For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of holidaying from yourself; existentially speaking, I mean. It’s a phenomena that occurs when one finds oneself in a novel or unusual situation or environment, either by will or accident. A holiday is, itself, one example; but there are so many: starting a new job, being caught outside in harsh or extreme weather, moving house, etc. I love train journeys for this reason. One always finds that people behave strangely on trains, in ways, I presume, that they wouldn’t act normally. For example, I have had more than one girl aggressively come on to me on a train. And the weird thing is I felt the inevitability of it as soon as they sat down next to me, as though they were looking for an opportunity to behave in that manner, as though they considered the duration of the journey to be a period of time that was happening not to them, but to someone else, another self, a more liberated self.
On the most basic level, this phenomena is what The Magic Mountain is about. The hero of the story, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin Joachim Ziemssen at the sanatorium Berghof in the Swiss mountains. The Hans that we meet at the beginning of the novel, the Hans that is of the flatlands still, is a mediocre bourgeois. Throughout his life he has been unexceptional in everything; he passed his exams, yes, but ‘without a drum roll.’ Even the name Hans is, in Germany, unremarkable. Like another of Mann’s characters, Thomas Buddenbrook, Castorp is, we are led to believe, thoroughly conventional. He blushes when he hears, in the room next door to his own, a Russian couple making love, and is particularly shocked by it taking place ‘in the daytime.’ However, the Berghof is a new and alien environment, an environment that is – in numerous, often strange ways – distinct from the life he left down below, and this comes to have a profound effect upon him.
In the Berghof sanatorium Hans Castorp is freer than he is used to being, both intellectually and morally. He acknowledges this himself when he notes that he feels impelled to philosophise, which is something that he wouldn’t have done ‘down there.’ He also openly breaks or challenges sanatorium rules or conventions, such as when he visits critically ill patients or takes up skiing. His awakening, if you want to call it that, is also sexual; for example, his relationship with the slinky Russian, Clavdia Chauchat, is obviously unconventional. Not only does he not approach her in the way that he would a woman he is courting in a traditional manner [he uses her first name without permission], but she is, and again he acknowledges this himself, not the kind of woman he would have pursued at all in the flatlands. The sanatorium for Hans is a new reality, a new world; he is, in a sense, remaking, or perhaps finding, himself before your eyes.
With the setting of the novel being a sanatorium, and with nearly all of the characters being patients who are suffering from a variety of serious [and often terminal] ailments and diseases, it ought to be clear that The Magic Mountain deals with those weightiest of issues: life and death. Tellingly, when Hans arrives at the Berghof he believes that he is, in fact, perfectly healthy. Yet as far as the doctors are concerned no one is in perfect health. If you look hard enough you will find something, some defect, some fault, some illness. Which is exactly what happens; and Hans ends up staying well beyond the three weeks that he originally intended.
‘I was articulating my doubts that the words ‘human being’ and ‘perfect health’ could ever be made to rhyme.’
The relationship between illness and both life and death is a unique one. Illness is, in fact, a strange kind of intermediary stage and this accounts, in part, for the very odd, almost surreal atmosphere at the sanatorium, which, at times, resembles a kind of haunted house. Indeed, one of the characters, the pedagogue Settembrini, calls the patients ‘shades.’ They are, in a sense, in purgatory, they are phantoms hovering between two states of being; some, like the half-lung club, are like ghouls or other monstrous creatures. Death itself, however, is something that is not mentioned; when Hans tries to broach the subject his fellow patients are upset with him. Death, then, for the people in the sanatorium, as it is for us too, is something that one ignores or pretends does not happen. The management and staff behave in much the same way, or at least behave in a way that allows the patients to pretend that death does not happen. For example, corpses are removed on the quiet, and those who are close to death are separated from the rest.
