philosophy

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, that I chose to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how an artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

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The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the book in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is mature, intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the most emotionally affecting, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

THE GOLEM BY GUSTAV MEYRINK

I was, I must confess, disgracefully hungover and sleep deprived; and I had, yes, already had something of a meltdown in the Kafka museum; but these things can, I feel, only provide a partial explanation for what happened on the Karluv Most bridge. It was early in the afternoon, around 12:30, as we left the museum and started the crossing. Straightaway, I noted a woman having her portrait drawn, a smile stretched grotesquely across her face as though it was intent on swallowing it. Further on, a spidery old man was playing an over-large accordion, and what appeared to be circus performers were blithely strolling in the midday sun. Yet, while these things all contributed to the surreal atmosphere, it was the dogs, the dogs wearing scarves, that truly did for me.

The walk along the bridge seemed to be unending. My feet moved, but I appeared to make no progress. The dogs, so many dogs, all the same breed, and all wearing scarves, passed by me at regular intervals. It was as though I was standing still, and they – the dogs – were going round in circles, were circling me, coming back around, time and time again. Where were they coming from? How could it be that ten or fifteen of the same breed had found themselves on the bridge that day? And why were they dressed so suavely? I have lost my mind, I suddenly thought to myself; then, gripping my friend’s arm, I asked him, straight-faced, with great seriousness: ‘You can see those dogs, can’t you?’

Thankfully, he could; but the point of this story is not the existence, or non-existence, of dogs, but rather to demonstrate something of the special atmosphere of Prague. It is a city, a beautiful city, that invites madness; it is a city of weirdness and wonder, where, one feels, or certainly I feel, anything is possible. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that much of the literature it has generated – The Maimed by Hermann Unger, for example – has that particular quality to it, as though the strange air of Prague has seeped into the pages. In this way, Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem held few surprises for me; which is to say that I expected odd, and odd is what I got.

“A brief rustling that broke off short, as if startled at itself, then deadly silence, that agonising, watchful hush, fraught with its own betrayal, that stretched each minute to an excruciating eternity.”

First published serially in 1913-14, The Golem is, on the surface at least, a gothic thriller. With little subtlety, but great relish, Meyrink turns Prague’s Jewish ghetto into a nightmare, with its ‘dark corners,’ ‘tomblike silence’ and generally gloomy, and threatening, atmosphere. It is a place where a ‘human spider’ with a hare lip [Aaron Wassertrum] lurks; and where a malevolent being, said to be the Golem, stalks the streets and the inhabitants, including the narrator, Athanasius Pernath. As one works one’s way through the book there are murders, robberies, secret rooms, inexplicable events, and suicide plots; there are references to cabbala and tarot; and all of this is great, dumb fun.

Yet there is, I believe, an underlying gravitas to the descriptions of life in the Jewish quarter. At the time that the novel was written it was, in fact, in the process of being demolished or cleaned up. For many years it had the reputation of being excessively dirty, over populated, and run down; and it was thought to be a hotbed of violence and criminal activity. With this in mind, Meyrink’s gothic thriller has perhaps more in common with Emile Zola’s theatrical naturalism than it does Lovecraft, Poe or Dracula. Moreover, this historical knowledge has the effect of altering the tone of much of what you read, so that when Pernath describes the houses as turning their backs on each other one sees in it, not something sinister, but something rather moving. Likewise, when he says of the inhabitants that they are ‘strange people’ who ‘seem to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends.’

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This is not to say that Meyrink, or at least his narrator, is entirely in sympathy with the people of the ghetto. Certainly, in the early stages I detected elements of anti-semitism, for there is obvious disgust in the way that Wassertrum and Rosina, for example, are depicted. Indeed, Aaron is said to have a ‘horrible face’ and ’round fish’s eyes’; he is a crook, who once sold a woman into prostitution. Rosina, on the other hand, is ‘repulsive’ and lascivious. Moreover, the evils of Wassertrum and his son are both linked to money, bringing to mind the Jewish stereotype of avariciousness. In contrast, the Czech characters, who are also living in poverty of course, are lovable rascals with hearts of gold. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Meyrink introduces Hillel and Miriam, who are positive Jewish characters; and this did go some way to soothing my concerns, especially as they are both self-denying and generous with money.

