Book Review: The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann
Posted on January 20, 2015
I am not going to review this book in any serious or analytical way. It’s been reviewed by many clever readers already, over several generations and sprawling continents. It hardly needs my support. I am just going to offer my entirely subjective comments about what a great and thoroughly enjoyable read it is!
The plot should be familiar to Western readers by now, as this classic is a century old and much discussed in literary circles. However, in case you missed out, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:
In this dizzyingly rich novel of ideas, Mann uses a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, a community devoted exclusively to sickness, as a microcosm for Europe, which in the years before 1914 was already exhibiting the first symptoms of its own terminal irrationality. The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition and irony, sexual tension, and intellectual ferment, a book that pulses with life in the midst of death.
It took me ages to finish because I kept setting it aside to think about it and to write on colourful sticky notes, which now make my book twice as thick as it already was. I did not want to rush through my reading, so I allowed The Magic Mountain its own space in my life, reading it only when I could give it my full attention for several hours at a stretch, to the exclusion of everything else. In honour of the “cure”, and to get a feel for Hans’s setting, I often spent this time on our front balcony overlooking our garden and the gentle hills that make up our town. Alas, there were no great snows or high peaks, but it has its own kind of curative peace, nonetheless.
It was necessary for me to stop reading from time-to-time, in order to ponder important questions, such as whether I am Team Naphta or Team Settembrini. Just kidding! There is only one right choice, of course, and I was always on side with the passionate Humanist, despite his dogmatism and (at times) overbearing manner. While I felt sad for Naphta’s final solution, it was rather inevitable, and I have to admit to enormous relief that our fictional Italian ideologue survived the ordeal.
This has to be the best Modern novel I’ve read. I love that Mann took on the entire Western world and all of our human concerns — personal, social, existential, political, natural, theological, and artistic — as the basis for his book. I love that he chose one rather impressionable but not overly impressive young man to be our un-heroic hero. Having said that, I must add that I believe that I thought more highly of Hans than Hans thought of himself, or perhaps than Mann thought of him. I did not find Hans to be such an ordinary young man at all, at least not by today’s standards. Perhaps young European men were typically much cleverer and more personally restrained during that era, than our average young man today? I doubt it, though.
It’s fair to say that Hans is easily swayed by stronger personalities than his own. Because of this proclivity, he remains vulnerable and vacillating in his own philosophies as one who stands for nothing and so might fall for anything. Hans is not strong enough in himself to withstand peer pressure, even when he is appalled by the undertakings of those peers. Against his own better judgment, he participates in activities that are, by his own account, distasteful and sometimes dangerous and illegal (i.e. a degrading seance and an insane duel).
And yet, I admired his sense of friendship and the way that he reflected on things, trying hard to make right choices. Mann really turns the coming-of-age tale on its head, though, as in the end, one would have expected Hans to be wiser, stronger, and more decisive in himself. In fact, what happens is that news of the war crashes through the protective walls of the Berghof, awakening Hans from his seven-year “enchantment”, and propelling him off to battle, along with thousands of other young men.
That Hans would join the war, whatever his thoughts and feelings on it (which we never know), was inevitable, too. As Settembrini says, explaining the necessity of the duel to Hans, “Whoever is unable to offer his person, his arm, his blood, in service of the ideal, is unworthy of it; however intellectualized, it is the duty of a man to remain a man” (p.700). So, in one of the finest and most subtle ironic twists I’ve read, ever, Hans’s “salvation” from suspended animation at the Berghof comes by way, not of his healing, or his education by learned minds, or his experience in love and death and illness (all of which make up his life-but-not-life existence), but by an external inescapable catastrophe. Once again, Hans does not act upon life but reacts to it. It chooses him, as it chooses all his able-bodied peers. But of course, what we readers suspect is that it is most likely not life, but death which has chosen Hans, which has swept him off his mountain top and into its arms. We never know for sure.
This novel is subtle and yet also straightforward, with a plot that is simple to follow and yet also complex and multi-layered. It’s hilarious and serious and sometimes goes on and on about topics that make you question your own devotion as a reader (i.e. pages and pages on the history and practice of freemasonry). I marvel at how any writer could write characters like these, who are each representing a particular worldview and high-flung ideals, and yet who come across as real people rather than allegorical stand-ins for human beings. When we take our leave of each of the august personages who haunt the Berghof, we really feel the loss of a relationship that mattered to us. That was my experience, anyway, as I said goodbye to Joachim, to Peeperkorn, to Claudia, and then, finally, to Settembrini and Hans himself.
It’s fascinating, and a bit sad, to realise that many of the big topics the Europeans were grappling with a hundred years ago are still relevant today, and not only the existential ones: most especially, humanism versus radicalism. Clearly, we haven’t resolved this yet, and it seems only to be getting worse if we judge by recent events.
I will re-read The Magic Mountain because I feel there is much to learn from it, and that a second reading is not only desirable but also necessary to even begin to grasp it all. Also, I will no doubt be missing my friends at the Berghof by then.