Monday, 23 January 2017

Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

 
published 1924
 
 
 
Magic Mountain 1‘…The gentlemen have been shopping?’ he asked, adopting a lighter tone.

‘No, not really,’ Hans Castorp said, ‘that is…’

‘We bought a couple of blankets for my cousin,’ Joachim replied casually.

‘For the rest cure, what with this miserable cold weather. I am supposed to join in for these few weeks.’ Hans Castorp said with a laugh, looking down at the ground.

‘Ah, blankets, rest cure,’ Settembrini said. ‘Yes, yes, yes. I see, I see, I see. Indeed: placet experiri!’ he repeated it with his Italian c; and now, when he took his leave, for they had arrived at the sanatorium, where they were greeted by the limping concierge…

[later that day] When they came back up from their meal, the package of blankets was lying on a chair in Hans Castorp’s room, and he made use of them for the first time. Joachim, as the expert, gave him lessons in the art of wrapping oneself the way they all did it up here, something every novice had to learn right off.
 
Magic Mountain 4
 


commentary: After reading Linda Grant’s terrific new novel Dark Circle, which I blogged on yesterday, I decided the moment had finally come to read this book – something I have been vaguely intending to do for more than 30 years. Thomas Mann is a great writer, and I have loved other works by him, but Magic Mountain is 704 pages long in my edition. But with the encouragement of Dark Circle – well, it was now or never.

The book tells the story of a young man who goes to a Swiss sanatorium to visit a cousin with TB. He intends to stay a few weeks, and then finds himself a little ill, and ends up staying there for seven years. The world outside carries on without him, and there are vague intimations of the shattering events of the century.

Magic Mountain begins in the early years of the 20th century, while Grant’s book is set in the late 1940s – but it is obvious that the treatment for TB hadn’t changed in that time: cold and clear air and bedrest were all a doctor could suggest. There are moments when the content is parallel, such as the discussion of lung operations and lung collapse. And both authors have taken the chance to look at a small closed community, and the thoughts of those who are cut off from family, and know they may be dying. Yesterday’s extract featured sheepskin mittens: here we have the special blankets, and the rather cosy-sounding fur-lined sleeping bags.

Magic Mountain 7

It is not as depressing as it probably sounds: the shadow of death does hang over it, and the idea of coming for a visit and getting pulled in to stay forever is fairly horrifying. The text is ambiguous over whether he really needs to stay… and the book in general does a remarkable job in being convincing and realistic, and making you believe this is what the hospital would really be like – but also obviously making points about the world, the characters, the status of someone who perhaps prefers to be out of the world, who fears going back. The passage above shows the early signs that Hans Castorp is settling in for the long haul… Placet experiri is Latin for ‘he likes to experiment.’

It is not an easy read, but I did find it compelling and was very glad I ploughed through all those pages, and there are some very funny and entertaining passages.

However, I have just found to my horror that Mann  ‘recommended that those who wished to understand it should read it through twice’. I don’t think I’ll be doing that.

The colour pictures are from a booklet advertizing a sanatorium.

The patients are all very intrigued by the x-rays that are taken – looking for the shadows on their lungs. The 2nd picture is an early demonstration of the uses of X rays.

Third picture shows the open air system so widely used for TB patients, from a booklet on the subject.






















24 comments:

  1. No matter how good Mann's writing, that'd be quite a book to read again, wouldn't it, Moira? It is interesting how similar the two books are in content, perspective and the like. Different writers, of course, with different views and styles. But still, so many similarities, too. It also shows just how much progress we've made in less than 80 years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's the good side! No-one will have to go through that again. But oh the sadness....

      Delete
  2. I tried to read Magic Mountain a year but really struggled with it, and in the end gave up. My Mum was a keen member of the Red Cross, and shortly after the Second World War, she and another Red Cross member from South Wales met up with some Scottish nurses from Glasgow and escorted a group of 40 schoolchildren to a TB sanatorium on Lake Maggiore. It was Mum's one and only time abroad and she had a fabulous time. It was many years later when she was telling me about the family that had put the nurses up for a couple of nights when the children were settling in, that it suddenly dawned on me that they were the Roches, as in Roche pharmaceuticals! I don't about the Scottish children but all the Welsh kids returned fully cured. It seems like a distant memory, and yet it was actually such recent history.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And that should have been "a year ago"!

