Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Magic Mountain, many novels in one - I chop it into a pasty hodgepodge - "Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism"

“Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism, and criticism marks the origin of progress and enlightenment.” (Ch. 3, “Satana,” 59)

Given that invitation, and the approaching end of German Literature Month, I had better write a bit about The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann’s comic tuberculosis-infected novel of ideas.  It is several novels in one.  I count at least three.  This helps me organize the long. complex novel, if nothing else.

1. The comic sanatorium novel, a novel about illness.  Illness, as we all know, is a useful metaphor.  Young Hans Castorp visits a Swiss sanatorium to spend some time with his cousin and somehow never leaves, not for years, until life finally intrudes too strongly (meaning, a world war breaks out).  As the director of the sanatorium says:

“First and foremost: there’s the air up here.  It’s good for fighting off illness, wouldn’t you say?  And you’d be right.  But it’s also good for illness, you see, because it first enhances it, creates a revolution in the body, causes latent illness to erupt…” (4, “The Thermometer,” 179)

The rest-cure that causes illness is pretty funny.  Sometimes the novel made me wonder what Kafka’s sanatorium novel would have been like, if he had lived to write it.  He certainly had enough experience with the institution.

The characters are mostly tuberculosis patients, so they are ill but active, with big appetites for food and life and sometimes sex.  The sanatorium is full of young, and less young, people in a world where some of the social rules are a bit relaxed.  Hans quickly falls for the lovely Frau Chauchat – one more reason he cannot bring himself to return to the outside world.  One of the comic high points of the novel is the chapter where he visits the director’s apartment, nominally to see his paintings but really to obsess over his crush.

The scene is packed with oddball sexual language.  The doctor owns an obscene coffee grinder, a gift from a patient, “an Egyptian princess” (“’Yes, that’s a tool for single gentlemen,” Behrens said,” Ch. 5, “Humaniora,” 258).  Hans, constrained from speaking directly about his lust, asks the doctor detailed medical questions about skin and fat, as if he is interested in science.

“I could easily have become a doctor.  The formation of breast milk… the lymph of the legs – it all interests me very much. The body!” he suddenly cried in a rapturous outburst.  “The flesh! The human body!  What is it? What is it made of?”  (261)

Hans uses this language to seduce Frau Chauchat (the italics signify that the conversation is supposedly in French):  “’Let me take in the exhalation of your pores and brush the down – oh, my human image made of water and protein, destined for the contours of the grave, let me perish, my lips against yours!” (5, “Walpurgis Nacht,” 537)

Death is never far from sex, or from anything, in The Magic Mountain.  It is not all comic.  But it is this side of the novel with all of the best little novelistic details, the kind of thing I enjoyed in Buddenbrooks, the cigars and furniture and food:

The room glistened with white from all the milk – a large glass at every place, a good pint of it at least. (3, “Clarity of Mind,” 66)

And fine minor characters:

At the next table on their left was an adolescent boy – still of school age, to judge by his appearance – whose coat sleeves were too short, and who wore thick, circular glasses; he chopped up everything heaped on his plate until it was a pasty hodgepodge, then bent over and wolfed it down, now and then pushing his napkin up behind his glasses to dry his eyes – it was unclear whether this was to wipe away sweat or tears. (3, “But of Course – a Female!,” 74)

My understanding is that Mann began The Magic Mountain as a comic counterpoint to Death in Venice – that was back in 1912 – but that the book expanded as he wrote it, turning into something more complex.  Thus, the second novel, the one about time. Tomorrow, that.

All quotations and page numbers are from the 1995 John E. Woods translation.


  1. The Magic Mountain helped save my sanity over lunch breaks during a short period when I was working an extremely boring job as a file clerk in a medical practice. (A job that is now mostly done by technology.)

  2. The curious debts we owe to literature! This would be a good book - a funny one - to read surrounded by medical bureaucracy.

  3. So romantic, using French for seduction!

    Mann is pretty funny. The coffee grinder scene seems a deliberate jab at Freud, whose Egyptian obsession included having a rather kitsch German painting of ancient Egypt hanging directly over his psychiatric couch.

    You're really making me want to pick this book up again.

  4. And it works, too, that French "water and protein" business.

    Mann never uses the phrase "Viennese witch doctor," but otherwise he is just about as rough on Freud as Nabokov would be.

  5. Mann's mastery of all these novels within the novel or registers is one of the reasons I love The Magic Mountain. It's also one of the reasons I suspect I may find Buddenbrooks a little plodding. Am I right to be concerned about the dropoff in quality or complexity between the two?

  6. Oh, no, not a dropoff, not at all, but Buddenbrooks is much more of a 19th century novel, a well-made French novel Germanized or Mannized, with only one specific philosophical episode. (A fellow in a crisis accidentally reads Schopenhauer).

    Those two books are different critters. I thought Buddenbrooks was a lot lighter on its feet than MM. Settembrini and the Inquisitor babbling at each other, that's where I thought Mann plodded, where he wanted me to suffer, for my own good, I guess.

  7. Of his longer works I’ve only read Doktor Faustus which is amazing. I really want to read this too but need a breather after Berlin Alexanderplatz. I hadn’t seen it mentioned as many novels in one but makes perfect sense. Thomas Mann can be very funny. I remember Felix Krull as one of his funniest. People don’t seem to read it. Possibly because it’s unfinished.

  8. In places, the "three novel" idea falls apart, or is even nonsense, but it helped me organize the big, complex novel. "Oh no, they are 'debating' again, what is this?"

    I have not read much later than MM. The Joseph books next year, I hope, then Faustus and Krull eventually. You are right, some readers hear "unfinished" and say "no way." I, by contrast, wish more published novels were unfinished.