on March 12, 2003
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.
on February 7, 2002
To a great many Europeans, World War I must have seemed like Armageddon, a cataclysmic event that would completely and irrevocably transform the continent. Covering the time leading up to the war, "The Magic Mountain" personifies this transformation in its main character, a young man named Hans Castorp, whose life becomes immeasurably enriched after he abandons the ease and complacency of his childhood and opens his mind to new vistas of knowledge. It is not just the coming-of-age novel of a man, but of the world.
Hans is a moderately intelligent engineering student from Hamburg who grew up in an environment of comfort and leisure with not many thoughts about anything other than what concerns him directly. One summer, he goes to the Swiss Alps for three weeks to visit his cousin Joachim Ziemssen, who is convalescing at a sanatorium called Berghof for people with respiratory ailments. While there, Hans takes ill as well and is forced to stay longer to recuperate, a stay which stretches itself out to seven years.
At the Berghof, Hans makes the acquaintance of several other patients of various intellectual and social levels. Most prominent is an Italian named Settembrini, a freelance writer, cynic, and progressivist who dreams of a world republic and believes literature is the ultimate unification of politics and humanism. His current work in focus is the contribution of a literature section to an encyclopedia on human suffering, the intent of which is to catalog all its causes and try to eliminate them. Settembrini has a nemesis in another off-site patient named Leo Naphta, a Jew-turned-Jesuit who advocates a sort of Christian communism, using St. Augustine's City of God as a model. These two have ongoing philosophical and theological debates, the effect of which is a battle for Hans's soul.
Hans gradually broadens his interests, indulging himself in biology, anatomy, botany, skiing, music, and the exploration of the ultimate scientific mystery, how life grew out of unlife. Other patients also occupy his time: Clavdia Chauchat, a married woman whose husband never enters the picture and who is the object of many affections at the Berghof; the malapropism-speaking Frau Stohr; Paravant, a mathematician who is trying to determine if pi is a rational number; Mynheer Peeperkorn, a wealthy Dutch epicure; and Ellen Brand, a girl with paranormal experiences.
Along with Jorge Luis Borges, Mann is arguably the most erudite writer of 20th Century fiction. I was consistently amazed at the depth and detail with which he could write about such a wide variety of subjects, from the sciences to the arts to politics. The novel expects its reader to be highly and thoroughly educated, but don't sweat the tough stuff; you can approach unfamiliar territory with the wide-eyed wonder of Hans and imbibe the ideas presented as food for thought and discussion.
on January 3, 2004
Well, I finally broke down and slugged my way through it. (Actually, this was attempt number two.) I may be way off, but to me this is a novelist's novel, a literary effort best appreciated by literary students and not by one who reads purely for pleasure and intellectual or artistic gratification. To someone who, like me, just likes to read and has always been curious about this book, I would suggest choosing something else.
The novel defies standard evaluation (i.e., assignment of three stars, four stars, etc.) owing to its scope and the unique nature of its aspirations. The text takes up about 1,200 pages in conventional format. (My copy is 700 pages of microscopic font crammed onto the page.) Is there 1,200 pages worth of plot in the book? Absolutely not. 1,200 pages of philosophy? Doubtful. Still, as the story's narrator explains, a person's entire life can be told in two pages, or a thousand pages could describe a single event. The book is in part a study of time and its measure - it does not seek to develop in the same manner or pace as other novels. To tell this particular story in the way Mann wants it told, a great deal of pages are indeed needed. This notwithstanding, the book is best left, in my opinion, to those who really like to make a study of what they read. Mann himself suggested reading it twice. (The only problem with this approach is that it would take 18 years of one's life.)
The book is excellent on many levels, difficult on others. As a work of art, it is unusually dense and all-encompassing. Almost against his will, the reader is drawn in as the main character's fate unfolds, brought about what one could call his willful passivity. The plot and character "development" are of fascinating, unparalleled strangeness. At the same time, assessing the novel's intended meaning is a perplexing task. The book's "hero" (for he is often referred to as such) seems to be anything but heroic. Rather, he could be seen as a walking advertisement for the perils of the undesirable traits he possesses. His defining character trait is stagnation. All of his second-hand philosophical posturing is merely a lame attempt to justify his disdain for exertion and his cowardly withdrawal from pursuing a purposeful life in the "flatland" below. (However, Mann - as well as many of the reviewers here - apparently really did consider Hans a hero engaged in the act of philosophical self-improvement. Strange.) Lacking a self, the hero's views and even personality traits are lifted from those around him. (Witness his shameless incorporation of Peepercorn's affectations.) The character most vocal in his defense of virtue (Settembrini) is, on the whole, not particularly virtuous himself. The character presented as the most virtuous (Joachim) is neither the happier nor the more prosperous for his virtue. Furthermore, it is often difficult for the reader to discern whether the narrator's praise for a character is intended to be sincere or ironic.
