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What the Swedes Read: Thomas Mann

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Thomas Mann

Daniel Handler
18 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Thomas Mann (Germany, 1929)
  • BOOK READ: The Magic Mountain (translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter)

The Magic Mountain is a big book, and big books are completely different animals from your run-of-the-mill regular-sized ones. I guess it’s like people: you can reach maybe seven feet and three hundred pounds, but after that there’s a whole separate set of behaviors. Somewhere past the five-hundred-page mark, the game changes—a pace and an affect that make a big book feel like a separate kind of literary endeavor.

In my experience there are two basic types of big book. One is the one-damn-thing-after-another variety—Charles Dickens is the acknowledged king of these—and the other is the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind, loaded with digressions, experiments, B-sides, demos, and remixes. Moby-Dick is obviously one of this type, along with Ulysses; The Arcades Project; The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard; Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments; and No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again; A Symphonic Novel, which I finally have occasion to mention in print.

Both types of big book have their delights and drawbacks. The one-damn-thing-after-another one is more likely to be a consistently good read, but doesn’t always close the deal. When I finished Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, I had the satisfaction that a good novel gives, but just that, and no more. I was left wondering why the thing had to be king-size when it held a single serving of gratification. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, on the other hand, tends to have some very difficult slogging at some point or another. I would defy anyone to read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, for instance, and not be tempted to give up more than once, so bamboozling and bitchslappy are the tougher sections. But if the book doesn’t defeat you, you will close it with the rare and deep pleasure of “Now that’s a book.” It all depends on what you’re in the mood for, really: The Woman in White is a great read, with cliff-hangers and twists galore. Infinite Jest, with its footnoted rulebooks and meandering puppet scripts, is a great book.

So what type is The Magic Mountain? Well, it opens with the hero, young Hans Castorp, “neither genius nor dunderhead,” visiting his cousin at a sanatorium, where he is being treated for tuberculosis. (If you have an image of patients wrapped in blankets on a patio overlooking the mountains, this is part of the vapor trail The Magic Mountain has left in the world.) Hans plans to stay for three weeks, and about seven years later he’s just about ready to leave. It’s bad timing: the First World War is starting up, and Mann implies that Hans, following his long convalescence, will likely be killed in action.

But this is like saying The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is about a girl in Kansas who bumps her head and then wakes up. The bulk of The Magic Mountain is the quiet sanatorium life, with its mannered rituals of meals, checkups, and relaxation, and the conversations, lots of them, that pass the time and suspend the community in a spacey state of frail comfort, with the endless worry of disease balanced by a life without responsibility or consequence. Philosophical and intellectual ideas get batted around, characteristics of art forms and nation-states are debated, and patients fall in and out of emotional intrigue with one another, all the while checking their temperatures. Mann tucks in a few plot elements—there’s something of a love interest, an offstage death, and a sudden duel toward the end—but it’s the talk that’s the thing. And the talk goes like this:

“I don’t understand it,” Hans Castorp said. “I never can understand how anybody can not smoke—it deprives a man of the best part of life, so to speak—or at least of a first-class pleasure… a day without tobacco would be flat, stale and unprofitable, as far as I am concerned. If I had to say to myself to-morrow: ‘No smoke today’—I believe I shouldn’t find the courage to get up—on my honor, I’d stop in bed. But when a man has a good cigar in his mouth—of course it mustn’t have a side draught or not draw well, that is extremely irritating—but with a good cigar in his mouth a man is perfectly safe, nothing can touch him—literally. It’s just like lying on the beach: when you lie on the beach, why, you lie on the beach, don’t you?—you don’t require anything else, in the line of work or amusement either.”

You know what? I love this shit. The sheer audacity of putting this rambling, thinky stuff on paper draws me in, and in just a few phrases I’m completely engaged in the argument. Some might argue that Mann has an ironic intent here, putting dorm-room philosophy in a young person just to mock it. But plenty of this sort of rambling is in the author’s own voice. “Can one tell—that is to say, narrate—time, time itself, as such for its own sake?,” he asks, at the opening of the chapter titled “By the Ocean of Time,” starting off a long exploration that ends up, five pages later, with the likes of this:

However one might still differentiate between the ordinary states of consciousness which we attached to the words “still,” “again,” “next,” there was always the temptation to extend the significance of such descriptive words as “tomorrow,” “yesterday” by which “to-day” holds at bay “the past” and “the future.”

Normally, this would be one of the tougher parts of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sinker, the long asides, part of an arsenal of experiments, that you skim past to return to the plot. But without a plot, these passages are all there is. It’s not everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. It’s just the sink. I settled into The Magic Mountain as Hans Castorp does into the sanatorium, getting used to the pace until what first seemed foreign and loopy became comfortable and pleasing. I was perfectly happy to reach each thoughtful ­provocation, but when I finished the book, I felt like so many thoughts had been provoked that I didn’t have any left. I wanted to read another novel, right away.

There’s an author’s note tucked into the back of my copy, in which Mann begins “with a very arrogant request that it be read not once but twice”—dude, don’t push your luck—but also admits that The Magic Mountain began as a very short book which was greatly expanded in the wake of the First World War. This seems about right to me. The Magic Mountain, as it turns out, is neither a broad, sweeping tale, nor an endless bag of tricks. It is a quiet little conversational musing, and for this reader, anyway, gave the amount of satisfaction that quiet little conversational musings tend to give. Maybe, then, it’s not a big book at all. Which is strange, because it’s freakin’ 716 pages long.

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