In the summer of 2020, the pandemic beginning to rage, after a school year shut down 3 quarters of the way through, trying not to think about what the next school year might look like, I had a creative impulse. Inspired by a number of what has come to be known as “reaction videos,” but also disheartened by a lack of any real substance in many of them, I wondered if it might be cool to do a literary reaction video. Most of the reaction videos I had seen had been about music–wherein, a listener would film themselves simply listening and reacting along the way to an artist or a song. Some of them were instructive and interesting–for example, a vocal coach would listen to screamo metal. Or a couple of very cool young black dudes would listen to classic power pop. Sometimes the reactions were just funny–mostly the result of some super compelling personality reacting in their idiosyncratic way to something they’d never heard before–the drama heightened of course by how far away the source material was from their own musical experiences or tastes–the stranger it seemed to them, the more over the top would be their response, whether positive or negative. I must confess, I only could stand to watch a few of them–a small handful. But it was enough to peak my interest and my curiosity, as a teacher, as a performer, about what might be possible if the material in question was not a song or a music video, but a book.
I started with a study of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It was a book on my list of books I felt I should read for a long time. For years, references to it and accolades for it kept coming up for me in almost every corner–so it was my first choice. In these videos, I would simply read passages out loud and respond on the fly. I tried to capture a first take and I didn’t edit. They were short videos, between 8 and 12 minutes long. But after my initial reaction to the novel’s early pages, it occurred to me that I had a dilemma. It would be virtually impossible to read and react to this entire novel. The thing was 700 pages long! It would take years. I could have just read the opening passages of a bunch of different things I’d never read, but I had aspirations that the project would inspire me to read more, and to finish more of what I read. So I made some adjustments right away and committed to read, say, 100 pages before I attempted another reaction video. Then, in my video, I would attempt to bring viewers up to speed with a little crash course summary before I tackled the next passage. I tried to be super expeditious about the summaries–just enough to help people along, and the bulk of the thing, then, would be the cold reading of the next passage and my extemporaneous reactions to it. I figured that, maybe, in six or seven episodes, I’d be done!
In the last podcast episode of The Book I Read, I mention The Magic Mountain as one of my favorite unfinished books. The summer of 2020 was over. The herculean task of reinventing the English Language Arts classroom for on-line consumption lay before me and my colleagues. I had to put my reaction videos, and my copy of The Magic Mountain aside. I had recorded only three episodes. I had read about 230 pages out of 700. And, a year and some change later, I have promised to you and to my own bad self, that I would return to it. I have jettisoned the idea of a reaction video (nope–done with that), in favor of featuring my progress with this great classic 20th century novel in my humble little podcast (and simultaneously on my blog).
A tiny bit of background. Thomas Mann was a German novelist, born in 1875 and he lived until 1955. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929. He lived in exile from Germany during World War II and spent a significant portion of his later years living in other countries, including the United States, ultimately earning American citizenship. Reading the blurbs from the folks at Brittanica.com about his literary legacy, we discover that he’s considered perhaps the greatest German novelist of the 20th century. There are other lovely little tidbits there that sum up nicely his most notable concerns and themes–but I think I’ll spare you that in favor of trying to tease that out in my own discussion of the novel.
I’m going to attempt first to give you a list of what I consider to be the most salient features of the story and the style of The Magic Mountain as far as I have read. And in the last episode, I noted that I was not going all the way back to the beginning, but instead, I would review my notes, peruse the marked passages, and begin exactly where I left off. So I am still in progress with The Magic Mountain, and will probably be for some time. My next episode/entry may feature my progress, it may not. Only time will tell. For now, let’s see where we are in The Magic Mountain:
- Our hero, Hans Castorp, is a young man studying to be an engineer, specifically one that designs sea faring vessels. His parents died when he was very young, he was raised for a time by his grandfather until his death, and then finally was raised by an uncle. Outside of his early and somewhat traumatic experience with a number of family deaths, Hans has led a life of privilege.
- Hans is a cigar smoker. He can’t imagine a life without cigars.