To a non-literati like me, the author's approach to his craft is often suspect. Momentum is often dispersed by questionable digressions; new major characters are introduced up until the end; fifteen pages are often used where three would suffice. Mann seems intent on presenting himself as a renaissance man, one who can write expertly on a plethora of subjects. He is not grandstanding or hotdogging - it's just the way he writes - but it does require patience on the part of the reader who may not particularly care to detour through a discourse on snake venom while trying to advance through the story.
Before embarking on this endeavor, I was hoping to be able to dismiss the standard Objectivist (i.e., cult of Ayn Rand) objection to this work - that the philosophizing contained within exists for its own sake and isn't integrated into the plot or theme of the novel. The criticism seems to be unjustified as the passages in question unfold. The philosophical views expressed are relevant to the theme and to the development of the characters who express them. After a while, however, I had to concede the point. On and on these dialogues go, completely dissociated from the rest of the book, requiring mental brute force just to plow through them. Score one for the Objectivists.
To the serious student of literature, I can recommend this book unequivocally. To the average reader - even a fairly serious one - the cost-benefit ratio here does not justify the considerable investment of time required to get through Mann's masterpiece. I mean, to me Crime and Punishment is a real page-turner, but I had to force my way through lengthy passages of The Magic Mountain on numerous occasions. I rate it three stars, rather than four or five, for (what I perceive to be) its literary limitations. However as I mentioned earlier, this rating is fairly arbitrary. To the right reader, this could be one of the greatest books ever written.
on March 20, 2003
What is the difference between learning and naiveté, original thought and stupidity, good and evil? What does it mean to find yourself in totally strange world where the time is still and disease is an every day occurrence, where snow is around 9 months out of 12, and where death is part of life? Hans Kastorpe is diagnosed with a light form of tuberculosis and has to spend over a year on mountain top in a health resort. The experience radically changes him. From a somewhat high minded bourgeois he turns into a thoughtful young man, studying sciences he never thought of studying before, thinking about life, philosophy and politics, arguing with his two highly educated friends, and wondering whether he will ever come back to the plain.
The book is uneven -- on its highs it takes one like an ocean wave and the words are being simply breathed in. On its lows it becomes a bit tedious, a bit wordy, a bit too philosophical. But overall a great work.
on August 1, 2003
I have read this novel three times and I love it more and more everytime. It is true: this is a difficult, long reading, but it is worth your time. The first time it took me about six months to finish it... and I think that it is the best way to read this novel. The reader goes along with the main character through the most interesting trip. Hans Castorp goes to Davos-Platz in order to pay a visit to a cousin of him who is being treated in a hospital up in the mountains. Way up. Joachim, the cousin, suffers tuberculosis and must be contained in the cold enviroment so the illness is kept under control. Hans is supposed to stay with his cousin for three weeks, but his plans extend themselves as an unusual attraction develops between him and a russian woman. He and Joachim are joined by the philosopher Settembrini, with whom they talk about the nature of sickness and a supposed respect towards sick people. The rythm of the novel is the most interesting I have ever seen in a work of fiction (Thomas Mann really handles the rythm of events like no one else: how much should an event be explored or briefly described). Join Hans in his trip to a hospital, to the heights of a mountain, to his own physical degradation, to his intellectual developments. Meet along with him Settembrini, Naphta (who was based in the wonderfull philosopher and critic Georg Lucáks), Peeper, the doctors... Live with him the time when he lost his way and had the most wonderfull hallucination I have ever read, live the sessions in which he and his mates meet the world of the spirits... hear his intellecutual divagations. There is so much in this novel... I can only compare it to Cervantes' Don Quixote.
Go into the magic of the reality... the real world is magical, more than in terms of phantasy, in terms of our own minds, our inheritance and our experience of time (rythm). To read this novel is to get deeper in the experience of time itself.
on October 28, 2002
Nominally, the Magic Mountain is the story of Hans Castorp, a young German man who has just finished school and is about to start on a career in shipbuilding. First, he goes for three weeks to a Swiss sanatorium to visit his cousin, partly for a vacation before he starts his job and partly to convince his cousin, a soldier, that he should rejoin the real world rather than stay in the sanatorium. Castorp gets a check-up from the doctor, learns that he is ill and remains for seven years.
