Friday, 22 November 2013

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

There were times reading this book when I felt infected by Hans Castorp's lassitude, when it seemed to difficult to even pick up this book and continue one, when the desire for comfort was greater than the prick of ambition to read yet another long classic. In the end, I persevered, although it was through that kind of weariness. I'm glad I did, but I can't say I loved The Magic Mountain. On the other hand, now that I've gone through the months of treatment at its hands, I'm grateful I did.

It's a difficult book, there's no two ways about it. Chapters and chapters of Hans feeling separated from the world around him, engrossed in the world of the rest cure. Other chapters of long philosophical discussions between our two embodiments of European intellectualism of the early 19th century. Occasional rollicking parties and seances. The sadness of deaths. A duel. It's quite amazing that the book includes so many different moods, and a testament to the author that I often felt my state of mind while reading it mimicked that of the main character.

Hans Castorp goes to a ritzy tuberculosis sanitorium high in the Swiss Alps to visit his cousin, who is there to get better. Hans thinks he's only going for a couple of weeks. He leaves seven years later. While there, he engages in most of the leisure activities of a group of people who have nothing but leisure activities, from illicit skiing to almost-as-illicit sex. He embraces the life of separation from the world below in a way that his cousin, a would-be army officer, cannot. His connections to work, to his family, to anything at all are rather weak, and help him stay content high above the world.

Once there, he runs into representatives of almost every European nation, and phrasing it that way is certainly not an accident. They stand in for national characteristics,  the "good" Russian table, and the "bad" Russian table are not particularly subtle, and every person there is not so much as person as a physical manifestation of a nationality or philosophy.

That probably makes the book sound drier than it is, and it isn't particularly dry. It's a slog, at times, but the characters, while they may be difficult, and not always the deepest portraits, aren't uninteresting.

And that's pretty much it for plot. Because this is not a book of plot. It's a book of ideas, spoken through characters, as Hans, a fairly shallow young man, drifts through his life away from the world, the world goes on below him, and struggles in the "flatland" are mirrored high in the Alps. The buildup to the Great War, the clashes in nationalities, are duplicated at the sanitorium, and the chapter about this is one of the most entertaining.

To read this book, you need a lot of patience, and sometimes, the will to bull through when Hans' listlessness infects you. But as a microcosm of European culture at a certain time, it's worth the read. As an exercise in making the reader feel as distant from the world as Hans does, it's worth the read. But it's not an easy.

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