- Hans, as is established in the first four paragraphs of the novel, is on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps. He’s headed there for two reasons. First, a doctor advised him, that after intense schooling and examinations, the 20-something year-old should have a change of scenery, take in some new air. Secondly, while he is there, he will visit his cousin Joachim for three weeks.
- Joachim Ziemssen is a young army lieutenant on an extended stay inside a sanatorium in the Alps.
- What’s a sanatorium, you may well ask. I did. And I found out that during the late 19th century and into the 20th, when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe, a “cure” was believed to be rest and relaxation in a more hospitable climate inside a sanatorium, essentially, a resort for people dying of TB. Joachim does not appear to be seriously ill. In fact, many of the characters living with Joachim do not seem seriously ill–but clearly, as Joachim reports, they are, and residents are dying all the time; in winter, when travel is difficult, their bodies are sent down the mountain on bobsleds, and a resident, he says, died just days before Hans arrived for his visit, a resident who had been living in the very apartment, sleeping in the very bed, where Hans will stay for three weeks. Joachim tells Hans that most of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and the residents are usually kept in the dark, but on one occasion Joachim witnessed the disturbing death struggle of a young woman who was, in essence, refusing to die, hiding under her bed clothes, kicking and screaming, while the doctor kept telling her not to make such a fuss.
- It seems grim, yes? And yet, while it’s not a “comic” novel, there are moments of hilarity peppered throughout. Some extremely colorful characters populate the sanatorium. A Russian married couple in the apartment next to Hans are playing some really strange erotic sex games late at night. A woman can whistle with one of her collapsed lungs and that entertains her peers to no end. And there are these wild conversations, between Joaquim and Hans, and between the physicians and residents of the sanatorium, that, while philosophical in nature, sometimes border on the absurd. Conversation, it seems, is a big deal in this novel. Not so much to further the plot, maybe a little bit to develop character, but mostly, it seems to me, to push forward certain thematic threads. This is clearly a novel of IDEAS.
- Time and space, baby. Which has the most influence? How are they inextricably tied? Is time a thing? Does it really exist? Can it be measured or defined, really? Why does it sometimes go by so quickly and other times so slowly? What is the best use of it? Is being ill so bad? Is dying so terrible? What does it mean to be ill, or healthy for that matter?
- The narrator of The Magic Mountain is a third person omniscient that sometimes refers to himself in the first person plural, the royal WE. It’s funny, especially as he seems careful not to characterize Hans in a negative light: “As is apparent, we are attempting to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp’s favor, and we offer our judgements without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was.” Well, that’s good to know. Our narrator is an honest narrator.
- The novel is structured in 7 total numbered chapters, but each chapter has a number of titled sections. Here’s a sampling of titles from Chapter 4: “A Necessary Purchase,” “Excursus on the Sense of Time,” “He Tries Out His Conversational French,” “Politically Suspect,” “Analysis,” “Growing Anxiety/Two Grandfathers and a Twilight Boat Ride,” and “The Thermometer.”
- The prose, the edition I have an English translation from the original German by John E. Wood, continues to be scintillating. I will share some of it with you before this episode is over, I promise.
As I see it, the dramatic questions seem to be thus: How will this three week stay with Joachim at the sanatorium change our good friend Hans? How is the mountain magic? Is Joachim in serious danger from his TB? Will he survive the visit? Will the questions raised by the above thematic threads be answered? Is TB contagious? Otherwise, why would a husband and wife live there together when only one of them is sick, or a family for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know. A quick little research excursion revealed that, yes, TB is contagious. It spreads, oddly enough, in the same way the coronavirus spreads. Is Hans safe? Might he contract TB? How odd that I chose this book first out of all possible books, I, who did not know what a sanatorium was before I picked up this novel!
Okay, so where are we now, 230 pages in? Well, for starters, Hans has been at the sanatorium a heck of a lot longer than three weeks. Why? You guessed it: he may be ill. There was hilarity around the fact that people kept asking him why he didn’t buy himself a thermometer. Everyone at the sanatorium is somewhat obsessed with taking their temperatures. Finally, he breaks down and buys one. If I remember this correctly (I read these passages a year ago), he discovers a slight fever. Yeah, I just double-checked: 99.7. He makes an appointment with one of the resident physicians. An x-ray is taken–a singular passage in the novel–one which elevates the experience of getting an x-ray to a kind of existential crisis–and here’s the rub: as dramatic as this scene is and as blown away as Hans is by the experience, the reader is somewhat kept in the dark as to the results–except for the advice he gets from the physician–which is: Hans cannot leave the sanatorium–or that he should not. He’s not a prisoner–but it’s kind of like he’s staying at The Hotel California.
