Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Herr Settembrini hauled him over the coals quite properly and managed to firm up his conscience at least temporarily extracting something like a promise never again to participate in such horrors. “Pay attention,” he demanded, “to the human being inside you, my good engineer. Trust it clear and humane thoughts and abhor this wrenching of the brain, this intellectual swamp. Illusions? Secret of Life? Caro mio! When the moral courage to decide and differentiate between fraud and reality begins to melt away, that marks the end of life itself, of formed opinions, of values, of any improving deed, and the corruptive process of moral skepticism begins its awful work.” Man was the measure of all things, he added. Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. It would be better a millstone were hung about his neck and here were drowned in the deepest well.

I read The Magic Mountain last year and had I had my act together, would have used it for the Back to the Classics 2020 challenge.  But it took me seven months to read it because I read it in German, which meant I had to stop and look things up many, many times. I also acquired the English translation for those passages that were particularly convoluted; where it was more than just a vocabulary word standing in my way.  It is hard for me to not want to “understand everything” when reading in German.  I have to remind myself that I don’t always understand everything in English either - hello Henry James!  I think that Mann used about 5 different words to say “mountain side” or “slope”, for example, not one of which I knew. I read the first third fairly enthusiastically …then let it languish and read only sporadically for months until I made myself read the final third in a go in December 2020.   I think though, in the long run, it wasn’t a bad idea to take such time to read it. It is a book that has a lot of complex ideas which take time to sink in. 

Reese at Typings asked me to review it anyway, and so here goes nothing. 😃 The plot of The Magic Mountain is very easy to sum up. In the first decade of the 20th century, Young Hans Castorp goes to visit his cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and doesn’t come down for seven years.  But of course, it is about much more than that. Hans physically stays on the mountain, but his mind travels widely. This is a novel of ideas where Mann uses the characters to express various philosophies that interest him and presumably the reader. The blurb on the English translation I used by John E. Woods suggests that the characters in the sanatorium are metaphors for Europe on the brink of the First World War.  That is no doubt true, but I couldn’t help but also feel that the book was taking the pulse of the time it was published in 1925. Of course, I have the benefit of knowing what is coming historically, but much of the text felt prophetic to me about the upcoming reign of European fascism and I also believe the arguments and ideas expressed in the novel are still relevant to our current culture, in particular, in its positing of humanism versus populism.  

This debate between humanism and populism is literally expressed in the characters of Herr Settembrini, whom I quote above, and Herr Naphta.  I’m linking this online essay that I found which expresses  this argument and its bearing on our current situation in the West better than I ever could:  Reading the Magic Mountain in the Age of Populism. Both Settembrini and Naphta are wrestling for Hans’ soul as they argue their points in the novel. I don’t think that Mann tips his hand as to which philosophy he personally supports.  I imagine, in their extremes, he supported neither but I appreciate that he lets the reader draw their own conclusions as to right and wrong.  

The beauty of The Magic Mountain is it is one of those books that one could read probably every year and get something different and deeper out of it every time. And don’t let my droning on about philosophical debate give the wrong impression of the book. It is also quite funny in places. Hans Castorp is a bit of a bumbling fool and many of the guests/patients are ridiculous. It is an interesting juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious. I’m glad I read it, though for an introduction to Mann, I would suggest reading Buddenbrooks first. It is shorter and more approachable, for sure. I’ve not read any other books by Thomas Mann yet, though I may try the novella, Death in Venice, next. 

16 comments:

  1. Reading the Magic Mountain is like climbing Mount McKinley, reading it in German has got to be like climbing Everest. I read it when I was in college because mine was one of the authors I studied as an English major, but I’ve never even thought about rereading it. I’m glad you got a lot out of it.

    I guess I don’t think anyone should have been surprised by the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and fascism in Europe, so many authors basically prophesied what happened. In a way, it seems it was inevitable.

    Death in Venice is my favorite work by Mann and I have read it 3 or 4 times—it is what sparked my interest in studying Mann. I also really like Buddembrooks, which is more of a traditional novel than many of us other works. I remember liking Dr. Faustus as well.

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    1. Jane, this book was made for mountain climbing analogies! LOL.

      You are right that the signs were there long before the Second World War. Unfortunately, pretty much what I learned before college, if anything, was that Hitler and Nazi were a "German thing" and “we” beat him and now Americans have nothing to worry about; any emphasis was placed on the atrocities of the Holocaust and the U.S.’s role in winning the war. So every time I learn something more about the complicated events leading up to WWII (and there is so much more to learn), I am impressed.

      Death in Venice will probably be my next read. I’ve seen the film but that was ages ago. I am interested in Dr. Faustus and the Faust myth in general and would like to someday read Mephisto, by Klaus Mann as well.

