Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 2, 2013

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, translated by John E. Woods #BookReview

The Magic MountainWell, I’ve finally finished The Magic Mountain.  I’ve been reading it for ages, about 70 pages a week, along with a group at GoodReads.  It’s an amazing book.

The plot is actually quite simple.  A young man, Hans Castorp, goes to visit his cousin Joachim in an exclusive TB sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, but is diagnosed with the disease himself and ends up staying there for seven years.  The sanatorium is a microcosm of European society just before The Great War – which provides Mann with the opportunity to explore an astonishing range of philosophical issues.  The novel is often satiric and witty, it bristles with ironies, and there are symbols lurking everywhere.  It’s the kind of book you could read many times and still discover something new each time you read it.

But I have only read it once, so I must leave the sophisticated analysis to those who have explored it in more depth.  I have taken reams of notes in my journal but (especially when I look at the erudite commentary at one of the GoodReads groups),  I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of this great classic work.

Some themes interested me more than others: I especially liked the meditations on time.  When Hans arrives at the sanatorium he finds his first day interminable and is puzzled by his cousin’s reluctance to acknowledge the duration of his stay.  Joachim, a young man whose military career is on hold because of his illness, is otherwise direct and straightforward, but he responds to any suggestions that Hans will be leaving after three weeks with enigmatic remarks that his stay will inevitably be longer.  His original plans for a short stay have morphed into months and he has entered into a world where long periods of time suspended in a sort of netherworld, have become normal.

Joachim looks healthy but must now stay a further six months.  Hans is alarmed by the calm acceptance of this long suspension of time: his cousin is isolated from normal life, his family and friends, and his promising career. We don’t have that much time in life he cries, but Joachim is sanguine: he has become institutionalised already and he accepts the word of his doctors as law.  Three weeks are the same as a day to them he says, and it is the same to him too.  He has drifted into a life where one day merges into another and the months pass by without anyone noticing.  Before long Hans too will dispose of calendars, and eventually not bother to have his watch repaired because the passing of time means nothing.

I was fascinated by Mann’s digression about space having the same effect as time.  Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, that is, when we travel to somewhere where we are free from relationships, in a free and pristine state, we forget about responsibilities.  Time, they say, is water from the River Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink, and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly. (p.4) This ‘holiday effect’ is what lures us into losing all sense of days passing, an effect exacerbated in the jet age when we travel vast distances across space by plane, a phenomenon unknown to Mann.

The structure of the novel plays with time too.  The monotony of Hans’ first year at the sanatorium takes up five chapters, but it accelerates after that and the remaining six years whizz through in only two chapters.   What’s remarkable is the artfulness of depicting monotony in such a fascinating way!  The reader learns in considerable detail about the rigid routines of the sanatorium, and how much time must be spent in rest and regular meals.  There are very few excursions beyond its walls, and (except for a visit to the Bioscope Theatre), almost no acknowledgment of happenings in the outside world until WW1 looms towards the end.  Despite this, the novel never flags because we become absorbed in this microcosm of society and the philosophical enmities which enliven Hans’ coming-of-age in this strange world, marooned in snowy isolation with no responsibilities other than to follow doctor’s orders and get well.

(Why did I cross that out?  Because Hans, like most of the other characters, has no ambition to get well.  Bizarre as it seems, he becomes comfortable where he is. About half way through the novel Joachim reminds him that they are there to get healthy, not to learn, but Hans responds by saying that the two are not mutually exclusive.  What he doesn’t recognise in himself is that his desire to participate in the intellectual life of this community contributes to making him reluctant to leave it, and he actually feels betrayed when Joachim leaves).

The sequence at the Bioscope explores the idea that newsreels defy time too.  They make the past seem here and now and they are an intrusion that brings the world up into the pristine mountain.

