A review of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

A few days ago I finished Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain. The reading of it sure did take me enough weeks; in fact, I could only get my last renewal at the library by a bit of sweet-talking. I ended up thinking this was one of the most worthwhile novels I’d ever read … and perhaps the most intellectually challenging, to boot.

But I had a rough start. After about 65 pages, I had to appeal to help from the reading group rec.arts.books. I got enough positive responses to help me over the hump. The answer that helped me the most, posted to r.a.b. at large, was from Fiona Webster. She emphasized the comic aspects of the novel — a bit too much so in my opinion, but that’s really a quibble. She did not try to lead me into the book via the Joseph Campbell — mythology route. And I agree with her on this. I think it molds one’s thinking too much to have such an emphatic interpretation of the book, without even having begun it! Of course, I may look at Campbell now …

The basic idea of the book (and I’ll try to avoid spoilers, knowing how much I hate them) is that Hans Castorp, a visitor from the “Flat-Lands” of Germany, goes to visit his cousin in a TB-Sanitorium in the Swiss mountains. It was originally supposed to be a visit of just a few days. But pretty soon it becomes clear that something holds Castorp there. Instead of an arena for wordly actions, the sanitorium is a theatre for a multitude of Ideas from various parts of our intellectual heritage. I wonder if Mann knew about Abbott’s great sci-fi classic Flatland (1884)? In that story, a two-dimensional world (populated by circles, squares, and such) is visited by the unheard-of: a three-dimensional creature. In the Mann novel, just as the mountain environment adds another spatial dimension to Castorp’s surroundings, so the play of ideas around him adds a philosophical/intellectual dimension — one that Castorp (unlike his cousin, the worldly soldier) hungers for.

The play of ideas gets going in high gear in the second half of the book. The two leading exponents are Settembrini (progressive, liberal, and secular in his thinking) and Naphta (reactionary and Church-influenced in the most old-fashioned sense). The rivalry of these two characters — indeed their battle for the soul of Castorp — forms, in my opinion, the backbone of the book. I will give some examples. Even though Settembrini is often “modern” in his thinking, some of his ideas will ring strangely for most people today. For instance, he speaks of Music as having (in addition to obvious positive traits) the drawback that it can narcotize or lull people into inaction, when they should instead be going out and doing something … perhaps political. Actually, I believe a similar argument goes back to the writings of Plato …

But Naphta has some of the strangest positions to be found in the book. The one that sticks in my mind the most, is his endorsement of … torture! The idea is that, by punishing the flesh, one helps to show its inferior, earthbound quality — and thereby one encourages the truly significant, spiritual side of a person to emerge. I cannot resist inserting one quote here (p. 455 in the Vintage paperback):

It was shallow to contend that the discipline of the whipping-post had anything particularly shameful about it. Saint Elizabeth had been flogged by her confessor, Conrad von Marburg, until the blood came, and by such means her soul was rapt “to the third choir of angels”. She herself, moreover, had beaten with rods an old woman who was too sleepy to make her confession.

That last sentence seems especially striking (no pun intended, really).

A large theme of the book is that of the Eastern, or Oriental, or Slavic. All these imply, in this book, an exoticism, an allurement … a state of existence that is fundamentally different from the Western-European mentality. I suppose one could generalize it by saying that the East is seen as showing the virtue of a kind of passivity or non-action, versus the Western ideal of continual activity and improvement. This is almost caricatured in the passage (by Settembrini, surprisingly):

The Orient abhors activity. Lao-Tse taught that inaction is more profitable than anything else between heaven and earth.

There is also an animal-like side to the Slavic character. There is a “good” Russian table in the dining room, but also a “bad” Russian table. There is a Russian couple in the room next to Castorp’s … and their carryings-on at nighttime, leave very little to the imagination!

I’d like to say something about the translation, an old one by H. T. Lowe-Porter. One of my correspondents was firm in his dislike for this translation. I can see that it might be regarded as awkward and un-idiomatic in English. But to me, it has the good side that it sticks close to the German. For instance, one character is often referred to as “The Kleefeld”, a construction that does not exist in English (except for humorous usages like “The Donald” for Donald Trump). And the second-person familiar “Thou” is used freely. As I read such passages, I can almost hear the original German in my head (perhaps it does help that I am quite conversant in German — though probably not enough so to read the whole book in the original). Actually, Mann puts in a plug for literal translations in the passage (p. 272):

The Art of Seduction: a very literal translation from the French, preserving even the syntax of that language, and thus gaining in elegance and pungency of presentation.

The final issue I’d like to look at is: Is The Magic Mountain a “modern” novel? I know Mann is often called “modern”, and grouped with the likes of Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner. But I think one can argue both ways. In the sense that it does not enter the characters’ minds in “stream of consciousness” fashion, I would class it with more traditional novels. But I do have to say that its treatment of Time might qualify it for consideration as modern. In refusing to take Time for granted, but continually analyzing it in its different manifestations, the way it seems to pass, I think The Magic Mountain is indeed in the modern category. In this connection, I can’t help thinking of Einstein, who — also early in the 20th century — was making us look at Time in a whole new way.

Tom Frenkel

frethoa AT aol DOT com

30 September 1997

Revised 13 July 2011