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  2. I'm such a taskmaster... ;-) But thanks for the shout-out!

    I am so super impressed you read it in German. I had two years of college German about a million years ago and there's no way I would try this.

    It is funny in places, isn't it? I think that's the unexpected thing about Mann. And an important one to note.

    The Ploughshares article was fascinating--thanks for the link!--though I'm not 100% sure I agree with its premise. Almost anybody who reads Mann these days is going to find Settembrini more convincing than Naphta, but I do remember Mann giving Naphta some pretty good arguments on occasion. (It's been a while & now you've made me want to reread it...) And between them, Naphta and Settembrini (and I suppose Mynheer Peeperkorn) do nothing but lead Castorp to go out & get himself killed, so there's still something missing, it seems. Ah, well. I really do need to read it again...

    I remember Death in Venice as pretty great--but not funny. (Though I've been thinking about rereading it after the Nooteboom.) But for another funny--and relatively short Mann--try Lotte in Weimar. Goethe meets the girl from Young Werther years later and she's married and he's famous. It's pretty good!

    Anyway, thanks for this! It was fun and interesting to read about your experience. Five words for slope, all unknown...how come I'm not surprised...

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    1. Now Reese, you have to pay me back and review Giovanni's Room. LOL

      I felt that Naptha got the upper hand in the argument many times. And I think that Settembrini’s nationalism, to its extreme is also dangerous. But that’s what is so great about the book, right? So many ideas - so much to think about.

      What ultimately drags Hans back to Germany is perhaps that which is alluded to in the beginning of the novel, that sense of tradition and family ingrained upon him by his Grandfather. And also possibly the sense of duty that he so admired in his cousin Joachim.

      I lived in Germany for over 10 years, so my German, while rusty, is fairly fluent. But I am lazy. Even when I lived there, I read novels in English. It is only now, decades later where I am thinking I need to keep up my skills or I will lose them. I have never read any Goethe, but I am familiar with the outline of Junge Werther. I should read it and then Lotte in Weimar after.

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    2. I will get back to Giovanni's Room soon!

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  3. Congratulations on reading it in German. Books like this have that ability to present us philosophies or worldviews embedded in the characters, however I don’t know if that’s your experience, but although I always felt Mann was saying something at a deeper level, to me the story is the story of Hans and the sanatorium is the world and his world.
    I read this when I was very young, and I am sure that the humor escaped me but though serious it didn’t feel heavy either.
    The poor/wealthy theme was well represented, the idealism of the rich and illness and death as an ultimate leveler. It’s a great title and I agree that as such it surely will give me something new each time I bet.

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    1. I totally agree, Mann is operating on multiple levels in the book. When Naphta and Settembrini debated, I often got lost in the arguments but still found them fascinating, even if I only understood a small portion of them. I don't know if I will ever manage to re-read it. I have so many other chunksters like Moby Dick or War and Peace to tackle. But perhaps one day!

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    2. I don’t know if I will reread it ever.

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  4. Ahh, I was supposed to read this last year...was it last year already? So I only got through maybe 10 pages???? It was just too challenging to begin and keep going in what I felt was a very distracting year (#2020). So I took a break. I cannot imagine reading through it in a second language. But you did it! Good for you.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Ruth. I wanted to do that read along last year too, but I knew I wouldn't be able to keep to a schedule!

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  5. You've convinced me. The title has come up frequently over the years, but I've never been truly tempted until now. Thanks!

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    1. Wow jenclair. I think you will find it a worthwhile challenge if you do read it!

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  6. So impressed that you read this one in German! That's awesome. :)

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    1. Thanks Lark. I had to refer to dictionaries, the translation and friends in Germany many, many times!

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  7. Hi Ruthiella, You did a great job with this review and I was also interested to learn that though Magic Mountain was published in 1925 it is prophetic about the rise of fascism. No one could have predicted how terrible things would become but clearly Mann saw signs which he framed as the conflict between humanism and populism and that certainly has relevance today and its scary. I did read years ago Death in Venice but the book fell flat for me but that's my fault because Mann is such a great writer and congratulations on reading Magic Mountain and in German. I wish I had taken the time to learn another language.

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    1. Hi Kathy. I wish second languages were more encouraged in the U.S. Though my German could be much improved, knowing it and having lived there does open a window on a world, for sure. When I was a little kid, one of my favorite shows was The Big Blue Marble where they went around the world and showed how children lived in other countries. That kicked of my curiosity about traveling and living outside the U.S.

      Mann was no fan of fascism. In fact, he was was quite public about his disdain for the Hitler regime and had to leave Germany due to his political beliefs, so I am sure he was acutely aware of the undercurrents in Europe at the time. I think if I had read Death in Venice too early in my reading career, it would have fell flat for me to.

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