The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

“The Magic Mountain” was one of the books I considered reading for The 1924 Club but didn’t for a couple of reasons: firstly, I didn’t own a copy, and secondly, it’s over 700 pages long… However both those issues were resolved – I was lucky enough to win a copy of “The Magic Mountain” from lovely Lizzy’s Giveaway, and I decided to embark upon it not for The 1924 Club but for German Literature Month, starting during half-term when I would have more time to read. And a confession: I did own an old Penguin copy once and tried to start it but stalled, so I was hoping I would do better this time.

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Mann, is of course, one of the German greats; as Wikipedia tells us, he was “a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. His highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. His analysis and critique of the European and German soul used modernized German and Biblical stories, as well as the ideas of Goethe, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Mann was a member of the Hanseatic Mann family and portrayed his family and class in his first novel, Buddenbrooks. His older brother was the radical writer Heinrich Mann and three of his six children, Erika Mann, Klaus Mann and Golo Mann, also became important German writers. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann fled to Switzerland. When World War II broke out in 1939, he moved to the United States, returning to Switzerland in 1952. Thomas Mann is one of the best-known exponents of the so-called Exilliteratur, literature written in German by those who opposed or fled the Hitler regime.” That’s quite a bio…

“The Magic Mountain” tells the story of Hans Castorp, a young German orphan, living pre-WW1. Brought up in the main by his grandfather, who is now also dead, he has a network of rather formal relations and as a trained engineer, has his life and career planned out. Before starting work in shipbuilding, he journeys up the mountains to the Berghof sanitorium in Davos, a Swiss Alpine location; here he is to spend three weeks visiting his cousin Joachim, who is being treated for consumption. As the introduction reminds is, tuberculosis was a killer in these pre-antibiotic days, and the rarefied atmosphere of the mountains was thought to be beneficial (I was reminded of Katherine Mansfield’s constant searches for health). Joachim is a rigid young man, desperate to be cured so he can go off and join the army. The cousins are attached but reserved, addressing each other formally and maintaining the social structure of the world down below.

Initially, Hans is amused by the routines of the Berghof and the cures the inmates take; however, he’s having trouble becoming acclimatised, at one point having a dramatic nosebleed; and when he appears to catch cold he asks the doctors to check him over. It transpires that he has a “moist spot” himself and it’s suggested that he stays up at the sanitorium for a few months to be cured himself. However, what starts as three weeks, then a few months, finally ends up being a seven-year stay and during that time Hans goes through many changes. Because of the cosmopolitan collection of inmates, his views are subject to much change; his moral standards relax; he falls in love; and through meeting some powerfully opinionated thinkers, he receives an intellectual education he would never have had down in the ‘flat-land’.

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The Sanitorium

TMM is a massive book and to go into any more specific plot description would be pointless. It’s a novel of ideas; of cultures clashing and changing; and also one of enchantment. The seven-year period which Hans spends away from normal life is almost like a fairy-tale, in which the characters make their own reality, and the reader does wonder if they’ve all been bewitched. Hans ascends the mountain as if entering another realm; which in a sense he is, as the difference between the land of the living down below and the land of the dying up high is pronounced. There is a real ambiguity about the illness of the patients, and particularly with Hans we are never quite sure if he is really ill, or if it’s just the effects of the altitude. There’s a slight hint that the doctor, Hofrat, is a bit of a charlatan, and the treatments do seem to go on and on. This has a particularly striking effect on Joachim who, in his desperation to join up with the army, defies the doctors and flees from the enchanted region, with disastrous results.