Another odd but significant aspect of life in the sanatorium is the lively social life that takes place, mostly, in the cafeteria or dining hall. This is where we meet most of a wide cast of characters that inhabit Hans’ experience–there’s the “bad Russian” table (a mysterious and perhaps bigoted appellation), another table of lively ladies whose conversation is peppered with gossip and judgement over their fellow residents, and a table of intellectuals, the most notable of which is the Italian philosopher pedagogue Settembrini, who, whenever he catches Hans’ attention, goes on some wild and raging lecture extolling the wonders of Western Civilization and poo-pooing Easterners generally and metaphysical ideas altogether. Hans is annoyed by the guy but also drawn to him. Settembrini is loquacious and undoubtedly super smart; he seems at times to be unapologetically progressive, other times backwards and kind of racist. It’s the 1920’s, after all. But is he a positive or negative influence on the young engineer?–at this point it’s hard to say. He seems to want to encourage Hans Castorp to leave the sanatorium in order to escape its “Eastern” influences–the worst of which, according to Settembrini, is the East’s extravagant and wasteful relationship with the big T-word: TIME. A relationship, he thinks, that might be rubbing off on Hans the young engineer.
But finally, where I am, is the important matter of Clavdia Chauchat, a woman who, at first, bugs Hans to no end–he’s especially annoyed by her habit of barging into the cafeteria, always late, and always allowing the door to slam behind her. Perhaps vain and self absorbed, Hans is repulsed by her–at first. But something kind of weird happens. Over time–because she is beautiful, and because (weird of weirds) her illness makes her more so–Hans begins to fall for her, becomes obsessed by her, becomes elated and ecstatic over chance meetings, close-by brushes, a chaste and accidental touch, or just a word: a “good morning” or a “pardon” from her sends Hans Castorp completely over the edge! So much so, (and this is perhaps the strangest bit) that when his temperature starts to drop into normal healthy territory, he becomes terribly upset–he WANTS to be ill so as to continue in her extremely limited company. And there seems to be a bit of that everywhere–I mean, no one seems terribly upset about their condition. If one did not know where they were–you would assume that they were all on some sort of pleasure cruise. Are these folks reveling in their status as TB patients? They do, it appears, look down on those who are only “mildly ill,” say of some that they “hardly have the right to be here.” Are they, in some ways, just happy to be sick? Are they in love with being ill? And is love a kind of illness?!
Before I close today, I want to give you a sense of this text–a feel for the prose–and a taste of the novel’s flavor and its ideas–and its often quick turn from the macabre to the absurd. Let’s look at the x-ray scene, for example. Hans’s friend Joachim has just had his x-ray taken and Mann describes in glorious detail the miraculous mechanism by which x-rays were taken in this early era. The “director” invites Hans to look at the picture of his friend. “I can see your heart,” Hans says, but is also somewhat terrified to see his skeleton as well. He’s filled with both “reverence and terror.” His thoughts turn to a clairvoyant ancestor who supposedly could see through people, often accurately predicting their deaths. And then it’s his turn.
A few minutes later he himself was standing in the stocks while the little thunderstorm raged, and Joachim, his body closed from view again, began to dress. Once again the director peered through the milky pane, but this time into Hans Castorp’s interior, and from his mutterings–ragtag curses and phrases–it appeared his findings corresponded to his expectations. In response to much begging, he was kind enough to allow his patient to view his own hand through the fluoroscope. And Hans Castorp saw exactly what he should have expected to see, but which no man was ever intended to see and which he himself had never presumed he would be able to see: he saw his own grave. Under that light, he saw the process of corruption anticipated, saw the flesh in which he moved decomposed, expunged, dissolved into airy nothingness–and inside was the delicately turned skeleton of his right hand and around the last joint of the ring finger, dangling black and loose, the signet ring his grandfather had bequeathed him: a hard thing, this ore with which man adorns a body predestined to melt away beneath it, so that it can be free again and move on to yet other flesh that may bear it for a while. With the eyes of his Tienappel forebear–penetrating, clairvoyant eyes–he beheld a familiar part of his body, and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die. And he made the same face he usually made when listening to music–a rather dull, sleepy and devout face, his head tilted toward one shoulder, his mouth half open.
