Comments by Bob Corbett
The Magic Mountain begins with a short but important introduction. Thomas Mann tells us this will have to be a very long book, since he wants to tell the story of a person, and a person is built up very slowly by important details of his or her past. In reading the novel this becomes quite clear. We learn the most minute details of Hans Castorpís life and experiences, and thus I think I came to understand him better than virtually any other character I have read of in literature before. At the same time throughout the novel, Mann is at pains to tell us that Hans Castorp isnít any sort of special person Ė just a normal relatively average fellow. And this is true. Hans Castorp is the character around whom the entire long novel spins, yet it isnít really much about Castorp himself.
Nonetheless, Mann hints that he is using Hans for other purposes:
A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.
When the novel opens Hans is a 20ish young man who just finished a training course to prepare himself to work in ship building. He is an orphan of a modestly wealthy family and has some inheritance, but not enough to fully live on, so, as his guardian-uncle tells him, he will have to work. But, now, after finishing school and before beginning work he plans a short three-week visit to his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen who is in a TB sanitarium in the alps.
However, before his three weeks are up it is discovered that he himself has TB and he becomes a patient, living there for the next seven years. At the beginning of WWI he finally leaves the sanitarium to become a soldier in the war. Thus the novel takes place between about 1904 to 1914.
A bit of challenge to the reader, however, is that Hans Castorp is definitely the character most talked about, yet one has the distinct sense that the novel really isnít about Hans at all. He is sort of a clever everyman figure who sees and senses a larger world around him, much of it seen for the first time and much of it seen via the dialogues between two other characters,
Mannís fascinating if a bit exasperating character Ludovico Settembrini is a wonder. A sort of free thinking intellectual, atheist, naturalist, believer in science and also some sort of socialistic social order, Settembrini dominates Hans, treating him (with good reason) as a beginning student of serious ideas, and, while patronizing him outrageously, does educate, changes and challenges Hansí views of the world. In the middle of the novel Settembriniís dominance of Hanís intellectual world is challenge by a strange conservative Jesuit, Naptha, who, himself ill, is living in a near-by village in the same rooming house to which Settembrini has moved.
These two become a sort of curriculum of the world of modern thought taught to the innocent Hans by means of their better and excessive discussions and arguments.
These many discussions allow Mann to rehearse the various arguments and ideologies which were prominent in the years prior to WWI. He handles the two characters brilliantly. Each is really a pompous ass, yet each does articulate views that vied for acceptance in intellectual circles, though Mann consistently has each of them take those views beyond the realm of real possibility and into some sort of crazy exaggerated nonsense.
However, the discussions between the two would-be scholars go beyond the current events of the time and trace the philosophical and theological roots of these various ideas and philosophies of life.
The many discussions between the two thinkers are lots of fun and work well as a vehicle for Mann to address many philosophical, religious and social issues.
For me Settembrini is the more interesting of the two. He belongs to the INTENATIONAL LEAGUE FOR THE ORGANIZATION OF PROGRESS. They are followers of Darwin.
We are studying the problem of our health as a race, and the means for combating the degeneration which is a regrettable accompanying phenomenon of our increasing industrialization. The League envisages the founding of universities for the people, the resolution of class conflict by means of all the social ameliorations which recommend themselves for the purpose, and finally the doing away with national conflicts, the abolition of war through the development of international law.
There actually was a non-governmental group by that name between 1923-1934.
I find this section fascination. Unlike religion, which prepares one for a later life, this view elevates human life and even sees some of nature as the enemy. Later on he gives more detail of the attitudes which lead one to the society:
. . . when it [nature] obstructs the movement toward light; we must despise it in so far as its specific essence is the essence of perversity, of decay, sensuality, and shame.
His view is of a society devoted the advancement of the whole of the human race and to work toward some sort of utopia of peaceful and shared living with the priority being some definite minimal of safety and comfort of all. Very attractive.
While Naphtha is a lesser character than Settembrini in general, he does have some intriguing arguments. One I found especially interesting was on the difference between religion and reason/morality.
Naphta concurred. He said that being virtuous and healthy did not, in fact, constitute being in a state of religion at all. It would "For," he added, "it has nothing to do with life. Life is based on conditions and built up on foundations which are partly the result of experience, and partly belong to the domain of ethics. We call the first kind time, space, and causality; the second, morality and reason. But one and all of these are not only foreign to, utterly a matter of indifference to the nature of religion; they are even hostile to it. For they are precisely what make up life - the so≠ called normal life, which is to say, arch Philistinism, ultra≠ bourgeoisiedom, the absolute antithesis of which, the very genius of antithesis to which, is the life of religion."
