Stephen Durrant's Reviews > The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
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Feb 22, 12

Read in February, 2012

So many have written so much about this novel that further comment seems foolhardy. My purpose here, then, is not to try to say anything new so much as to solidify a few of my own gleanings from the nearly two weeks I spent reading, sometimes struggling, through this large, complex work. As a study of the psychology of chronic illness--the way illness simultaneously isolates one and, contradictorily, creates community, the way it provides an unassailable excuse for not engaging the "real" world, the way one's identity becomes the illness, making healing a real loss, etc--this book is a masterpiece. But for me the central message was elsewhere. The "magic mountain," really a tuberculosis clinic near Devos, Switzerland, represents Europe in the years just before World War I. It is a dream world, where the realities of "the flatlands," the world below, are largely ignored. Much of the novel describes stunningly erudite and frequently arcane arguments between Settembrini, an Italian humanist who appears to represent a southern European tradition of romantic engagement, and Naphta, an ascetic Catholic mystic from the north who fights against the flesh and believes that Western civilization has been in decline since the middle ages. Their arguments, as the central character, the non-intellectual Hans Castorp occasionally notices, are filled with contradictions and frequently deteriorate into an almost meaningless debate contest. In truth, there is not much at stake in these sophisticated arguments, carried out very far from any center of spiritual, intellectual or political power. Moreover, such intellectual endeavors are eventually thrown into the shadows by the late entry into the novel of the rather strange Dutchman Mynheer Peeperkorn. While virtually unable to complete a single sentence, Peeperkorn overwhelms the residents of the clinic, including the two disputants, with the pure force of his personality. In the end, Mann seems to imply, charisma trumps intellect, a somewhat frightening and perhaps prophetic conclusion for this 1924 novel. Still later in the novel, in fact in just the last one hundred or so pages, a strange young woman, Ellen Brand, is also introduced. She possesses paranormal powers and quickly becomes the center of life at the clinic as the patients become fascinated with ouiji boards and séances. In other words, the entire novel gradually slides from a focus on rational argument, albeit at times pseudo-rational, to a focus on forms of irrationality. Finally, the magic mountain community dissolves in the final pages into the total absurdity of the First World War. Overarching this all is a narrative voice of great power, which alternates between pomposity and irony. Mann is a writer of enormous skill, who I guess I would argue, along with Proust, almost burns up the possibilities of a certain type of grand narrative. So, while I agree that this deserves to be ranked, as it typically is, among the one hundred greatest novels ever written, why only give four stars? The rule of the game here is to rank novels according to how much we "liked" them rather than our judgment of overall merit. Yes, I did like this novel, but it would be a lie to say the sometimes heavy, (dare I say it?) Germanic tone kept me merrily reading along for all those pages. But Mann tells us at the outset: "Unafraid of the odium of appearing too meticulous, we are much more inclined to the view that only thoroughness can be truly entertaining" (foreward). Well, that's one theory of the novel, I suppose.
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