Thomas Mann’s The magic mountain loomed large in my life for about 6 weeks – I forget exactly – while I was reading it. I had heard about for many years before I read it; my mother often referred to it. Some literary works are like that, in that you feel you know them without actually having to read them. A list of iconic books can be like Room 101 in 1984: everyone has their own idea about what it contains.
The magic mountain has a plot that is simple on the face of it. The action is set in the early years of the twentieth century. Hans Castorp is a young German man, who visits his cousin, Christian, in a sanatorium in the Swiss alps. The main matter of the plot concerns his stay with Christian. This stay proves unexpectedly extended. Castorp enjoys the physical surroundings of the sanatorium (the Berghof), the extensive meals and morning and afternoon teas, and the extremely comfortable lounge chair on which he, like all patients, rests on his balcony for several hours regardless of the weather. Although he enjoys the surroundings and the alpine environment, he finds some odd physical symptoms. The cigars to which he is devoted have lost their savour to him. He finds himself feeling hot in the face. Attempts to go on an extended ramble result in a nosebleed. He is examined by director of the Berghof, who finds a moist spot in one of his lungs. He is encouraged to stay a while. This stay imperceptibly becomes years. It concludes only at the start of the first world war, when all the surviving patients hastily depart for their respective countries before the outbreak of hostilities.
Much of the book, as might be expected, is concerned with Castorp’s fellow inmates at the sanatorium. Their groupings, intrigues, love affairs and fallings-out loom large in the narrative, as no doubt they do where people are unexpectedly thrown together. Castorp falls in love with the mysterious Clavdia Chauchat, who sits at one of the Russian tables. She leaves, only to reappear as the travelling companion of a wealthy Dutchman, Peeperkorn. Other patients live away from the sanatorium, notably an Italian, Settembrini, and his sparring partner, Naphta. Castorp and they engage in extended, and at times rather tedious, arguments on matters of political and social philosophy.
The narrative is recounted by a rather pedantic character, who is never named. Sometimes this narrator is quite a smarty-pants, like some of Nabokov’s narrators. At other times he just relates the action unobtrusively. Castorp is seen with a mixture of irony and compassion. He is an everyman character, whose ordinariness is emphasised. Nonetheless he is curious and kind-hearted. The Berghof emerges as a microcosm of humanity in all its vanity, aspirations, and futility. The ending, where Castorp is caught up in action as a member of the German army, is quite veiled. One never finds out if he is cured or not.
The gradualness with which things happen in this novel is quite marvellous. With the exception of In search of lost time, it feels like real life more than any other book I have read. There is a similar alternation of action and reflection, and a concern with how the experience of time can be compressed or elongated. To reduce a work of this enormous length to a single conclusion would be trite. Obviously, however, illness is a metaphor that underlies the book. Like the magic ring in Wagner’s Ring operas, illness is something that can stand for many other things. The rise of Nazism, self-absorption and pleasure-seeking, our ability to act without humanity to those we perceive as “the other” – all these things can take us over imperceptibly. I felt a bit let down when I had finished it, as though someone had left my life. Some time, I will read it again.