On the screen life flickered before their smarting eyes – all sorts of life, chopped up in hurried, diverting scraps that leapt into fidgety action, lingered, and twitched out of sight in alarm, to the accompaniment of trivial music, which offered present rhythms to match vanishing phantoms from the past and which despite limited means ran the gamut of solemnity, pomposity, passion, savagery, and cooing sensuality. (p. 376)

But when it’s over, and the lights go up, and the audience’s field of dreams stood before them like an empty blackboard, there was not even the possibility of applause.  There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. (p. 376) Faces seem to see the audience and wave to them, and yet they are not there.  The Moroccan woman belongs in the then and there of home’ and it is pointless to respond. (p.377) The audience feels a ‘sense of helplessness’ – a sense of anti-climax which some of us still feel today as the television credits roll.

The characters are splendid.  The two most important are Settembrini and Naptha.  These mutually hostile characters introduce the impressionable Hans to competing ideologies, but in his maturity when the Dionysian Peeperkorn comes along, Hans is able to see that their abstractions are mutually destructive, and not just because Settembrini and Naptha end up in a bizarre duel.  These characters are embodiments of intellectual debates around modernity: Settembrini (who reminds me of Milton’s Satan in tone) represents the Enlightenment, and champions humanism, democracy, and human rights.  Naptha is a radical Marxist Jew who has a Jesuitical approach to right and wrong but is pro terrorism in what he thinks is the right cause, and he supports totalitarianism because he despises the common man.  In his joustings with Settembrini he seems intellectually more rigorous but he is intolerant, and a hypocrite, living a life of luxury further down he mountain rather than put up with the Spartan existence at the sanatorium.  (Settembrini lives down the mountain too, but he lives in a shabby garret).  Peeperkorn is the one who enlivens proceedings: he becomes Hans’ rival for the quixotic affections of Madame Chauchat.  An older, unattractive but very wealthy man, he’s a party animal, and he trumps Hans, encouraging him to ‘seize the day’ as it were, instead of going into raptures about symbolic loans of a pencil or fantasising about the glimpse of an arm.   But Hans never gets to live his life to the full: his coming-of-age coincides with the slaughter of World War 1 and we never see him as a mature individual because he ends up as one of millions of anonymous conscripts on the battlefield, an insignificant component in the first mechanised war.

It’s very hard to write about this magnificent book without seeming reductive.  I have no doubt that in universities across the world, there are 5000 word essays and PhDs about single elements of this book.  In addition to the themes to which I have so sketchily alluded above, The Magic Mountain ranges across

