It has been said that a classic is a work that everyone wants to have read, but which no one actually wants to read. Now, having read this novel, I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I'm glad I read it, and was certainly thoroughly enlightened by its message and its incredible range of philosophical and intellectual topics, but I must admit that reading this book was a laborious process.
The story is set in a saniorium in the Swiss Alps. The institution serves as a microcosm of pre-World War I Europe, and the patients are representative of the various ruling classes which eventually brought about the conflict. Two opposing philosophies, the "Asiatic" and the "European," are represented in the persons of Settembrini and Naphta. The book's central revolves around this, the parody of European social structure before the great war.
Of course, there is much, much more to the book that just this. Everything from music to medicine is covered, and a great many intellectual debates are contained, spanning everything from monism and dualism to progress and the status quo. There is also a very extensive reference to time. In fact, Time seems to be a character of the novel, and a great deal of the book covers the way we perceive time and how it works in relation to us.
I loved this novel, and feel like it is certainly worth having read. As I said, however, it is a very difficult read (at least it was for me), and often I felt as if I were wading through material too deep for me to comprehend. Mann was a brilliant individual, and deserved the Nobel Prize he won for literature. This monumental work deserves to be called one of the 'classics' of this century. It is difficult at times, yes, but it is also supremely rewarding.