It is usually the case with these reviews that I spend a considerable proportion of them discussing the principle character[s], their motivations, psychology and personality. This is made more difficult in this instance, because Pernath is, for much of the novel, a man is search of himself, literally and spiritually. Indeed, at the beginning, he is handed a book with a prominent letter ‘I’ etched on it, which is not, of course, insignificant; and later it is hinted that the narrator may not be Pernath at all, having assumed this identity from a name in a hat he mistakenly picked up. In any case, he does not, we are told, remember anything about his childhood; there is the suggestion that he had some kind of mental breakdown, underwent hypnosis, and therefore repressed, or in some way lost, those memories, and with them his sense of self.

“The soul is not a single unity; that is what it is destined to become, and that is what we call ‘immortality’. Your soul is still composed of many ‘selves’, just as a colony of ants is composed of many single ants.”

It is interesting, in this regard, that when we meet him he is alive, certainly, but could not be said to be living, as though one’s past enables one to have a present and a future. In fact, it is only when he starts to recover his memories that he takes an active part in life. He romances two women, for example, and forms deeper, more valuable friendships. However, I ought to point out that this is, I’m sure, not how Meyrink intended his novel to be understood. It is full of obscure mysticism, or ‘waffle’ if you were being uncharitable, which, based on what I know about the author and his interests, would likely mean that he had something more philosophically complex in mind. Moreover, if you have read the book you will know that I have completely disregarded the ‘twist’, and the questions it raises about the nature of reality, dreams, and so on. But well, fuck it, I most enjoyed The Golem as a story, not about a man’s spiritual awakening, but rather as about a man beginning to feel some joy in living.

MOUNT ANALOGUE BY RENE DAUMAL

Perhaps it is time for some gentle Philosophy. What if I were to say to you that if you can conceive of X, then it must exist? What an attractive statement! If I can think it, then it is! The problem, however, lies in the word ‘exist.’ There are things that exist in the understanding and those that exist in reality, and there are things that exist in reality and the understanding. God, for example, exists, for some people, only in the imagination; for others, he exists in both. So while it is true to say that if you can conceive of something it therefore exists, this is really only saying that if I can imagine something then I imagine it; one is not proving that it must exist in reality, even though it may in fact do so; and suddenly the argument doesn’t seem all that impressive.

Yet if you state the argument slightly differently, something wonderful happens. If I can conceive of X, then it is possible that X exists. This is undeniable, if rather banal at first glance; but consider for a moment what it means: you are no longer trying to prove that something must exist in reality, merely claiming that it exists in my understanding and that it could also exist in reality, which is something that cannot be contradicted; and because it cannot be contradicted there springs up, for me, the greatest of human emotions: hope. This feeling – hopefulness – can bear you up and drive you on towards the most extraordinary feats, adventures or discoveries. It is, in my opinion, impossible to live a happy life without it, without believing that anything is possible.

“All the means we’ve been given to stay alert we use to ornament our sleep. If instead of endlessly inventing new ways to make life more comfortable we’d apply our ingenuity to fabricating instruments to jog man out of his torpor!”

Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue trades upon a similar kind of argument. It begins with the narrator receiving a letter, from a previously unknown source, in which a trip to the mountain of the title is proposed. This mountain is, however, fictional, or, as Pierre Sogol, the man who wrote the letter, would have it: undiscovered but discoverable. He believes not only that one can logically argue for its existence in reality, but also that, by using logic, one can explain why its existence has hithertofore been kept a secret [curved light, is his theory], and, most importantly, decipher its location. Yet perhaps more interesting than all this is the nature of the mountain itself, and what, by extension, Daumal has to say about mountains in general.