Naphta went on to say that he would not deny to the other sphere the possibility of genius. There was much to admire in the monumental respectability, the majestic Philistinism of the middle≠ class consciousness. But one must never forget that as it stood, straddle-legged, firmly planted on earth, hands behind the back, chest well out, it was the embodiment of irreligion.
Hans Castorp, like a schoolboy, put up his hand. He wished, he said, not to offend either side. But since they were talking about progress, and thus, to a certain extent also, about politics, and the republic of eloquence and the civilization of the educated Occident, he might say that it seemed to him the difference - or, if Herr Naphta insisted, the antithesis - between life and religion went back to that between time and eternity. Only in time was there progress; in eternity there was none, nor any politics or eloquence either. There, so to speak, one laid one's head back in God, and closed one's eyes. And that was the difference between religion and morality - he was aware that he had put it very badly.
Hans agrees. Naphta says:
But in reality, God and the Devil were at one in being opposed to life, to bourgeoisedom reason and virtue, since they together represented the religious principle.
Less successful for me is the character of Madam Chauchat, a woman whom Hans Castorp desperately loved. She wasnít especially beautiful, but attractive, actually reminding Hans of a fellow male student he had a crush on in elementary school, a boy with Kirghiz eyes, (narrow -- top to bottom -- wide eyes, dark, often either black or blue. Eastern European origin).
They never really have a love affair, but he pines for her for a few years, then she leaves and returns, along with an older man whom she loves as a sort of father-figurer, and never can return Hanís love.
One of the oddest passages in the novel is between Hans and his beloved. The scene at the end of an in-house party is in mainly untranslated French. This is on purpose. We are not to understand the fullness of the words. We will ďget it.Ē But really what is it all about? A bit confusing, nonetheless, a rather daring device which adds some mystery to the novel.
Another character, meant by Mann to be as central as the four Iíve singled out (Hans, Madam Chauchat, Settembrini and Naphtha) seems to me less successful. Toward the end of the novel Madam Chauchat returns to the sanatorium with Myneer Peeperkorn in tow. He too is suffering TV, but is a dominating force, one to who Madam Chauchat is devoted and who stands in Hanís way with her.
Pepperkorn seems to represent a counter-force to Settembrini and Naphtha. He is the voice of mysticism, mystery, the darker less rational side of life. The idea of such a character seems brilliant, but Mannís development of him and the move more toward some darker aspects of the abnormal and mystical were just not successful for me.
Overall the writing is just marvelous. Mann seems to want us to know straight up that he isnít describing a REAL place or real treatment program. Some of the aspects are rather puzzling, almost humorous.
For example each day the patients are served 5 daily meals, several of them quite lavish. The whole operation is run in what appears to be a semi-scientific, semi-fraudulent treatment and does in an isolation of time. No one really seems to think they will be cured, though a few do leave. Quite a number of others die there in the sanitarium.
On the other hand there are many powerful testimonies to Mannís descriptive ability. I remember especially a chapter in which he introduces the reader to winter. It is so detailed one comes to feel the chill, isolation, blinding whiteness, relentlessness of cold. It is a magnificent long passage, going on for several pages.
In another place he does a comparison between the scenes of snow on the mountain and being on a beach. I was really amazed by this passage:
And yet Hans Castorp loved this snowy world. He found it not unlike life at the sea-shore. The monotony of the scene was in both cases profound. The snow, so deep, so light, so dry and spotless, was the sand down below. One was as clean as the other: you could shake the snow from boots and clothing, just as you could the fine-ground, dustless stone and shell, product of the sea's depth - neither left trace behind. And walking in the snow was as toil≠ some as on the dunes; unless, indeed, a crust had come upon it, by dint of thawing and freezing, when the going became easy and pleasant, like marching along the smooth, hard, wet, resilient strip of sand close to the edge of the sea.
One feature I found especially marvelous was how the author talks directly to us, the readers, about the novel, interrupting the flow of his narration to discuss various things with us and explain things.
As I mentioned earlier, he began the novel with a page and half directed to the reader about what he was going to be doing. In another place, after spending a couple hundred pages on the first three weeks Hans was in the sanitarium, he now tells the reader that since Hans will now be in bed for three weeks this section will be much shorter.
In another chapter, ďBy the ocean of timeĒ the author talks to the reader rather than narrates a story. It is a discussion of the nature of describing time itself.
There are quite a number of other such examples. This is much like later author Jose Saramago who spends even more time talking with us, the readers than does Mann. In both authors I find this to be an endearing strategy.
The novel is long, challenging, rewarding, indulgent and one I am very happy I have taken the time to read. I have liked it so much that I plan to tackle yet another of his lengthy works, Doctor Faustus, sometime in the near future. He is a novelist well worth the time and patience it takes to read his detailed works.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com