  • Meditations on illness and death: while the reader is spared little about the grubbiness of TB, death in the sanatorium is generally remote.  Everyone is in denial about it.  Until Hans starts visiting the dying later in the book (Chapter 5), the dying are isolated and the other patients see only rare glimpses of the horror.  The bodies are whisked away and the rooms are fumigated.  (Indeed,  another sanatorium further up the mountain briskly disposes of its bodies down the mountain by bob-sled). The medicos say that what matters is to have a dignified death and one should not make a fuss, but Hans rejects this.  He thinks that a dying man is entitled to respect, and he likes the solemnity of Latin for death ceremonials.  (The irony of this becomes clear when Hans meets his own death on the battlefield).  However, the heading ‘Danse Macabre’ alerts the reader to the fact that Hans is not being a ‘ministering angel’ but rather is seeking out death and behaving more like an ‘Angel of Death’ with Joachim as his loyal but unenthusiastic companion.  Mann also uses a couple of characters to discuss the morality of paying or not paying for expensive treatments.  The penniless Karen Karstedt is ‘adopted’ by Hans and Joachim because her family has given up on her survival, while The Horseman beggars his wife and family by insisting on expensive oxygen treatments that are only staving off the inevitable.
  • (Echoing the theme in Buddenbrooks, see my review) the death of the family as a social institution and the loss of its traditions (symbolised by the Castorp baptismal bowl which has no heir because Hans is the last of the line;
  • The emergence of psychoanalysis, scorned at first by Hans but later becoming part of his regimen.  Hans is not aware of just how much the circumstances of his early life has influenced his behaviour and attitudes.
  • The breakdown of national borders, symbolised by the multi-ethnic patients of the sanatorium, stereotyped by Hans until, for example, he joins the ‘noisy’ Russians at their table.  (Hans is affronted by the noisy passions of Russians in the room next to him: sex – although a major preoccupation – is definitely off-stage in this book).  Some nationalities are excluded entirely from the social and intellectual life of the sanatorium by monolingualism,  (e.g. the Spanish woman who is known as Tous-les-deux because this is all she can say, having no French or German) while others participate freely using French and English as a lingua franca.
  • Bourgeois society and class differentiation: These language differences are related to levels of education, and thus to class.  Hans is forced to mix with people outside his own class, and he revels in mocking Frau Stöhr as an illiterate who mispronounces her words and makes comic malapropisms.  He despises Dr Krakowski’s footwear as a betrayal of good taste, and poor dear, this rather indulged dilettante who takes a comfortable life for granted feels that he bears the ‘burden of civilisation’, as the upper classes do.  (Mann has an affectionate tone towards his central character, but Hans has flaws: he is indolent, he is complacent, and he is a bit of a drinker, with a well-established habit of drinking porter far too early in the morning.  He is also mildly pompous, and he has a strong tendency to judge others using superficialities.)   Hans initially takes walks to avoid having to mix with people not to his taste, but he soon finds that this tires him out.
  • Love and Sex: Hans is shocked when he attends lectures by Dr Krakowski’s lecture on love – he’s never heard the like in mixed company, but gosh! he finds himself distracted by Madame Chauchat’s arm.  Many of Mann’s characters are not attractive (e.g. Madame C has ugly hands and nails) and they are not romanticised: all of them suffer unappealing aspects of having TB, ranging from grotty coughing and wheezing to flushed faces and mealy complexions.  But there are liaisons, and although he finds Madame C ‘vulgar’, Hans is enamoured (as is Joachim of Marusja). Their courtships, however, (if they can be called that), are chaste and glacial.  For Hans and Madame C, it consists of looking at, and not looking at each other, with nothing happening for two-or-three days at a time.  It is a Big Deal when in the X-ray room, she finally asks him a question about how long they might have to wait, and an Even Bigger Moment when their paths intersect on a walk, and gosh, he gets to say ‘excuse me’.  For Joachim, it consists of nothing at all until it’s all too late.
  • Music permeates the novel, signified by in-house performances by the patients emulating a soirée, and by the gramophone which defies the need for performance to bring music to any place, any time.  There are numerous references to classical and romantic composers, especially Verdi and Wagner, and mournful songs by Schubert.  There are also possible allusions to the impressionist composer Debussy, see Wikipedia for some discussion of this.  Music is an ‘opiate’ that dulls the desire to leave and Settembrini always comes late to performances to maintain the illusion that he is free to choose whether to come or not.  What I thought was rather droll was the way Hans appropriated control of the newly arrived gramophone – so like the way our menfolk like to have control of the TV remote!
  • References to aspects of German culture which were unfamiliar to me.  The dream sequences, fantasies and grotesque carnival scenes are Faustlike, but I haven’t read it yet, (and somehow have always missed the opera when it’s in season) so I probably missed heaps of allusions.  But I did pick up on allusions that derive from Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Hans’s quest to learn the first name of Madame Chauchat is an allusion to Rumplestiltskin, and the frequent references to opulent meals (five-per-day, with luxurious courses described in detail) is an allusion to Table-Be-Set, (and also put me in mind of The Magic Pudding though I am quite sure Mann wasn’t thinking of it!).  Even the way Hans travels up the snowy mountain to the sanatorium is a reminder of all those fairy stories where a young man climbs up a mountain to a castle where his quest towards manhood involves all kinds of perils, but Mann’s naïve Hans is not the well-known trickster ‘Clever Hans’, not at all.
  • Institutionalisation: Settembrini is alarmed by signs that Hans is succumbing early.  Patients undertake their mandatory rest periods wrapped up in a special way, and when Hans goes to buy a blanket to do this too, it is as if he is ‘nesting’, settling in, mollycoddling himself against the cold because he’s preparing to stay.  This blanketing is also symbolic of Hans immobilising himself, protecting himself from being able to leave the closed world that he has voluntarily entered.

