Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Magic Mountain as a novel about time - Can one narrate time?

 2. The Magic Mountain is a novel about time.

Can one narrate time – time as such, in and of itself?  Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be.  The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein.  No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.  It would be the same as if someone took the harebrained notion of holding a single note or chord for hours on end – and called it music.  (7, “A Stroll by the Shore,” 531)

I will direct Mann’s, and your, attention to this superb essay by Laura Glen Louis, in the Autumn 2019 Hudson Review, on her experience performing a choral version of Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony (1947), which does not hold the note for hours but is in the ballpark.  Where would we be without the harebrained?  We live in a harebrained age.

I was so pleased with myself, figuring out that The Magic Mountain was in fact a novel about the narration of time, and then at the beginning of the final chunk, Book 7, see above, Mann just blurts it out, for four pages in the John E. Woods edition.  “[I]t is apparently not such an absurd notion to want to narrate about time” (532, emphasis Mann’s).

The novel simultaneously accelerates and decelerates.  The first short book describes a few hours, as Hans Castorp arrives at the sanatorium; the second hops like many novels hops back to his childhood, family, and education; the third, quite a lot longer, is one full day at the hospital, from breakfast to bedtime, in about 50 pages.  Then 90 pages cover the next three weeks; the next 150 pages covers – why am I describing this myself?

[T]he coverage of the next three weeks of the visit, however, will require about as many lines – or words, or even seconds – as the first three weeks required pages, quires, hours, and working days.  We can see it coming – we’ll have those three weeks behind us and laid to rest in no time.  (5, “Eternal Soup and Sudden Clarity,” 180)

Look at the standards of measurement.  Literal pieces of paper, counted two ways; words on the page; time measured two ways.  How long is a “working day” for Mann?  As The Magic Mountain expanded past the original conception as a novella, as years of writing passed, the subject of the book changed, and these meta-fictional comments, or occasionally essays, on time became a part of the experience of the book.

I am not convinced that Mann’s specific ideas about time are so deep.  Time is experienced subjectively, for example – I knew that.  What is new is that he explicitly moves the subjectivity onto his readers.  Time moves subjectively but in different flowing ways for the characters, for the author, and for the readers – and presumably in many different ways for different readers, who are often stubborn cusses, fighting with the author, reading perversely.  Mann gives us something new with which to fight.

Every piece of narrative writing works with time in some way or another.  Mann brings it to the front, so I can think about it.  He is not the only one.  I am thinking of the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), or the interlude in To the Lighthouse (1927), or maybe Benjy’s chapter in The Sound and the Fury (1929).  This is some of the high-level novelistic work of the age, making time do new things.

The chapter with the single day gives The Magic Mountain a pulse.  Once described, it is in the background, repeated endlessly without me having to read it endlessly.  Then there are the months, the seasons, the years, departures and deaths, a series of repetitions of varying intervals.  Mann is right, it is like music, with a lot of simultaneous cycles.  How does he keep the novel from being many simultaneous notes, played for hours but at varying intervals?  One answer is the usual novelistic stuff, characters and furniture and so on, see yesterday’s post, and the other answer is Ideas.  That’s for tomorrow.


  1. There's a bit of Tristram Shandy in Mann's discussion:

    "I will not finish that sentence till I have made an observation upon the strange state of affairs between the reader and myself, just as things stand at present—an observation never applicable before to any one biographical writer since the creation of the world, but to myself—and I believe, will never hold good to any other, until its final destruction—and therefore, for the very novelty of it alone, it must be worth your worships attending to.

    "I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my third volume (According to the preceding Editions.)—and no farther than to my first day's life—'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back—was every day of my life to be as busy a day as this—And why not?—and the transactions and opinions of it to take up as much description—And for what reason should they be cut short? as at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write—It must follow, an' please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write—and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read.


    "As for the proposal of twelve volumes a year, or a volume a month, it no way alters my prospect—write as I will, and rush as I may into the middle of things, as Horace advises—I shall never overtake myself whipp'd and driven to the last pinch; at the worst I shall have one day the start of my pen—and one day is enough for two volumes—and two volumes will be enough for one year.—

    "Heaven prosper the manufacturers of paper under this propitious reign, which is now opened to us—as I trust its providence will prosper every thing else in it that is taken in hand.

    "As for the propagation of Geese—I give myself no concern—Nature is all-bountiful—I shall never want tools to work with."

  2. Ah, that's good stuff. Mann and Sterne are both experts in Literary Relativity, even if only one knows it. Time seems to move along normally as the book accelerates, but outside the book, or inside, or somewhere, years are passing, centuries.

  3. I don't think Sterne is given his due importance in literary history, even though he's given considerable importance, because he was funny, and funny (as any comedian will tell you) is never taken seriously enough.

  4. Sterne has always had a higher status in Germany. Jean Paul has a mode that is pure imitation German Sterne. It is easily visible in the two novellas Thomas Carlyle translated. Hoffmann has a Sternean mode, too.

    In a sense, Mann-in-English suffers from the same problem. How often does someone write about Mann's comedy? He can be funny, too.