The narrator’s article, which inspired Sogol, was ‘a hasty exploration of the symbolic significance of mountains in ancient mythologies.’ The substance of the article is that mountains have been viewed as, or were understood as being, a link between heaven and earth. This is because they rise higher than any other natural object or structure, thus touching ‘the sphere of eternity,’ and yet simultaneously reach down to the earth, to ‘the world of mortals.’ They are, Daumal writes, ‘the path by which humanity can raise itself to the divine.’ He also provides examples – from the Old Testament, New Testament, the Vedas, etc – to back up his ideas. Mount Analogue itself is, then, the mythical mountain made real, which is to say that it provides a link between the divine and the mortal but is, crucially, accessible to man by virtue of its actual existence. I found all this fascinating.

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Yet it is through the initial meeting with Pierre Sogol that I think one comes to understand the heart, or soul, of the novel. In his youth, Sogol claims to have known ‘every pleasure and discomfort, all the happiness and all the suffering that can befall man.’ As is often the way, he reached a stage whereby he felt ‘all alone,’ as though he had ‘completed one cycle of existence.’ At first, he looked for answers in God, by entering a monastery; then, when this failed, he began making absurd inventions. So, Sogol is, rather like the narrator with his ‘stagnant life,’ someone who is troubled by ennui, who, in his own words, ‘cannot manage to become attached to this monkey cage frenzy which people so dramatically call life.’ He is seeking meaning or substance in existence, and excitement, adventure, wonder…hope; he wants to shake off the spiritual and emotional lethargy, to ‘confront reality or mystery face-to-face,’ and to do this, it is suggested, one ought to listen to one’s inner child. And what is that child saying? Find the mountain, boys!

It is worth pointing out that Mount Analogue is unfinished, that, as with The Good Soldier Svejk, it was death, not the author, who composed the novel’s ending. Yet, for me, this was something of a blessing; which is not to say, of course, that I am glad that Rene Daumal is dead. The latter part of Mount Analogue, when the crew of the ship The Impossible [note that name] discover the island upon which the mountain is located, is where the book lost some of its charm. In describing the strange land, and strange practices of the locals, it turns into a kind of Gulliver’s Travels, which did not, unfortunately, hold my attention quite so much as the earlier, more philosophical, passages had done. In any case, it is still a fine work of fiction, one that cleverly ensures that its readers give existence to its subject, via their imaginations; for Mount Analogue exists now, at least in my understanding, and, therefore, it is also possible that it might exist in reality. I’ll see you at the marina.

JACQUES THE FATALIST BY DENIS DIDEROT

It is interesting to me how, as we become increasingly, almost aggressively, secular, many people still believe in fate and…

– What is this?

Excuse me?

– You’re meant to be reviewing Jacques the Fatalist.

Are you telling me how to review, Reader? I’m getting to Jacques. I’m doing what is known as ‘setting the scene’ and interruptions are only going to prolong it and therefore exacerbate your impatience. 

– Do hurry. I don’t have time for this.

I will take my own sweet time, and arrive at my destination when I am good and ready. You are free to leave, if you have more important things to do. What was I saying? Yada yada yada, believe in fate and, ah yes, destiny. I find this perplexing, because if the world is ordered in such a way, if your life is fated to follow a course from which it cannot be…

– God, this is boring.

Please be quiet! I can’t write the review in any other way; it is written up above that I will write the review the way I am writing it. It is fated that the review will be as it is, and your constant interruptions will do nothing to change that!

– But aren’t my interruptions also fated to be, then? Aren’t they also written up above?

That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that. But then it is also written up above that I will tell you to shut up and let me get on with my review and that you will accede.

– You wish!  

If the world is fated, if your life is meant to unfold along pre-determined lines, it suggests that something or someone is responsible, that someone made these decisions, that there is an ultimate controller. You hear all the time things such as ‘it was meant to be be!’ or ‘it was fate!’ and yet a large proportion of the people making these declarations would laugh in your face if you asked them if they believed in a divine force, a divine controller, a God.

– Shouldn’t you be telling me about your childhood or something equally personal? 