Much of The Magic Mountain could be read (as Wikipedia says) as a coming-of-age story or a parody of it, because the immature Castorp leaves his home and learns about art, culture, politics, human frailty and love. For all its complexity, it’s actually quite easy to read.  But what happens over the time it takes to read it (and it’s 850+ pages long), is that the ironies start to emerge, the motifs begin to reveal themselves, and the symbolism starts to become apparent.  Then what happens, inevitably, is that one begins to realise – just from re-reading bits of it when prompted by something – that there is so much more to discover about it.  This includes the possibility that new arrivals are not actually ill at all, but might rather be seduced into staying by the exploitative Dr Berghof and the sanatorium industry, so that – TB being a communicable disease – they eventually become infected.

But this post is already much too long so I shall stop now!

Author: Thomas Mann
Title: The Magic Mountain
Translated by John E. Woods
Introduction by A.S.Byatt
Publisher: Everyman Library, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
ISBN: 9781857152890
Source: Personal copy

Fishpond: The Magic Mountain


  1. Brilliant review, Lisa! ‘The Magic Mountain’ looks like a complex novel which addresses so many wonderful themes. I hope to read it some day. I liked very much your thoughts on the meditations on time in the book. Is it better to live a life where we try doing so many things in a day or is it better to follow a similar routine, day in and day out, where one day / week / month morphs into another? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can understand the fascination of the story’s characters for the atmosphere at the sanatorium where they can do the same things everyday and have intellectually stimulating conversations on various topics and where every day is like every other day. When one’s mind is tired with this fast-paced, bustling modern life with too many things happening at the same time, one yearns for that kind of life – an even-paced routine with wonderful intellectually stimulating conversations.

    • Well, this is what I love the web, Vishy. We can have those conversations whenever we like. Anyone can join in this conversation whenever they like, no matter their timezone, now or in 12 hours time or six months from now.
      I wonder what Mann would have made of the web!

      • Yes, that is one of the great things about the web, Lisa. It will be interesting to see what Mann would have made of it, as you have said. Maybe he would have written a new version of ‘The Magic Mountain’ set in the 21st century internet world :)

  2. Very much enjoyed that. So much so I think I’ll give it another chance, hopefully in the near future. I first attempted to read it in my early twenties but didn’t get very far.
    I can’t say I’ve read much of Mann – only Buddenbrooks, which I thought superb, and his correspondence with Hesse.. It might be time to look at Death in Venice as well since I’ve got a copy lying around.

    • Hi Tom, should I read Death in Venice or Doctor Faustus next? I’ve got both …

  3. Good question!
    I’ve not read either. I think the relative shortness of Death in Venice might make it the better choice.
    By the way, have you read his son’s Mephisto? It’s one powerful book.

    • No, Tom, that’s another one I haven’t read. They were a talented family, weren’t they?

      • They were indeed.

  4. I’d love to go back and read this again like you say there is a lot of German culture references in time since I’ve read this I think my knowledge base has expanded I have Budenbrooks to read first thou strange seen this mention a couple of times in current read Jochaim Fest memoir Not I all the best stu

    • I’m expecting to improve my knowledge base of German musical culture over the next few weeks. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is coming to Melbourne, but I couldn’t get tickets so I have bought the DVD set and we are going to watch it with some opera loving friends over four Saturday nights…looking forward to it!

  5. Oh what a magnificent review, Lisa! I read The Magic Mountain many years ago and since then have known it was one of those books which begged another reading – or more than one. Thanks for the memories.

    • Thanks, Becky, that’s very kind of you:)

  6. Thank you for an interesting, thorough review. This sounds just my kind of book as I meditations on life, death and what fills the time between. Will add to my teetering pile :)

    • *chuckle* I love it when people say that, here’s to the teetering pile!

  7. Wonderful review Lisa… you’re such a keen eyed reader. Your observation about the gramaphone made me smile. This is a title I’ll admit to being daunted by it’s size and reputation. I will definitely read it one day, but worry that I may not have read enough of the classics to get the full meaning from it. Having said that, will there ever be a day that I’ve read widely enough??? Realistically no, so maybe next time I have some leave I’ll just have to take the plunge into this chunkster.

