Monday, January 26, 2009

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann

How to begin. I had stated in my review of Buddenbrooks that I wanted to go out and buy The Magic Mountain from a local bookstore in L.A. last June, or July, whenever it was, immediately after finishing that masterpiece. An interesting review might compare these two novels--these two works, along with "Death in Venice," that are most responsible for Mann's Nobel Prize in Literature. It is clearly stated in several instances to be awarded specifically for the feat of Buddenbrooks, but students of great literature will recognize that these three works comprise the bulk of this great author's contribution to the canon of Great Books. That is not to say that I will not be reading The Confessions of Felix Krull sometime soon, nor many other shorter works, but I do seriously question whether I will ever have the courage to attempt Joseph and His Brothers.

Which is better--Buddenbrooks or Magic Mountain? Oh, that is hard. As for a "typical" novel, Buddenbrooks is more easily enjoyed. It certainly is no typical novel, but it presents the typical elements of literature in a more digestible form. It is slightly more "safe" than this novel, but there are more heartbreaking elements that might cause one to weep amidst reading. There are many death scenes as well, and most of them quite memorable. Not as many death scenes in Magic Mountain--three major ones. Enough with the comparison.

Published in 1924, The Magic Mountain concerns one Hans Castorp, 24, but soon to be confused about his actual age, even shortly after his arrival at the eponymous locale, a.k.a. Sanatorium Berghof, presided over by the melancholic, amateur painter of oils, Director Behrens, and his assistant given to "psychic dissection," Dr. Krokowski. Hans travels to the town of Davos-Dorf by train in order to visit his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, a soldier recently afflicted with tuberculosis, dutifully following the rules of the house in order to recover as quickly as possible. But that is more difficult than it seems. Indeed, the doctors in charge of the sanatorium are quite possessive of their patients, and often extend their length-of-stay for three months or six months at a time, into what soon seems an endless illness. Hans Castorp feels left out the first few times the doctors and nurses visit all of the other patients in their rooms and pass his over, and soon he is examined by Director Behrens and diagnosed as anemic, and as having a "moist spot" on his lung. Originally intending to visit Joachim for three weeks, he is soon told that he should stay confined to his bed for the next three weeks, and should stay for at least another three months.

But he soon realizes that life is not so bad at the Berghof. There are five exquisitely prepared meals a day, and a splendid lounge chair on the balcony off his room, where he observes the house rules of the "rest cure," which is instrumental in clearing the body of toxins through the immaculate purity of the alpine air. He soon meets an Italian literary scholar, Lodovico Settembrini, who never changes his clothes and always talks about how he is a humanist, and who initially annoys Castorp, seeing him as an "organ grinder" in a dream, but who eventually grows on him and becomes his mentor and one of his best friends. A variety of other fellow patients are introduced. There is Frau Stohr, a table mate of Castorp, who is constantly mixing up words and is regarded as one of the lesser intellects (to put it kindly) at the sanatorium--also probably the source of the greatest humor in the novel. There is Herr Albin, who receives his own "mini-chapter" but who never figures prominently in the novel, despite longevity. Castorp first becomes aware of him when he is causing a ruckus, playing show-and-tell with his revolver on the common lounging area, which Castorp can hear from his balcony during rest cure:

"'But why? Why do you have it, then?' several trembling voices asked with foreboding. 'How horrible!' one voice suddenly cried--and Herr Albin nodded.
'I see you're beginning to understand,' he said. 'And in fact, that is why I keep it handy,' he went on lightly, after first inhaling and then exhaling a great quantity of smoke, despite his recent bout with pneumonia. 'I keep it at the ready for the day when all this malarkey here gets too boring and I shall have the honor of paying my final regards. It really is very simple. I've studied the matter at some length, and I have a very clear idea about how to pull it off.' (Another shriek in response to the words 'pull it off.') 'The region of the heart is out of the question--it's rather awkward to aim there. And besides, I prefer snuffing out the conscious mind on the spot, and can do so by applying one of these pretty little foreign objects to this interesting organ...' And Herr Albin pointed with his index finger to his close-cropped blond head. 'One aims here'--Herr Albin pulled the nickel-plated revolver from his pocket again and tapped the barrel against one temple--'here, just above the artery. Slick as a whistle, even without a mirror.' (93)

