Thoughts on reading The Magic Mountain (Loong)

I've just finished it, and I am completely overwhelmed, in a way that I really didn't expect at all. The whole novel, when read as a whole, is just devastating, a 700-page-long metaphor for the First World War. Not very much literature can actually reduce me to tears—this and the death of Hector, in recent memory. Note that I haven’t had much time to write this, or to think about the book, and I certainly haven’t done the necessary research to really understand it. Furthermore, this is all assuming that you’ve read the novel. Not only are there spoilers (and yes, I do think that there are plot twists that may affect your enjoyment of this book if they are revealed) but I’m also not going to give too much background. Really, you should read it, it’s a really wonderful novel. Having said all that, here’s what I though:

First of all, it took me quite a while to get into this book. I read Pynchon, I read David Foster Wallace, long book are not necessarily unusual in my life—but after three hundred pages of hearing about Hans Castorp smoking his little cigars, chatting idly with the other patients and then taking yet another nap I was a little confused. Dude won a Nobel Prize for this? A book about napping?

But a little over the halfway point I began to realize what was going on—one thing that was going on, at any rate. The main character, Hans Castorp, began the novel as an utterly placid ordinary fellow. Asinine, frankly. The sort of person I loathe to meet at parties because all they have to offer is a series of clichés about the weather and sports.

But he’s compelled to spend a length of time in a sanitarium, and he gradually becomes a real person, someone who truly thinks about things and who appreciates life. Initially this finds expression merely by listening to his opinionated friends out of amusement or boredom, but then he begins to actually think about what they are saying. At the same time he begins studying, learning things out of an actual desire for knowledge. He studies anatomy and botany at great length not for his career or because anyone told him to but merely to know more about them. When he arrived he would simply wait for dinner while smoking a Maria Mancini, thinking about what he’d eat.

After a point, however, he’d actually think about the world or, better yet, he’d simply be in it—meditating, “playing king”. And then, later still, he begins to be interested in abstruse philosophic ideas that no one has specifically told him about and that he doesn’t quite understand. Things, like the nature of Time, things that his cousin (who remains an honorable, straight and narrow citizen and soldier right to the end) has no earthly idea about.

Around this point, about four hundred pages in, I noticed that Castorp was no longer looking at Settembrini’s arguments as mere amusements, nor was he merely accepting them as teachings from his wise mentor. No, he was weighing them, constructing counter-arguments, analyzing them in his head! He would contrast what was being said to him now with what Naphta had said earlier, and would sometimes even draw his own, original conclusion! That was when I realized that this really was a coming of age story, but one unlike any other I’d read. There was no sudden epiphany, no dynamic change, and no narrator pronouncing, “Eventually, young Castorp began to think for himself”—no, it all happened organically, over time. Eventually he even overcame his own modesty (a bit) and participated in these conversations, although not quite to the extent that his two friends did. As time passes he continues to meditate, and even takes up skiing as a sort of spiritual exercise.

From the start, Castorp was likable enough (except for his inanity), but by the end he had matured into a wonderful person. He wasn’t the demagogue that Settembrini or Naphta were, and yet he definitely had his own unique concepts and thought that he wanted to share and explore.

In addition, he had a wonderfully mystic sense of spirituality (for example, his dream in the snow) and a charming (to me) way of speaking about his interior thoughts as if they were obvious to everyone. For example, in school he had a crush on a boy named Pribislav*. They never spoke (and certainly never dated!) but one time Castorp did ask him for a pencil. Later on, at the sanitarium, he has a crush on a certain Frau Chauchat. In a rare moment of candid talk, he says something about how he borrowed her pencil, all those years ago. There no reason to think that she’d understand that in his head he has conflated his two loves, but he acts as if it makes perfect sense. I find this charming.

Another thing that I truly love about this novel is that is an anti-epic. It goes its own way, takes its own time, and spends plenty of pages taking naps. Castorp never does find any Enlightenment or Perfection, and in fact he never does anything noteworthy in the whole book. From the beginning to the end he doesn’t take a single action that would be called “exciting”, let along “nobel” or “heroic”.

And yet he does do great things, profound things. He matures, comes into his own, becomes a real person. He learns how to see life in full, how to treat others with dignity… All of these notions have been present in other books that I’ve read, but I’ve never really bought it. I think that ordinarily the characters are simply never real enough for me, and if I’m going to read cardboard, fantasy figures then I may as well read about Batman or Lucifer Box. Then again, many of the literary modern novels that I feel I should embrace ultimately explore degradation and failure, and this is one thing that Mann fully shares with Homer—his writing is a celebration of higher things, of better people.