Eh? You want to hear the story of my childhood?

– God, no. I’ve had quite enough of that. Tell the readers about how the novel, you know the one you’re meant to be reviewing, is a baby Tristram Shandy, that it is similarly anecdotal and digressive. Or how the central relationship, the master and Jacques, is part of a lineage of literary double acts, such as Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. Or…

Ack, who is boring who now?

– Am I wrong?

No, you’re not wrong. It’s worth mentioning, I guess. And I suppose I ought to tell them about how the reader is a character in Diderot’s novel, and how the reader interrupts the author [who maintains, by the way, that Jacques the Fatalist isn’t a novel] with questions and opinions?

– Just like me!

Yes, but perhaps not as frequently as you are doing. In any case, maybe I should also tell the readers how Diderot appears to ‘compose’ or plot the novel, or the not-novel, as he goes, as you are reading it, that he openly demonstrates his authorial eminence by admitting that he can make his characters do whatever he likes?

– That’d be a start, yes. 

Jacques the Fatalist is, in this way, a clear precursor to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night and O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. This displays…

– I rate both of those books. 

Gah, listen, have you heard the story, Reader, about the man who couldn’t stop interrupting?

– No, is it funny?

Probably not. I once knew a man and he couldn’t stop interrupting…

– That makes sense, what with you saying that this is going to be a story about a man who could not stop interrupting.

Quite. Anyway, he could not help himself. He would ‘butt in’ whenever he could, in any circumstances; not only during conversations that he was a part of himself, but the conversations of total strangers; and not only that, but he would interrupt anyone who was engaged in any kind of business at all.

– When they were on the toilet?

What?

– You said when engaged in any kind of business. I thought that was a euphemism.

Christ, man, do give it a rest! But, yes, goddamn it, when one was on the toilet, even then he would burst in and interrupt you as you went about your business. This man couldn’t help himself, as I said; he had to interrupt, to involve himself in some way in everything. Only one day he found himself in trouble, his house caught on fire, in fact, and naturally he needed help in order to put it out. So, he called first the fire brigade, but once too often he had interrupted the fire department as they were trying to put out fires and so they wouldn’t listen to him.

– They ignored him?

Next, he tramped the streets crying pitifully and looking for aid; he tapped men on the shoulder, grabbed them, pulled them towards him, and every one of these people ignored him.

– Are you trying to tell me something?

No. Yes. What do you think?

– I think this story sounds suspiciously like The Boy Who Cried Wolf! Tell me another.

Have you heard The Booklover?

– No, what’s it about?

It’s about a boy who gets trapped in a library one evening. The library has closed, the door is locked, the light has gone out, and from behind the bookcases a troll emerges. The troll peruses the bookshelves, picking up the novels of only the very finest writers – Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, George RR Martin – and placing them in his satchel, before returning to his hiding place, the world of the trolls, behind the shelves…

– That’s pish. I’ve got a better one. You know how certain couples fantasise and engage in role play? Well, I once heard about a man who had arranged with his wife, who liked the idea of being kidnapped [as she was a thrill-seeking kinky sort], to drive along a stretch of road beside which she would be walking at a certain time, and bundle her into his car. Not my idea of fun, but it was all legit; they were both into the idea. Anyway, so the man keeps his end up and drives along the road at the appointed time, which is late so as to avoid being seen, and spies his wife, as arranged, walking by without a care in the world, and bundles her into his car. The problem was that his wife had unexpectedly been delayed! So the woman he kidnapped wasn’t his wife at all, she just looked like her in the dark!

Reader, that’s awful!

– Oh, I know that, I’m just trying to enliven this review of yours. No one’s going to read this shit, you know, certainly not this far down anyway. Jacques the Fatalist, then?

You know what, Reader, I’ve quite forgotten everything I ever knew about the book.

THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN BY THOMAS MANN

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.

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[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.

WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS BY DAVID MARKSON

In the beginning, I worried about the style.

It looks like How It Is, is what I told myself upon opening the book.