There are several others as well, but none more mysterious and disquieting than Frau Clavdia Chauchat, a Russian that slams the door every time she arrives for a meal. Hans is initially put off by her unrefined manners, but eventually cannot stop looking at her, until they carry on a very subtle relationship strictly governed by eye contact at meals, and perfunctory greetings in the hallway. The manner in which his obsession grows, and finally reaches its manifestation in language, after a coincidental appointment in the house X-ray room and the lightened spirit of a Mardi Gras party, is truly an exercise in anticipatory tension--a very tactful method that all those amateur writers unacquainted with Mann would be well-served to observe--economy being the unsettling virtue of contemporary literature that it is, giving sway to unrealistic situations of slapdash romance. Perhaps more intriguing is the germ of Castorp's longing for Clavdia, unveiled in the "Hippe" mini-chapter, whence it has already been mentioned that Hans dreamt of a day in the schoolyard and a person he saw there that reminded him of Clavdia on some indefinite level, and where Hans derives the connection in his mind of his former schoolmate, Pribislav Hippe, whom he knew when he was 13 and once quite meaningfully asked to borrow a pencil from. His attraction to Pribislav is rendered almost unthinkably, but is not far off from the opening segment of Mann's other great short story, "Tonio Kroger":

"The thing was that Hans Castorp had his eye on young Pribislav for a long time, had chosen him from among all the boys in the bustling schoolyard, those he knew and those he didn't know, had been interested in him, had followed him with his glances--should one say, admired him?--in any case, observed him with ever-growing sympathy. Even when walking to and from school, he looked forward to to spotting him among the other boys, to watching him talk and laugh, to picking out his voice from a good distance--that husky, opaque, slightly gruff voice. Granted, there was no sufficient reason for this sympathy--particularly if one disregarded such things as his heathen name, his status as a model pupil (which, indeed, could have played no role whatsoever), or those Kirghiz eyes, which from time to time, in certain sidelong glances, when gazing at nothing in particular, could darken, almost melt, to a veiled dusky look--but whatever the reason, Hans Castorp did not worry about the intellectual or emotional basis of his reaction, or even what name he would give it if he had to. It could not be called friendship, because he didn't really "know" Hippe. But from the start, there was not the least reason to give it a name; the furthest thing from his mind was ever to talk about the matter--that would have been most unlike him and he felt no need to do so. Besides, to give it a name would have meant, if not to judge it, at least to define it, to classify it as one of life's familiar, commonplace items, whereas Hans Castorp was thoroughly convinced at some subconscious level that anything so personal should always be shielded from definition and classification." (142)

When later Clavdia is asked for a pencil in order to attempt the drawing of a pig with his eyes closed, one is almost caught off guard by the fact that the same gesture is made to these two separate entities which become so tied in Castorp's mind that he even later tells Clavdia that he knew her before. Regardless, they do not have their hotly-anticipated tete-a-tete until page 400, and with Clavdia leaving the next day, only to return a couple years later with a traveling companion, Mynheer Peeperkorn. One would expect this personality to take up the role of villain, but Mann recognizes this trope, even spells out that expectation in the text, and instead reveals him to be a "brother" to Castorp.

So this novel is mainly about two things: Castorp's pursuit of Chauchat and his education under the tutelage of Settembrini, and later, Herr Naptha. Much is made of these two characters in all scholarly studies of this work, and indeed if one were to write a paper on this book, several of their exchanges would be prime fodder for interpretation. At its most surreal level, this novel is an allegory of the European situation in the seven years leading up to World War I. To take it even a step further, one could almost sense the growing totalitarian urge of Germany, even though it was published nine years before Hitler would ascend to chancellor of the country. In one of his philosophical duets with Settembrini, Naptha hits upon a few unsettling phrases:

"Whereupon 'youth in search of light' was forced to watch as Naphta took each argument, one after the other, and wrung its neck. He ridiculed the philanthropist's reluctance to shed blood, his reverence for life, claimed that such a reverence for life belonged to only the most banal rubbers-and-umbrellas bourgeois periods, but that the moment history took a more passionate turn, the moment a single idea, something that transcended mere 'security,' was at work, something suprapersonal, something greater than the individual--and since that alone was a state worthy of mankind, it was, on a higher plane, the normal state of affairs--at that moment, then, individual life would always be sacrificed without further ado to that higher idea, and not only that, but individuals would also unhesitatingly and gladly risk their own lives for it. His good adversary's philanthropy, he said, was aimed at robbing life of all its difficult and deadly serious aspects; its goal was the castration of life, and the same went for the determinism of its so-called science. The truth was, however, that determinism could never abolish the concept of guilt--indeed it could only add to its terrible gravity." (546)

In the introduction to the text A.S. Byatt states, "Naphta, Jew, Jesuit, connoisseur of the irrational, the anarchic, the nihilistic, is closer to Mann's own vision, which itself is closer to Nietzsche's strong pessimism than to the hopefulness of the Age of Reason," (xii) and so I expected Naphta to lend greater excitement to the pedagogic sections with Settembrini, but truth be told, these were not the most compelling portions of the work to me. Whether by the prospect of my own intellectual limitations, or those of our age, the majority of the words spoken by these two characters flew clear over my head. Only Settembrini's intended contribution to an encyclopedia where he has been commissioned to summarize all of the examples of human suffering portrayed in the history of literature captured my attention, but that is more of a tangent than a central storyline. The final scene with Naphta and Settembrini is certainly compelling, however, one of the best scenes in the novel, but I do not want to spoil it. Instead, there was one particular notion spoken by Naphta that did provide me with great catharsis, following a mention of Rousseau's notion of man in his primal state:

"'--we, for our part,' Naptha continued, 'are perhaps no less revolutionary than you, but we have always deduced, first and foremost, the supremacy of the Church over the secular state. For even if the state's ungodliness were not branded on its brow, one need only note a simple historical fact--that its origins can be traced to the will of the people and not, like those of the Church, to divine decree--and thereby prove that the state is, if not exactly a manifestation of evil, then at least a manifestation of dire necessity and sinful shortcomings.'

