hope and despair, life and death, wisdom and stupidity, profanity and religion, science and ignorance, metaphysics and mysticism our interest in death and illness is nothing but a way of expressing an interest in life And this civilisation is sick it is consumptive And it is a cauldron of human drama.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain An ordinary young man was on his way from his hometown Hamburg to Davos Platz in the canton of Graub nden It was the height of summer, and he planned to stay for three weeks Here we are introduced to Hans Castorp one of my all time favorite bumbling protagonists with a load of telling adjectives Mann insists that he is a young man although he will act like an old man in many ways and ordinary and we will see that this was probably a fatal flaw in being too ordinary I intentionally left the second phrase about the fact that it was summer time and yet he was heading to a place Davos that folks usually frequent in the wintertime This adds a bit of mystery which is cleared up in the following chapter The detail that Davoid was in a particular canton is typical of Mann s style of including sometimes useless details just to ensure that the photo he is painting is as realistic as possible This book in general is one of the funniest that I have ever read with Natsume Soseki s I am a Cat and, if you haven t had the pleasure yet, you will not regret either I need to reread this
Reviewed in December, 2013I love when the themes of two books I happen to be reading overlap And when those themes also reflect aspects of my own life experience, I feel a wonderful convergence, an exchange of awareness at an almost physical level as if the the space between the pages where the authors ideas are laid out and my reading of their pages has become porous and a continual flow happens between all three, an exchange not unlike the one that happens in the deepest tissues of the respiratory system when we breathe in and out In perhaps the most obvious parallel between the two books I ve been reading and my own life, the hero of The Magic Mountain and the Narrator of Proust s A la recherche du temps perdu, both suffer from respiration related diseases Proust s Narrator, an asthmatic like myself, spends portions of his lifel horizontale, wrapped in the tissued softness of a curtained room, lest any noxious air disturb the normal rhythm of his breathing Quite early in his stay at the Berghof sanitorium, Hans Castorp discovers that he may have a soft spot on his lung and this discovery removes him from the normal rhythms of life to live his own horizontal version of lost time in the hermetic world of The Magic Mountain The exchanges that take place between the two books might also be compared to those produced by the vibrating membrane of the acoustic chamber of a gramophone since music plays such a big part in both works even as it does in my own life Certain pieces of music become significant in both books, and are used by their authors as a kind of recurring theme Schubert s Am Brunnen vor dem Tore, a song about the symbolic linden tree, emerges as a connector between Hans Castorp s feelings and ideas, and as a significant object in the working out of his life and fate Mann also uses other pieces of music as metaphors for his hero s existence just as Radomes in the opera Aida sings Tu in questa tomba when Aida comes to him in his underground prison, Castorp is buried in the tomb of the Berghof sanatorium, waiting to be joined by his love But like Don Jos in Bizet s Carmen, Castorp s Russian Carmen is drawn away from him towards a robust toreador However, Castorp, although ein Sorgenkind des Lebens, one of life s problem children, is never at a complete loss and, without any operatic drama, he subtly vanquishes the toreador.
Music is therefore a powerful trigger for change in Castorp s life but, as is the case in Proust, it is only one of a series of cathartic mechanisms a simple nosebleed propels Castorp back in time to a significant moment in his childhood the experience of being lost in a snow storm on the mountain awakens new levels of consciousness within him dreams play a role too, as do images, in particular the x ray image of his own body which provides a eureka moment in terms of his self discovery, his Bildung.
Hans follows many avenues of study in his quest to understand himself, one of them being the lectures given every week in the sanatorium by Dr Krokowski on the subject of love as a force conducive to illness Among the arcane topics covered by the doctor is The Arabian Nights Tales from a Thousand and One Nights This work was a favourite of Proust, and love as a force conducive to illness is itself an underlying theme inla Recherche du Temps Perdu Dr Krokowkski also talks about plants in connection with love, in particular the l mushroom Proust chooses the name Morel for one of his characters, a character himself associated with the destructive power of love The study of plants becomes a preoccupation for Hans in his personal program for self cultivation He is particularly interested in the family of flowers called ranunculacae, a compound flower, as I recall, an especially charming plant, bisexual This is yet another similarity with Proust s work since the metaphor of bisexual and self fertilising plants is an important element in the Recherche.