Naturally I did not want to read something that appeared to be so much influenced by How It Is.

How It Is being the Samuel Beckett novel I least enjoyed.

Generally speaking, I like Samuel Beckett a lot, but How It Is did confuse and bore me a little.

Although, upon reflection, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is nothing like How It Is.

Markson’s novel is actually influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Being a philosophy graduate, I have rolled around on the floor, so to speak, with Wittgenstein’s book.

Yet I cannot speak about it with any authority. For it confused and bored me a little.

The most I can probably say about it is that it consists of short declarative statements.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress also consists of short declarative statements. Hence the title, I suppose.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is not, however, a philosophy text, like Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It is a novel by a now dead American.

The novel by the now deceased American includes plot and characters. As novels tend to do.

I ought to point out that Wittgenstein’s Mistress serves up less plot and fewer characters than most novels, which is not to say that this is a bad thing.

There is only one character, if I am being honest. Her name is Kate.

There is only one character if you choose to ignore the cat.

The cat, however, may not actually exist. So it may be wise to ignore it.

Kate believes herself to be the last person on earth, which probably explains why there are so few characters.

There is a very real sense of loneliness in the book, as one would expect of course.

This is emphasised by Kate’s search for a probably non-existent feline.

Kate’s desire to reach out and connect with another living creature moved me very much.

Which is to say that there was something in the idea of the last person on earth searching for a probably non-existent feline that had a strong emotional effect upon me.

If you consider that we live in a society where a good number of our species go to great lengths to avoid other people, Kate’s predicament seems all the more moving.

I should point out, however, that Kate’s predicament may not be all that it seems.

It is possible that Kate is not the last person on earth.

It is possible that she is suffering from some form of madness precipitated by a tragic or painful event.

As one progresses through the book there is a gradual revealing of, or hints at, some kind of personal crisis, which may account for her madness. If she is, indeed, mad. Which she may not be.

It is to Markson’s great credit that one comes away from the novel without a definite opinion.

Markson allows just enough of a peek into Kate’s personal life to create some doubt as to the veracity of her claim.

Her claim being that she is the last person on earth, of course.

Perversely, for a novel about the last person on earth, reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress made me feel less alone.