'The state, my dear sir--'

'I know what you think of the nation-state. 'Above all else, a love of the fatherland and a boundless hunger for glory.' That is Virgil. You amend him with a little liberal individualism, and call it democracy; but your fundamental relationship to the state remains completely untouched. You are apparently not disturbed by the fact that money is its soul. Or would you contest that? Antiquity was capitalist because it idolized the state. The Christian Middle Ages clearly saw that the secular state was inherently capitalist. 'Money will become our emperor'--that is a prophecy from the eleventh century. Do you deny that it has literally come true, making life itself a veritable hell?'" (475-476)

Indeed I am hard-pressed to consider any other work of literature that may hold more manifold philosophical inquiries than this one. Perhaps The Republic may be a more intimidating work on the whole. I am sure that works of pure philosophy by Hegel or Nietzsche or Heidegger or Schopenhauer are far more difficult to read than this text. As far as novels go, with a regular plot and storyline, comic and tragic elements, "beautiful characters" and "beautiful words" as Settembrini and brewer-patient Herr Magnus mock, conflict and resolution, rising action, falling action, etc., this work may contain more pure genius than any other single item in that category. How does one classify it--the dust jacket says something about Hans Castorp spending seven years at a sanatorium where he "succumbs to the lure of eros and the intoxication of ideas." What is the conflict? How to get out? He does not want to get out--until a rather abrupt thunderbolt strikes, so to speak. What is the rising action? Arriving, the first several pages of the book? Or rather, the painstakingly slow seduction of Frau Chauchat? I would love to read a query letter that Thomas Mann might compose for this book.

There are still greater pleasures yet to be discussed. The mini-chapter "Snow" (the book is separated in 7 larger chapters and perhaps two dozen mini-chapters) is a remarkable account of nearly freezing to death after an exploration of the alpine region on skis, complete with one of the more superlative dream sequences ever captured in literature. The trilogy of Mynheer Peeperkorn mini-chapters, not counting the "Vingt et Un" mini-chapter which recounts a raucous evening party, fit the tone near the end of the novel almost perfectly. Peeperkorn can barely speak. He speaks, he is a "personality" of great import, but he never seems to say anything, his words have no meaning. And yet what opportunities there are to talk about drugs:

"Hans Castorp smoked. Frau Chauchat likewise indulged in filter-tipped cigarettes that she took from a Russian enameled box decorated with a speeding troika, which she had laid within easy reach on the table; nor did Peeperkorn scold his neighbor for yielding to the pleasure, though he did not smoke himself, never had. If they understood him correctly, the consumption of tobacco was, in his opinion, one of those over-refined pleasures, the cultivation of which meant robbing the simpler gifts of life of their majesty--gifts and claims to which our emotional vigor scarcely did justice as it was. 'Young man,' he said to Hans Castorp, fixing him with his pale gaze and subduing him with a cultured gesture, 'young man--whatever is simple! Whatever is holy! Fine, you understand me. A bottle of wine, a steaming dish of eggs, pure grain spirits--let us first measure up to and enjoy such things before we--absolutely, my dear sir. Settled. I have known people, men and women, cocaine-sniffers, hashish-smokers, morphine addicts. Fine, my dear friend. Agreed. Let them. We should not reprove or judge. And yet for what should come first, for what is simple, grand, direct from the hand of God, for such things these people were all--settled, my friend. Condemned. Cast out. They failed to give such things their due. Whatever your name may be, young man--fine, I knew it, but have since forgotten--depravity lies not in cocaine, not in opium, not in vice as such. The unforgivable sin lies in--" (670)

Aside from Peeperkorn's jumbled thoughts on intoxicating pleasures, early on there is a mention of Hans Castorp's own feelings on smoking, which should be used in some magazine advertisement nowadays:

"'I don't understand,' Hans Castorp said. 'I don't understand how someone can not be a smoker--why it's like robbing oneself of the best part of life, so to speak, or at least of an absolutely first-rate pleasure. When I wake up I look forward to being able to smoke all day, and when I eat, I look forward to it again, in fact I can honestly say that I actually only eat so that I can smoke, although that's an exaggeration, of course. But a day without tobacco--that would be absolutely insipid, a dull, totally wasted day. And if some morning I had to tell myself: there's nothing left to smoke today, why I don't think I'd find courage to get up, I swear I'd stay in bed. You see, if a man has a cigar that burns well--and obviously it can't have any breaks or draw badly, that's really terribly annoying--what I'm saying is, that if a man has a good cigar, then he's home safe, nothing, literally nothing, can happen to him. It's the same as when you're lying on the beach, because there you lie on the beach, you know? and you don't need anything else--no work, no other amusements. Thank God, people smoke all over the world, there's nowhere you could possibly end up, as far as I know, where tobacco's unknown. Even polar explorers lay in a good supply of smokes to get them over their hardships--that's always struck a sympathetic chord in me whenever I've read about it. Because things can go very badly--let's assume, for instance, that things would go miserably for me--but as long as I had my cigar, I'd carry on, that much I know, it could bring me through anything.'

'All the same, it's a sign of a rather weak will,' Joachim said, 'to be so dependent on tobacco...'"(55-56)

Though this is quite a serious book taken as a whole, when each scene is scrutinized down to its most basic elements, it is quite comic and absurd. Take for instance, one of the final mini-chapters, "Highly Questionable," which features Ellen Brand, a new patient with supernatural powers, who is called upon to contact ghosts in two different scenes. By the time that you have made it this far into the book, you may be compelled to believe anything that is written in it, and a scene which demands such unreasonable suspension of disbelief is temporarily rendered profound. That is ultimately the effect of reading The Magic Mountain--the reader becomes "one of us up here" and distances themselves from the real world, forgetting their former prejudices and adopting a tableau of renewed convictions. Sprinkled throughout, there are little utterances which cannot fail to capture one's sympathies. One particularly broken character, Herr Wehsal, who shares Castorp's obsession with Chauchat in an even more pathetic condition, reminded this reader too much of himself and inspired a moment of self-reflection:

"'Did you see,' he asked, 'how she was making fun of you, because you had to ride alone with me? Yes, yes, that's her way of adding insult to injury. Does it annoy and disgust you all that much to have to sit beside me?'

'Pull yourself together, Wehsal, and refrain from such ugly comments,' Hans Castorp rebuked him. 'Women smile on all sorts of occasions, just to smile. It is pointless to worry about it every time. Why are you forever cringing and writhing? Like all of us, you have your good points and your bad. For example, you play the music of Summer Night's Dream very prettily, and not everyone can do that. You must play it again soon.'

'Yes, there you sit offering me your condescending advice,' the wretched man replied, 'and have no idea how much insult is in your consolation, that you only humiliate me all the more with it. It's easy for you to offer comfort from your high horse, because even if you look rather silly at the moment, at least you had your chance once, and were in seventh heaven, good God, and felt her arms around your neck--good God, just to think of it burns at my gut and tears at my heart--and, then, knowing full well all that was granted you, you look down on me in my wretched torment...'" (732-733)

As we come to the close of this lengthy review, I urge you all to find some time in your busy lifetime to seek out this text and experience it for yourself. It took me nearly a month to read it from start to finish and it was certainly the highlight of this particular January. As the cold dawdles and the responsibilities of life continue to squeeze one in its vise, it is quite an escape and a relief to enter a world where rest cures are the rule and the cultivation of the body and mind are the loftiest goals. It would be hard to name this the single greatest book I had ever read, but it certainly makes for a strong case.


Rajeesh said...

I was searching for some reviews about Mann's Magic Mountain when I stumbled on this blog. Since I felt that you are going to explain the plot in detail I didn't read beyond the third paragraph (I have started reading the book and obviously I do not want to lose the fun of reading it myself). And then I started browsing your other reviews. I found a lot of common interests. Especially Hesse. And I find that you have enjoyed Siddhartha. Don't you think that a deeper knowledge of Buddhism is essentially required to appreciate Siddhartha the way it should be appreciated? Will keep reading your other posts (and your novel as well).

Rajeesh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JK said...

Thank you for the comment. Yes, reading beyond paragraph 3 may contain spoilers, but this review is one of the longest on the entire blog (the only ones that compare are the Annotated Lolita--which contains significant digressions, the Ulysses--oh and the Death in Venice one), but I certainly appreciate your interest....I do agree with your point about Siddhartha but it is also a good primer for buddhism if one knows nothing about it.

Dragos said...

Hello man! I am a student from Romania and I have started to read the Magic Mountain,I need it for my comparate literature classe. I want to discuss with you,where can I find you? I need your adress.

By the way,your review is great,that is why I am here.

JK said...

Dragos--Thank you for finding the review. You may e-mail me if you wish which I think you can find on my profile.

But if you would like to discuss, please post any questions you may have as a comment here.

I think comments may be a valuable addition to a review.