There are other parallels too, love meaning being loved , references to duels, the personification of death, death wearing a starched Spanish ruff.
whereas life always wore a little, normal, modern collar.
Proust and Mann place themselves in the text from time to time, acknowledging the reader reading, At the beginning of May for May arrived while we were talking about snowdrops , the we being the author and the reader.
They both have very sharp observational skills as if they had taken a quick snapshot of a glance, a way of sitting or standing, a way of walking, and they can stretch description almost to the point of caricature as in the case of Dr Behrens or Mme Verdurin The authors also make frequent diversions within their narratives but seem to finish up exactly where they planned in the end, with a discussion of Time.
Thomas Mann has some very interesting things to say about the element of time in narration, the very cornerstone of Proust s work Narrative, however, has two kinds of time first, its own real time, which like musical time defines its movement and presentation and second, the time of its contents, which has a perspective quality that can vary widely, from a story in which the narrative s imaginary time is almost, or indeed totally coincident with its musical time, to one in which it stretches out over light years.
He can stretch a moment out of all proportion to real time Their eyes met.
Claudia s napkin slips towards the floor Hans Castorp half rises as if to pick it up it but she retrieves it, scowls in annoyance at her own silly panic and turns away with a smile.
That brief incident takes half a page to tell but at other times, Mann can condense years into a single sentence There is not that much time left in any case, it s rushing by slapdash as it is, or if that s too noisy a way of putting it, it s whisking past hurry scurry.
Because the weather on the Magic Mountain is unpredictible with snow in summer and sunshine in winter, robbing the year of its seasons, Hans Castorp marks the passage of time not by calendars or watches but simply by his visits to the barber or the frequency with which he clips his nails and since death is a major theme, as it is also in Proust, Mann reminds the reader than once that, In the end it is only the physical that remains, the nails and the hair.
Hans Castorp lives outside of time while on the Magic Mountain just as Proust s Narrator moves outside of time, en dehors du temps in his search for le Temps Perdu.
I am in a good mood today Which should be readily apparent, because if I were not, this book would probably have received only two stars from me not as a reflection of its literary quality per se, but rather as a reflection of my own reaction to it.
Here is what happened yesterday I finished this book and tossed it forcefully onto the coffee table next to me in what may be seen as a transparent attempt to attract attention to myself which is something I tend to do often and sure enough someone picked it up, read its title, and asked me what it was about, providing me with a wonderful opportunity to roll my eyes dramatically another move with which I am somewhat familiar and ask, Do you realllllly want to know I explained that it was about this aimless young gentleman who decides to kill some time before starting a new job by visiting his cousin in a tuberculosis sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps, but who begins to exhibit symptoms of ill health himself and whose visit becomes lengthened by increasing bouts of time until his initial 3 week stay has been stretched out to a full seven years, and that this book was about his experiences in that sanatorium over the course of those seven years By this point, my enquirer s eyes were wide with interest and I was astounded In explaining the premise of a book that has actually kind of bored me, have I inadvertently extolled its virtues Is this book perhaps interesting than I am giving it credit for The short answer to that is, NO This exchange with my enquirer has merely revealed what I think is the essence of The Magic Mountain it is a place that appears interesting, a place a reader might wish to visit on account of that appearance, but once there it is a place that traps the reader for seven long years and berates him with its endless philosophical musings and its explorations of moral ideologies, and only upon being finally discharged does the reader discover his eyes are bleeding from all the fork stabbing.
Now I have gone ahead and made it all sound so horrible The truth is, this book is very well written It has a lot to say about the cyclical nature of time and humanity s fruitless attempts to anchor itself against its continuous passing It speaks of the mysteries of biology and brilliantly relates the starting point of life to an unexplained and unstoppable illness It presents death as merely an extension of life as opposed to its diametric opposite and eerily makes the reader feel comfortable with it And it exemplifies the importance of spiritual health to providing fulfillment for a life that is by most accounts cursory and meaningless But at the end of the day, it is a book for the brain, and as much as that may be adequate for some, I need a book with a heart and soul I need a book with characters I can relate to and empathize with, and unfortunately this book had none of that So, to the extent that I enjoyed my visit to this sanatorium, it is not a place to which I would consider returning any time soon.