The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann

A Man’s a Man for a’ that . . .

Returning to this large novel after twenty-five years, in the 1996 translation by John E. Woods, one notices the following:

1. The central figure, Hans Castorp, is not attractive–things happen to him, largely. This fits with the general theme of passivity in the novel, most of whose characters are taking the Alpine cure for their TB at a sanatorium above Davos. The first 200 pages or so establish the lay of the land, so to speak, as Hans Castorp discovers what life is all about “up there”; then, the action is largely made up of his efforts to sort out how to live while avoiding a return to the “flatlands.” (He comes from Hamburg, a stand-in for Mann’s own Lübeck, both flat areas indeed, where, appropriately, Plattdeutsch is spoken.)

2. Hans Castorp’s mentor, the cheerful humanist Settembrini, moves to the valley halfway through the novel. Whether this has any symbolic or other meaningful significance is hard to see, but for plot mechanics, it opens things up a bit and forces the action out of the sanatorium itself. Such simple considerations matter even in the most ambitious of works.

3. The Magic Mountain is not modernist in the tradition of English-language novels–James, Conrad, Joyce–there is an apparently omniscient narrator, with gravitational attraction to Hans Castorp–no events are narrated that don’t involve him or give us his thoughts, rather than someone else’s (one exception–his friend Joachim sees him enter the psychoanalysis clinic). There are some apparent slips in later chapters where the narrator acts as though the “we” is identified with those up on the Mountain, perhaps the director, Dr. Behrens himself. There is even a slip of an “I.”

4. One of the last chapters, “Fullness of Harmony,” describes Hans Castorp’s discovery of the gramophone and his love of certain specific works. Wagner is not mentioned, but the novel’s climax is distinctly Wagnerian–after so much raffiniert talking, differences are settled suddenly, with a gunshot. Listen to Act II of Tristan.

Early stethoscopes

Explore posts in the same categories: Book reviews, Criticism, Germany

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