    • Hi Jo, LOL I don’t think I’ve read enough either, and I’m sure there are people out there who are smiling a patronising smile at my efforts, but hey, who cares? I don’t think Mann ever wrote it as a kind of test for his readers. It’s like James Joyce’s Ulysses, it was meant for anyone to read, and to take from it as much as they could or they wanted to.
      So yes, take the plunge!

  8. I loved both ‘Buddenbrook’ and ‘Magic Mountain’, but I would rate ‘Buddenbrook’ the highest.

    • I know what you mean, I became very fond of the characters in Buddenbrooks and I thought the way Mann made a jolly good story out of tracing the decline of the family as a social phenomenon was brilliant. It’s a book I could happily read again and could expect to discover more each time I did. That’s the test of a great book, IMO.

      • I think this one is the better book, but ‘Buddenbrooks’ is far more enjoyable. You can read it without even feeling much of a strain (apart from the bits in Northern-German Platt dialect, of course…).

        • LOL Some of the people at GoodReads complained bitterly about the translated version still having some of the dialogue in French. It was only scraps, and easy enough to drop into Google Translate if necessary – but oh dear, they were very indignant that it wasn’t all in English.

  9. Yep, it’s a book which is hard to summarise in the usual 800-100 words (which is why I… didn’t!). Hans certainly doesn’t intend to get well – so it’s strange that he decides to leave eventually, just to go off and do his duty…

  10. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    After reading a small extract of Buddenbrooks in German and reading Evelyn Juers, I am developing an interest in the Manns…

    • They must have been a fascinating family – imagine being at a family dinner and eavesdropping on their conversations…

  11. Gosh, what a fantastic review of one of my all-time favourite books. I have done something I’ve never done before – print it out for proper perusal later. These places flourished before the days of powerful antibiotics and for those who could afford the fees they must have provided not only a welcome escape from family concerns but also a very luxurious rest time masquerading as medical treatment. Having said that, the scourge of TB must have been a constant threat

    • Thank you, Tom! Yes, those sanatoriums were all over the place – did you ever read The Plague and I by Better McDonald? She made a comedy out of it, which was artful in its own way, and stands as a testament to how common TB was in the generation not long before mine.

  12. Lisa, I just read Mala’s review. I guess I’m working backwards.
    This review is amazing in a different way. As I said, I haven’t finished it, nor have I kept up with the commentary.
    Your review is also wonderful.. Without all of the references to things I’m unfamiliar with, I read your review and got it all. In those first 200 pages, most of what you clearly stated was there. I can’t imagine what I really missed, other than the ride in the next 600 pages.
    I am not averse to long books. I’ve read most of Tolstoy and lots of Dickens. I like a good story, though. I liked when Castorp discussed time and space. You did a great job of describing his meditations. I was intrigued by the deterioration of his health. But, I found it more interesting to read your recap and Mala’s than Mann’s.
    I don’t think Mann is my man, but thanks for your thoughtful and clean path up the hill.

    • Hello Suzanne, I wish you could see me chuckling over your comment that you’d rather read Mala and me than the Mann himself! I’m not sure whether to feel pleased or guilty!
      How lovely that you are a fan of Dickens too, I know I’ve never written anything about him here on the blog, but he is one of my all-time favourites. I first read him as a teenager when my grandmother sent the complete set of his novels from the UK and then I studied him in depth at university, reading all his novels twice more that year. Yes, they are long books, but oh, so easy to scamper through and enjoy!

  13. […] (much later): I have since read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain (links are to my reviews) and can well understand why he won the Nobel Prize.  And I’m […]

  14. […] It’s the third novel I’ve read by this author, the others being Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924), both written before Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929 (which was […]

  15. […] works, Buddenbrooks, (1901, see my review); Death in Venice (1912); and The Magic Mountain (1924, see my review).  He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.  His was a powerful voice, and […]


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