[Patients at the Hoehwald sanitorium, Davos, Switzerland, 1948]
In addition to life and death and illness, or in relation to all of those themes, Mann also continuously makes reference to the concept of time. When ill one has an obscure relationship with time. Days, weeks, minutes, hours all become confused or meaningless. When feverish, when not in one’s right mind, time flows by at an decreased speed. For instance, when laying in bed wracked with shivers, drifting in and out of sleep, what may seem like hours could be, in fact, only thirty minutes. Being ill is a little bit like being lost. When lost one imagines that time is moving much quicker than it actually is. Most of us have had this kind of experience. As we have the converse experience, i.e. a period of time that appears to be short but is in fact rather long. However, this experience is more often had by the active and healthy, by someone who has a busy day at work whereby he might sit down after what feels like an hour or two and note that actually five hours have flown by. The only way to stand outside of time, to not be subjected to its oppressive force, is through death. We speak of the dead as though time still applies to them – for example, we speak about how long it has been since they passed away – but it, of course, does not.
I mentioned Settembrini in a previous paragraph and it is perhaps worth focussing on him in a bit more detail. Many of the characters in the novel are symbolic, they are meant to represent certain ideas or approaches to being. Settembrini is enlightenment. He literally turns on the light when he comes to visit a Hans that has now been diagnosed and ordered to bed. Settembrini is in favour of action, of not succumbing to torpor or indolence; these things are contrary to enlightenment. Illness is a kind of torpor, or a fixation on one’s body; it’s bad faith, an excuse not to be active. This is why he criticises the establishment; because he sees it as advocating a kind of indolence, or decadence even, that is at odds with his world view. It is in relation to characters such as Settembrini that Mann makes it clear that illness is not merely a physical state, it is an intellectual or moral state also. This is why he, Settembrini, tries to teach Hans how to live. He sees Castorp as someone who is in danger, moral danger, rather than physical danger. Consider Settembrini’s nemesis, Naphta; he is, morally or intellectually, the most ill. Naphta is more than once described as being a terrorist. This doesn’t, of course, mean that he plants bombs and so on, but, rather, that he advocates terror or suffering. Naphta’s world view is, in this way, medieval.
“And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial?”
In line with Thomas Mann’s advice I have read The Magic Mountain twice. That it is recommended that one ought to read a book more than once in order to get a handle on it indicates that it is a tricksy thing, and The Magic Mountain’s reputation amongst the general public certainly bears that out. To some extent, however, I feel that its reputation is undeserved. The book is long, yes, and one could not, with a clear conscience, claim that it is easy to digest, but it is not nearly as difficult, nor tedious, as some would have you believe. For me, the book can be divided into two parts. The first half is not, despite its oddness, particularly taxing, but the second half is certainly more of a challenge, particularly in relation to Naphta, who engages in a sizeable amount of dry philosophy. I must admit that I have found, during both reads, Naphta’s appearances in the text almost unbearable, but I do also think that this was intentional on Mann’s part. Naphta is meant to be ugly, not just in terms of his looks, but also his attitudes. His passages do drag, but one at least understands their inclusion, and, in any case, they are not frequent enough to ruin one’s experience of the book as a whole.
It is tempting when describing The Magic Mountain to reach for terms such as intelligent, fascinating, profound, moving, and so on. And it is all of those things. However, it is at times also very funny, which may be something of a surprise. Or certainly I found it very funny. So much so that I did wonder whether I was losing my mind. Mann has an ironic and detached authorial voice, and so it is easy to miss the jokes, but they are there. One example is when Hans’ relative, James Tienappel, has a conversation with Director Behrens about what happens to bodies after death, and, absolutely in no frame of mind for having his eyes opened, hotfoots it back down to the flatlands early one morning without even telling Hans he is leaving. Another is when Hans first arrives and hears one of the patients coughing in such a strange way that it freaks him out:
‘Compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life.’
Is it just me who can’t help laughing at that? And what about Mynheer Peeperkorn? He had me in hysterics.
Anyway, I’m almost at my self-imposed 2000 word limit, so I’d better wrap this up. I’ll do so with a nice little anecdote. When The Magic Mountain appeared in 1924, Thomas Mann gave his son, Klaus, a copy, in which he had written:
‘To my respected colleague – his promising father.’
Ah, Thomas, you old wag.