The director said, “Spooky, isn’t it? Yes, there’s no mistaking the whiff of spookiness.”Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated by John E. Woods
Lastly, as I have said that a major feature of this novel is conversation, and that dialogue abounds, I find it is unlike any dialogue I have ever read in a realistic novel–it is sophisticated in ways that dialogue is not usually sophisticated–in that the characters all seem to have an incredible gift for oratory–and one character displays this gift most exquisitely–to the point where it almost becomes comical, and that is Hans Castorp’s “mentor” Herr Settembrini, the Italian pedagogue. Here is a taste–which begins innocently enough, with Settembrini’s recommendation to Hans that, since he is staying longer than expected, he should have a warm sleeping bag.
“But wait–you’ll need a sleeping bag, one with fur lining. Where are our minds? This late-summer weather is deceptive. It can be deepest winter within an hour. You’ll be spending the coldest months here.”
“Yes, the sleeping bag,” Hans Castorp said, “that’s probably a necessary piece of gear. It has crossed my mind that we–my cousin and I–should go down into town sometime soon and buy one. It’s something I’ll never use again later, but it’s worth it, after, for four to six months.”
“Yes, it is worth it, it is worth it, my good engineer,” Herr Settembrini said softly, stepping closer to the young man. “It is truly hideous, you know, the way you are throwing the months around. Hideous, I say, because it is so unnatural, so foreign to your nature, purely a matter of a receptive young mind. Ah, the immoderate receptivity of youth–it can drive an educator to despair, because it is always ready to apply itself to bad ends. Do not ape the words you hear floating in the air around you, young man, but speak a language appropriate to your civilized European life. A great deal of Asia hangs in the air here. It is not for nothing that the place teems with Mongolian Muscovites–people like these.” And Herr Settembrini pointed back over his shoulder with his chin. “Do not model yourself on them, do not let them infect you with their ideas, but instead compare your own nature, your higher nature to theirs, and as a son of the West, of the divine West, hold sacred those things that by both nature and heritage are sacred to you. Time, for instance. This liberality, this barbaric extravagance in the use of time is the Asian style–that may be the reason why the children of the East feel so at home here. Have you never noticed that when I Russian says ‘four hours’ it means not more to him than ‘one hour’ does to us? The idea comes easily to mind that the nonchalance with which these people treat time has something to do with the savage expanse of their land. Too much room–too much time. It has been said that they are a nation with time on their hands–they can afford to wait. We Europeans can’t wait. We have just as little time as our noble, tidily segmented continent has space; we must carefully husband the resources of the former just as we do those of the latter–put them to use, good use, engineer! Our great cities are the perfect symbol–these centers and focal points of civilization, these crucibles of thought. Just as land values rise in cities and wasted space becomes an impossibility, in the same measure, please note, time becomes more precious there, too. Carpe diem! An urbanite sang that song. Time is a gift of the gods to humankind, that we may use it–use it, my good engineer, in the service of human progress.”Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated by John E. Woods
And he goes on. And on. And on. And this scene culminates in his urgent advice to Hans Castorp that he leave the magic mountain. So, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard anyone talk this way. Settembrini is infuriating and absolutely compelling in one and the same breath. He has a point. He makes it well–and yet, I am left, and maybe Hans Castorp is left, wondering if it is not the East that really has it going on with regard to time, and not the West. Perhaps Mann knew that Settembrini’s way of describing the East was somewhat obscene–his judgment of them borders on xenophobia. Maybe, just maybe, the way we experience time on the Magic Mountain is indeed magic, and despite the fact we might be dying of TB, a good thing.
Hopefully, we’ll say a lot more about this in our next episode/entry. Until then, thanks for reading or listening, and cheers. See you in a week or two!