The anti-epic nature of the work touches on what I was saying earlier, as well—I’ve read too many coming-of-age Bildungsromans* in which the protagonist is merely a Hero out of context. Maybe she’s a lowly pig herder who will one day become King, or maybe he’s a callow youth who hasn’t yet learned the meaning of friendship; either way her central character is already more or less formed at the start of the book. It may be tempered slightly by the end, but it never actually changes. The circumstances change around her, but that’s often it. Think of (thank you Dorian) Hamlet, Catcher in the Rye, Ender’s Game, Huck Finn, &c., &c. Sure these characters all change by the end of the piece, but the changes are mostly circumstantial, I feel. At least in comparison to Hans Castorp. He doesn’t just change his profession; he actually becomes a different person. Before our eyes, but very slowly, like the “time grass keeps as it grows”. I’m maybe not explaining this clearly enough—write me an email and I’ll try to do better. Or, you know, buy me a drink some time. The point is that I really seemed to be watching a real person grow and (slowly) mature from a boring quotidian nothing into someone who really meant something.

And then of course, after all that, after 700+ pages of that, he steps on his comrade’s hand in his hobnail boots as he marches out of the forest and into the mud, where he is likely to be utterly destroyed (as the narrator equanimously observes).

Yes, it is the best anti-epic coming-of-age novel of ideas I’ve ever read, but I think that that’s all almost beside the point—the book is a war novel, first and foremost, for all that there are only two pages of battle scenes*. I’ve never been so caught up in a character in a war novel before, and never seen one as fully human as this, probably because I’ve never read a novel that would spend 700 pages building up a character before the first battle scene.

Thinking over the Great War Novels I’ve read, Yosarian and Hawkeye are miles away in terms of complexity and humanity. I certainly didn’t feel this way about Bolkonsky (which may well have been my fault, I freely admit). Maybe I haven’t read enough of the great ones (e.g. For Whom the Bell Tolls) but as I said above, only Hector really comes close to Herr Castorp.

One reason why Mann and Homer bother really got to me was their total lack of bathos. They simply wrote what was happening, and left it at that, left it for me to determine just how I felt about it. No ornamentation, no cues or reminders about the tragic waste of life, just the casual assertion that these folks, and thousands of others like them, and everything that they had accomplished over their lives, would soon be reduced to dust. It was really affecting—it’s now been six hours since I finished the book, and it’s still got me in its grip, just from that last section.

Of course there’s a lot of other cool stuff within the novel, as well as a bunch of very quaint notions. It amuses me to see how fantastically racist folks were back then—I don’t mean that they thought poorly about black people (all too common, even today) but they were racist about the Dutch! About the Russians! The Asians, the Javanese, the Italians! Dwarves! Women! And no time wasted on subtlety here, Mann actually refers to someone’s eyes as “ratty slits”. Which may have been to show how Europe was awash in ethnic tension, or it may well have just been how people (even people like Mann) thought about things at the time.

And what was up with the séance? Really, what on Earth was that all about? I’m mystified, completely. But it was fun.

A lot of the philosophic questions with which they struggled were fairly dated, as well. For a minor example, I don’t think that many medical folks are interested in the effect of Love on Tuberculosis any more than they are of the other humors, and for a more serious example, I think that Naphta’s position (even when he was more or less sane) has been pretty much rejected by everyone these days. I think. I hope.

It was odd to read of people taking his notions seriously, that suffering is necessary to keep people humble, &c.—it did not (for me) make a very good counter to Settembrini’s rationalism. To be sure, there were plenty of flaws in the Italian’s argument, but Naphta isn’t even intuitively credible to me. Which is not to say that I’ll refrain from referring to certain of my post-modern friends by his name, from time to time (and yes, I’m looking at you, Sagi).

It’s interesting, because I’m so very tempted (as is my habit) to read the entire novel dialectally, as if the characters were all emblematic of certain viewpoints that Mann was ultimately interested in only as allegory. I tend to view most literature, first and foremost, as updates to A Pilgrim’s Progress. Ah, so when Naphta shoots himself, that demonstrates the self-destructive nature of extremism! And of course it does. But it doesn’t always work that way (ever, as I keep reminding myself) and not every dispute in the novel is intended to teach the read a Platonic lesson.

Did you know that the Chauchat was one of the first widely used machine guns during world war one? It was pretty much the gun that anyone in 1917 or 1918 would have had in the trenches. I just found that out half an hour ago (I had been so pleased with myself for figuring out the hot cat translation on my own…).

I’m quite a bit tempted to go for Halloween as “DJ Castorp”, but no one would get it. There was an entire chapter about him DJing the new gramophone, but even people who are pretty conversant with the novel probably wouldn’t remember.

Oh, and hell, I’ve just realized that I haven’t mentioned my favorite character, Mynheer Pieter Peeperkorn! Dionysus himself! All I have to say about that is—yes. It is, certainly… but, then. Well. Settled. Yes, that’s really a—good. Set-tled.

*And why are queer protagonists so terribly rare in modern fiction? And what does this even mean, that he would have a crush on a boy and a girl, at that place and time?

*although it’s interesting to compare this book to the dictionary definition of Bildungsroman, which insists that “Eventually, the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist, who is ultimately accommodated into the society”. To a certain extent this is true of Castorp, and yet to a certain extent I feel that he was much more socially acceptable before he went up the mountain, back when he spent his time discussing cigar brands instead of Time.

*For those keeping track at home, two pages in this novel represent .28% of the whole work. That isn’t really a lot of actual fighting.