CORRECTION BY THOMAS BERNHARD

In 2013, after a period of unhappiness, of so-called depression, a period during which [P], as a member of the website goodreads, was stalked by numerous female members, hacked by who knows, and plagiarised by one who will remain nameless, a period that included the death of Margaret Thatcher, who [P] despised, [P] died, just like the despised Margaret Thatcher, although the despised Margaret Thatcher didn’t take her own life, unlike [P], who covered his body with his goodreads reviews using a biro and then jumped naked from the top of a high rise council estate; before his death [P] was working on a review of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, the much-loved Thomas Bernhard, much-loved by [P], who had read nearly all his novels, and so it was no surprise that he was working on a review of one of Thomas Bernhard’s much-loved novels before he took his own life, the much-loved Thomas Bernhard had also taken his own life but long before [P], or the despised Margaret Thatcher, had died. Thomas Bernhard had taken his own life in 1989, whereas [P] took his own life in 2013 after a period of unhappiness and so-called depression, [P]’s writings, including the review of Correction by the much loved Thomas Bernhard, were left to me by [P], probably because [P] knew that I would appreciate them more than anyone else he knew, and he was right that I would appreciate them probably more than anyone else he knew as it was the case that at one time I even thought like [P], that his thoughts were my thoughts or that I was so influenced by [P]’s thoughts that I stopped having my own and could only think like [P], so of course I was going to appreciate [P]’s writings, probably more than anyone else he knew, including the review of Correction by the much-loved Thomas Bernhard; he did not leave his writings to his brother because he knew that his brother would not appreciate them, his brother was and still is Sheffield-to-the-core, he is still and always was and always will be the most Sheffield of Sheffielders, and this being Sheffield-to-the-core would have prevented him from appreciating [P]’s writings including the review of Correction by the much loved Thomas Bernhard, [P] despised this Sheffield-to-the-core way of being and way of seeing things, this Sheffield-to-the-core way of not appreciating anything that wasn’t an example of the most Sheffield of attitudes, and this is one of the reasons he so loved the work of Thomas Bernhard and why he spoke in his writings about how he would have given Correction five stars, those writings which were bequeathed to me and which include the review of Correction; in Correction, the much loved Thomas Bernhard writes about a man, Roithamer, whose own brothers did not appreciate his genius, in the same way that [P]’s brother did not appreciate [P]’s genius, Roithamer spent an inheritance amounting to millions on building a cone in the centre of the Kobernausser forest for his sister who he loved more than anyone else, this spending of millions in order to build a cone in the forest for the sister who was loved more than anyone else convinced Roithamer’s brothers that Roithamer was crazy, Roithamer’s brothers were Altensam through-and-through and would always be Altensam through-and-through, as far as Roithamer was concerned, just like [P]’s brother is and always will be Sheffield through-and-through, and so they would never be able to appreciate Roithamer’s desire to build a cone in the Kobernausser forest for the sister he loved more than anyone else, [P] did not have a sister and he did not have millions of pounds that could have been spent on building a cone in the centre of a forest for a sister he did not have but he did spend a lot of money on a pedigree cat which hated [P] probably more than [P] hated people who are Sheffield-to-the-core; Roithamer’s sister, although loved by Roithamer more than anyone else, did not appreciate the cone either, the cone that Roithamer built for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, even though Roithamer spent millions on building it, a task that many thought impossible, but which Roithamer accomplished, a cone that was unique, the like of which had never been built before nor even designed before, a cone that was habitable, which is important if you’re going to build a cone-shaped building for a sister that you love more than anyone else. According to [P]’s notes Thomas Bernhard, who was much-loved by [P], wrote Correction in 1975, which is some time before he took his own life in 1989, and before [P] took his in 2013, and that it can be considered as possibly the fullest expression of his genius, Thomas Bernhard’s genius, in that it displays, unlike some of his earliest novels, a fully mature style and, unlike some of the much-loved Thomas Bernhard’s later works, is less ranting, more measured, than the books that came after it, although it should be noted that [P] loved these too, that he believed that these later books were funnier and easier to relate to, while the much loved Correction is stranger and darker and more intensely insular than anything else he wrote, if that is possible, yet is does still feature many of the standard and beloved Bernhardian themes such as suicide, sister-obsession, Austria-hating, and the mental processes of a damaged genius, in fact it is possible, as many have pointed out, to draw parallels between Thomas Bernhard’s damaged genius Roithamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian, like Roithamer, and like Bernhard, who was equally damaged and possessed of genius, but in his notes and his review [P] glosses over these parallels or similarities as he believed that unless one had an interest in the damaged genius Ludwig Wittgenstein a discussion of these similarities or parallels may bore or isolate the readers of his review and ultimately dissuade these readers from checking out the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s book, in any case, [P] believed, one does not need to be aware of these similarities and parallels in order to enjoy the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s book, that perhaps the most interesting aspect of Thomas Bernhard’s book is alluded to in the title, Correction, which is the exploration of an obsession with the refining of practice, ideas, and perception, of Roithamer’s obsession with refining his practices, his ideas and his perceptions, this perhaps uniquely human ability to refine our practices, ideas and perceptions, to seek to improve, or correct, our practices, ideas, and perceptions, that an obsession with these things is a characteristic of genius, for it was certainly a characteristic of [P]’s genius, as it was Roithamer’s, that, as [P] said in his notes, he couldn’t stop thinking, that his every waking moment was taken up with intense thinking, that this thinking or introspection involved a process of refinement, a need to get to the root of something, to understand something from every possible angle, to improve and correct his intellectual mistakes, to the extent that he often put himself in danger because he was too taken up with this process and was known to have crossed roads without checking for traffic, and so this process could have led to his death, although ultimately it didn’t, because [P], like Roithamer, took his own life, and left behind only his notes, including his review of the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.