Mann originally started this book as a novella parody of sanatoriums and medicine in the early 20th Century, when doctors were first saying that disease was created by organisms and were enamored with the power of the newly discovered x-rays. However, Mann stopped the novella at the beginning of World War I, and came back to it at after the war, realizing that he had a lot to say and that this story might be a good vehicle through which to say it.
After all, the sanatorium's clientele were the new rich and the old upper class of all the different countries of Europe who began the war. The doctors acted both as the leaders who led them through the insanity and the scientists who made the mechanized, horrible war possible. And Hans Castorp was the age of the soldiers, following the leaders, the aristocracy, the scientists and the intellectuals into battle.
You can read all this into the book, if you wish. The doctors are firm in their belief that they are helping their patients, but are not above shenanigans like "proving" with little evidence that patients should stay year-round, rather than leave for the summer in order to line their wallets. Herr Settembrini and later Herr Nafta are the intellectuals filling Castorp with ideas that seem sometimes benign and sometimes diabolical. Castorp is a young, impressionable man who falls madly in love for a fellow patient, Clavdia, but has no outlet for his emotion, except during Carnival--a truly amazing scene, which alone is enough to make the book worthwhile. No wonder this continent was plunged into a tragic war that left Mann with the need to write this beautiful, tragic book.
I, however, was more interested in Mann's thoughts about of life in general that permeate this book. My favorite example is the way Mann talks about the concept of "getting used to getting used." He describes it in the sense of Castorp who never gets used to the thin air in the Alps and therefore always winds up redfaced and short of breath. However, Castorp does get used to always being redfaced and short of breath. Therefore, he gets used to getting used to the Alps.
This is what part of life is. We are unhappy with many parts of our life (maybe a job, maybe family, maybe friends or lack of friends, or financial resources) and we never get used to that. It leaves us with an empty feeling somewhere in our soul and no way to get rid of it. We never get used to this problem and thus the empty feeling never goes away. But we get used to the empty place in our soul and think of it only occasionally. But it is there crying out.
What a sad thought about life. The solution, of course, is to listen to the part that is crying out rather than squelching it and to try to do something about it. But it is often easier to get used to getting used to a situation than it is to fix the situation. It is easier for Castorp to stay in the mountains rather than breathing normally.
Overall, an excellent book, with ideas that I had never even come close to thinking of before.
on October 22, 2002
What a sweeping novel. Really, I have never come across another book in which I felt I knew the main character quite so well as this one. We, the readers, as not spared one detail of Hans Castorp's 7 year soujorn into the Swiss Alps seeking treatment for a supposed case of TB. This novel, quite simply, encompasses all of early twientieth centery Europe. Bergohf, the santatorium where Hans stays, is, as the back of the book states, a microcosm of Europe. Ths you will find that all the characters represent some aspect of the European mindset in the early 1900's (right before World War I, mind you...). We are shown the major deabates of contenintal philosophy, the angry polemic of radicals and reactionaries alike. Our blank slate, Hans, is molded and shaped by this world away from reality, and we come to understand things about human nature, suffering, illness, and strife that simply wouldn't be illuminate otherwise. I did like this book. But in the end, I was finding it excessivley long. Many of the later episodes do not seem to give much to the plot and do not shed any new light on to Hans' character. So I recommend this book with reservations. The Good parts of it are REALLY good. But just be prepared for a long, occasionally frustrating read.
on July 22, 2002
Thomas Mann is at the quintessence of twentieth century thought in The Magic Mountain. Those of you who have read Proust might find the book's central thesis similar: (And indeed, the book does have a theme, as much it rambles and tries to confuse you) the subjectivity and illusory reality of Time. From there Mann is a thinker unto himself for he makes sure that you take that statement through all its corollaries. You can't measure the passing of time objectively, and if you had lost your senses (or perhaps you are seriously ill) you will have soon lost grip of its passing; before you've gone to tea again, dinner, and to your second rest cure, you're in your death throes. On the "Magic" Mountain, what's to separate the three weeks that Hans, our main character, initially intends to stay from the seven years it does take him to "be cured," when each day is characterized by monotonous routine?
