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
Source: Personal copy
Fishpond: The Magic Mountain