Indeed, the Berghof seems to almost have a hypnotic effect on visitors which is demonstrated when Hans first arrives and becomes rather insidiously assimilated into the place’s way of life, and also when his Uncle James visits. In fact, it’s not until we see Hans encounter his uncle from the ‘flat-land’ down below, come up on a recce to find out exactly why his nephew is lingering in the mountains, that we really appreciate how much the former has changed. From a stiff, slightly upright bourgeois, with a career all mapped out for him, he’s grown into a pseudo philosopher, ready to explore ideas and grab what life can offer him away from the constraints of normal society. At several points, Mann describes what Hans has found in the higher regions as freedom, and it certainly seems to be a liberation of sorts, with the falling away of the rigid norms of the pre-WW1 society – but to be replaced with what? The inmates dabble in all sort of crazes, from playing patience through stamp collecting and even to holding rather disturbing seances.

Patients taking a cure

Patients taking a cure

There’s also a wonderful satirical element in the writing, as Mann wryly observes the various residents of the sanitorium; from the ‘bad Russian’ table; through Frau Stohr who always manages to say the wrong thing, or something totally inappropriate; Frau Chauchat, the beautiful Russian woman with whom Hans falls in love; the complex doctor Hofrat who’s also an amateur painter; Settembrini, an Italian patient, and Naphta, who lives in the nearby village. The book is full of wonderful, memorable characters, all of whom have some effect on Hans. In fact, Hans Castorp goes up the mountain as no more than a boy; rigid, naive and tradition bound. He comes down it a man, with a wealth of experience; because up in the heights, in that rarefied air, he’s experienced all that life has to offer.

Interestingly, I’ve heard TMM referred to as one of a number of “novel-essays” and it could certainly be argued that the book has a didactic purpose; the long sections of intellectual discussion are a way for the author to sneak plenty of high ideals into the tale. The clash of ideas, nationalities and cultures is central to the book, and there are many ideas discussed here (some of which, I have to confess, lost me a little…). Intellectual reasoning and debate is represented by the Freemason, Settembrini and the Jesuit, Naphta, both of whom are involved in Hans’ emotional and spiritual development. Settembrini’s pontificating, and his constant mental battles with Naphta, dominate whole chapters of the book. It’s as if they represent the two polar opposites of belief in the society of the time and, as Hans remarks, are battling for his soul.

They forced everything to an issue, these two – as perhaps one must when one differed – and wrangled bitterly over extremes, whereas it seemed to him, Hans Castorp, as though somewhere between two intolerable positions, between bombastic humanism and analphabetic barbarism, must lie something which one might personally call the human. He did not express his thought, for fear of irritating one or the other of them; but, wrapped in his reserve, listened to one goading the other one…

However, there are so many strands running through the story: illness and death is naturally prominent; the passing of time and the perception of time, which is very different away from the flat-land; magic and enchantment, of course; and the importance of music. The sanitorium in the mountains is a rarefied atmosphere in more ways than one; not only is the altitude relevant to the consumption cure, but in the isolated world of the patients, where they almost regard themselves as superior to the rest of the world, any kind of behaviour is sanctioned. There is a sense that by being physically removed from, and high above, the flat-land, they have a better overall view and are in a better position to judge.

As the story builds to a climax, with hints from the outside world that all is not well (hints that Hans tries to ignore) there is a growing sense that something will break. The characters begin to behave in more eccentric and dramatic ways, and the rivalry between Settembrini and Naphta becomes much more extreme. When that climax is reached, modernity and reality come crashing into the book and the shock to Hans’ world (and also to the reader) is palpable. The enchanted hero on the magic mountain is only released from the spell by the thunder crash of war, and the contrast is devastating.

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As Mann explains in a fascinating afterword to the novel, the story grew out of a stay he had in a real-life sanitorium which he then used to build his book of ideas onto. He recommends that you read TMM twice, and it’s a view with which I would probably concur. It’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface of this vast, involving and complex novel in a review of this length; it raises so many thoughts, theories and questions that you could probably spend a good few years studying it. As it was, I came out TMM with a sense of having lived on the mountain with Hans, joined him in his triumphs and tragedies, and experienced a world in translation. I can see why Mann is regarded as one of the greats, and I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last of his novels I read.

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