OK, I'll admit it, this book is not for philistines looking for entertainment, as more than one reviewer has found out. This is cold, hard metaphysics, at times strikingly expressed. The book tempts you to think death is nothing if not constantly occurring, and time nothing other than a "flat-land" device for slowing down that omnipresent decomposition and oxidation of your body, "the natural burning off of life."
Yes, reader, science is at work in this novel. And if I were to flesh out the thesis further, the grotesque and often painful imagery of the sanatorium is Mann's great argument against what science -- medicine -- or further, the industrial revolution -- has given old, antedeluvian society. New ideas work like a disease, no less .. a terminal, horrible dehumanization that makes you doubt all measures in life -- allowing the blinkered Western Civ nothing left but the absolute nihilism.
Beyond the ideas, there is art in Mann's very prolix creation. Unlike other disjointed novels that delve into a character's subconscious, Mann manages to weave it all together. Cliches, slips of the tongue, and dreams hide and obscure fuller, interconnected emotions and strivings that are expressed directly only at brief, lucid moments in the prose -- an original and ingenious device. For example, at the beginning of the book the reader can make no sense of Hans' dreaming and fantasizing about his schoolboy crush for another boy name Hippe -- whose only direct contact he had was that he borrowed a pencil from him. Hans connects this image and episode with his current infatuation for terminally ill guest Clavdia Chauchat. For two hundred pages this point is drawn upon from various angles until finally Mann concocts an occasion where Hans asks Clavdia for a pencil .. and the dialogue, gestures, and body language mirror exactly that long ago encounter with Hippe. It strikes you and comes out of nowhere. Clavdia leaves Berghof the next day, just as Hippe left Hamburg in Hans's youth, leaving the latter to dream and ponder further.
Hans is very much an anti-hero .. while at the same time he is the novel's draw. He's pathetic, lazy, all too comfortable with the disturbing atmosphere of the terminally ill that Mann sketches around him. But unlike everyone else, he seems to be able to preserve simple human optimism and beauty that is obvious dead all around him. Though it's absurd and perverted hope and happiness -- and meant be so. Disturbingly so. Hans is not hopeful about leaving .. rather he is able to look forward to death, all while reclining on his balcony, smoking his cigars, and taking general pleasure as his temperature rises and he becomes presumably more ill. The "Magic" pervades him.
The best that can be said for Mann is this stuff is original while maintaining a great depth of allusion and allegory. Mann doesn't forget he's German -- there's plenty of Faust here. Even a passing reference to Schiller that sticks in your mind. The book abounds with representations and caricatures of Western thought .. everyone is present at the death march that is Mann's portrait of dying Western culture.
on May 19, 2000
I was 15 years old when I read Mann's 'Magic Mountain' for the first time. And have gone back to it (or at least re-read certain passages of it) uncounted times since. Years ago I decided it would be the one book to take to the infamous deserted island with me if I had to pick only one book. And although the reasons for this choice have changed since, the choice itself hasn't. Why? Because with 'Magic Mountain' Mann has compiled a huge amount of information (and controversial information, for that matter) and an ecclectic variety of subjects: Mathematics, Medicine, Astronomy, Physics, Politics, Astrology, Psychology, Literature, History, Theatre, you name it. Thus, the story line - actually quite thin and simplistic itself - is merely serving as a bracket to hold this immense collections of man's opinions and knowledge together; and thus, btw, the opinion of one of the Amazon.com reviewers saying that the novel is BORING is rendered completely irrelevant --- boring it can only be to somebody who has no interest whatsoever in Modern Man, his failures and his praises. When I moved from Germany to California, I bought a second edition of the book, in English, in addition to my German one --- because the German one was simply so used that it had started to fall apart...
on March 2, 2000
This is an epic, sweeping novel about a chap named Hans Castorp who travels to a health sanitarium on a mountain to visit his cousin. To his horror, he discovers that he has tuberculosis, and his stay is lengthened from a few weeks to seven years.
Over the course of his sojourn in the mountains, he meets sundry fascinating personages & ponders philosophy, history, art, literature, politics, death and just about every other intellectual topic there is.
One of the many strengths of this book is its character development. There are many magnificent personas which Mann brings to life under his pen. They range from eccentric doctors to off-the-wall acadamecians to one really hilarious character who can seemingly do nothing and still make me laugh.
In an essay Mann wrote, he described the book as something akin to a grail quest for Castorp. That, I think, is the closest one can come to saying what this book is "about." I often debate with myself whether the conclusion is deus ex machina, but will probably have to read it a few more times before I decide for sure. In any case, this book is an intellectual mountain to climb......and one may even find some magic there as well.