      Delete
    2. What a fascinating story, that must have been quite an experience. And how nice that they were cured - the thought of the children earlier is too sad.

      Delete
  3. Chapeau, Moira! A real achievement, especially given all the other reading that you do. I wonder if any of those cures were any good at all. When cities like London had such poor air quality, perhaps pure air and good food helped as much as anything could at the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes indeed, that's exactly what you think. I would be very interested to read a modern consideration of what exactly the treatments achieved.

      Delete
  4. "Une petite tache humide..."

    You have read The Plague and I???

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Words that bring their own shadow with them.
      Just, read it last week. Blogpost coming (I am hearing about all kinds of sanatorium lit...)

      Delete
    2. I need to get a copy of "The Plague and I" -- I'm re-reading "The Egg and I" this week and have "Onions in the Stew" to look forward to.

      I have got to stay away from Project Gutenberg Canada. They just have too many great books over there (I just finished downloaded half a dozen Mr Motos).

      Delete
    3. Shay, I haven't read Onions in the Stew, will be interested to hear what it's like, and what that title means.
      Lucy: yes indeed

      Delete
  5. This one sounds less depressing than the previous book, and I am glad you told us about your experience with it. I know very little about Thomas Mann, so you are helping to further my education.

    There are several books I have read recently that I think I would benefit from rereading, but none of them are 700 pages.

    Strangely there is an amusement park in the US called Magic Mountain (not that I have ever been there). I wondered why that sounded so familiar but strange as a title.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, I was googling this book and kept getting the theme park! I am glad I read it, but I couldn't honestly say everyone should. It is quite a commitment.

      Delete
    2. Ha! Isn't that frustrating when you're trying to google something slightly obscure, but there's something terribly more popular that keeps clogging up your search? Magic Mountain is about an hour's drive from where I live, but I'm getting too old for that kind of thing now! Disneyland has a lot of slower, non-rattley attractions, but Magic Mountain is mostly all fairly terrifying (to me) thrill rides. We took a youth group there when I was in my 30s, though, and with the kids I had a ball. Thomas Mann DID live in Los Angeles for 10 years, but I can't imagine amusement park developers would have had him as an inspiration!

      Delete
    3. I share my name with a middle-ranking British actress, one whom most people would never have heard of. Because the film and TV industries have been so carefully recorded on the internet, she always comes up a lot more than I do. That used to annoy me, but these days I think I like being slightly under the radar.

      Delete
  6. Interesting write-up. One of my father's favorite authors was Thomas Mann, but I've never read anything by him.

    I tried to read Buddenbrook but whether it was the language at that time or the translation, it was too ponderous for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved Buddenbrooks, it's a wonderful book, and that's why I kept thinking I OUGHT to read Magic Mountain. But maybe now was the right time to read it. I think I would just have disliked it if I read it when I was young.

      Delete
  7. Yes, MM is heavy going at times - all those lengthy philosophical debates - but I remember it as being funny, too. Well worth the effort - in fact I intend rereading it at some point, if time allows. TB in literature was such a major topic, and TM dealt with it full on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am full of admiration that you might try! Would be interested to hear about it if you did. Yes, once you start thinking about it you realize just how all-pervading it was, both in life and literature.

      Delete
  8. "It is not as depressing as it probably sounds: the shadow of death does hang over it, and the idea of coming for a visit and getting pulled in to stay forever is fairly horrifying."

    Yes, it sounds the stuff of nightmares to me. Although I can see the attraction of disappearing from a world that seems to be going crazy. Especially these days...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think one of the ways you can tell this book IS a masterpiece is that you keep changing your mind about the events within, and about the whole book, all the way through.

      Delete
  9. I think this one was a favorite book of my father's. Now that I think about it, the theme with TB might have been a factor, as his youngest brother died of TB during WWII, and another brother survived it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was so much a part of life back then, in a way we don't always realize - perhaps more like AIDS or cancer.

      Delete