Climbing the Magic Mountain

Even though I gave up on Doctor Faustus, part of me thinks that I need to do more with Thomas Mann. Not sure why, exactly. That’s just where I am at right now. So I started reading his masterwork, The Magic Mountain. It’s a very weird book. If you look online at anything written about it, no one can quite explain why or how it’s good. There are no dramatic events in it. It’s all just this guy, Hans Casthorp, chilling at a tuberculosis sanitarium on top of a mountain, in the years before the beginning of World War II (yes, this is another of those novels that ends with the beginning of the Great War. Funny how common that is, as a device). And supposedly the whole thing is somehow a huge allegory for how Western Civilization is sick and blah blah blah. I like how you can dismiss any idea by just trailing off into blah blah blah, because actually, it is true. It’s all just words, man.

I’m about a tenth of the way through it so far, and I’m actually enjoying it a fair amount. The main joy lies in its rather weird cast of characters and their odd little interactions. For instance, there’s a length digression that describes the upbringing of the protagonist and how he is accustomed to drinking beer with breakfast (the book calls it his ‘snack’). And describes what might seem like a chilly scene: how the protagonist always used to eat opposite his grandfather at the ends of the table, accompanied only by the grandfather’s longtime servant. But makes it seem so close and so loving. There’s a real attention to detail here. Even little things, like the deckchairs that they rest on when they take their ‘rest cures’ are described. But the descriptions aren’t just words. You can actually see the things that get described. Like, at one point he was describing a landscape, and I could actually feel the alps open underneath me and surround me with their mountaintop isolation.

Anyway, the book is really long. Reading a long book is difficult, because you can’t just let it happen in dribs and drabs. You can’t finish a long book just a half hour here and a half hour there (or, you can, but it’ll take you a month or two). Instead, you need to actually sit down and read it for three or four hours. Which I haven’t yet really been able to do with MM. But hopefully in the coming week I’ll get my act together a little.