” What was life? No one knew. It was aware of itself the moment it became life, that much was certain—and yet did not know what it was. Consciousness, as sensitivity to stmuli, was undoubtedly aroused to some extent at even the lowest, most undeveloped stages of its occurrence . . . (Ch.5, p.270)
Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War, The Magic Mountain is many things: a modernist classic, a comedy of manners, an allegory of pre-war burgeois Europe. The plot is incidental: it revolves around Hans Castorp, a young engineer who just completed a training course preparing him for a job in ship building. Before beginning work, in 1904, he plans a short three-week visit to his cousin, Joachim Ziemssem who is in a TB sanatorium up in the Swiss Alps.
A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries; and although he may regard the general and impersonal foundations of his existence as unequivocal givens and take them for granted, having as little intention of ever subjecting them to critique as our good Hans Castorp himself had . . . (Ch.2, p.31)
The novel spans about ten years, building up very slowly by important details of hans Castorp’s past. Before his three weeks are up it is discovered that he himself has TB and becomes a patient, living there for the next seven years, until his departure just before the Great War, and becomes a soldier. Obviously, illness is decidedly center-stage in The Magic Mountain, but there is also a disturbing ambiguity as to just how much of Hans’s illness is genuine. Ensconced in his lounge chair, miles away from the cut and thrust of life on the “flat lands,” Hans finds himself questioning long-held notions of honor and mortality. Up in the “high, remote, narrow world under a spell of icy purity,” the passage of time becomes unnoticeable—in a way slippery and can no longer be trusted to behave as one would expect. He and other consumptives that represent the European nationalities, are trapped in such rigid regime of sumptuous meals, rest cure, and fetished thermometer readings. There are giddy flirtations and intellectual debate on disease, humanity, suffering, and love.
Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. (Ch.7, p.657)
The book is long, challenging, and provocative. Reptition of routine doesn’t lead to a homogeneity of time. Instead it annihilates the regular sense of time. The eternal monotony of time’s rhythm in the sanatorium creates a sensation not even of mere repetition but of a regular standstill of time. Over time Hans takes up reading in subject matter that would help understand life—medicine, religion, and botany. Over time there is a heightening of his personality as a result of a quest that is a universal one: to pass through illness to rediscover the ethics of normal life. It’s the same journey we embark upon everyday. The magic mountain is no longer a retreat or social height; it is our everyday. As months turn in years, his stay in the sanatorium is not limited to a brief and terminable episode of illness, but a sentence without limits and without walls in which his existence, out of his free will and with the best intention of all sides, is bound to the ministrations and adjudications of medical expertise.
The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition that requires patience and a slow reading pace. Mann contrives to create a sense of timelessness with tedious descriptions of the obsessive states of mind, intense antagonisms and imaginary love affairs. In the closed environment of the mountaintop, Hans Castorp achieves an individualism that is neither social nor religious, transcending even all politically determined morality. The story is simple but the way it’s told is complex, like hiking a treacherous, steep slope.
706 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]