Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Better late than never: The Magic Mountain

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It’s safe to say that out of all the acknowledged masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is the least inviting. Part of this is due to the fact that Mann’s reputation, or his snob chic, has suffered in comparison to Joyce and Proust, at least for the purposes of cocktail party conversation. The smooth surface of Mann’s prose offers fewer enticements to the casual browser: while a glance at the pages of Ulysses suggests a wealth of unexplored treasures, Mann presents only an unbroken succession of dense paragraphs. And there’s no denying that the plot of The Magic Mountain—a young engineer, Hans Castorp, visits a sanitarium in the Alps for a short visit and ends up staying for seven years—doesn’t quite promise nonstop delights, especially when spread across more than seven hundred pages. It may be true, as Mann says in the introduction, that only the exhaustive is truly interesting, but most of us are probably inclined to take him at his word.

And yet The Magic Mountain has always been on my short list of books to read, especially after I picked up the acclaimed John E. Woods translation at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest earlier this year. Finally, last month, I took my copy along with me to China, reasoning that I’d be more likely to finish it if it were the only book I had in my native language in a foreign country. (This wasn’t the first time I’d employed this trick: I’d read Gravity’s Rainbow in Rome and most of Proust in Finland using the same method, and it had always worked pretty well.) Still, I slid The Magic Mountain into my bag less with anticipation than out of a sense of obligation, and with a distinct sense that I was taking my medicine. Part of me suspected that I would regret the choice, which may have been why I also packed James Clavell’s Noble House—one of the great trashy popular novels—as a backup choice. And it was only when I was deep in China, in a bus headed to the mountains of Guilin, that I opened my copy of Mann and resignedly began to read.

Inevitably, I was blown away. It’s hard to convincingly describe the pleasures of this book, which seems so dry and forbidding at first glance, but here’s my attempt: this is a really great novel, fascinating, ingenious, and surprisingly dramatic and moving. Mann is clearly a writer who can do almost anything, and while the book is best known for its extended discussions of art, politics, science, religion, and every other topic of interest to turn-of-the-century modernism, Mann takes obvious delight in showing us that he also knows how to generate suspense. The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas, but it’s also full of extraordinary set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans Castorp’s nearly fatal excursion in the snow, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that shamelessly offer all the satisfactions of classic fiction. There’s a reason why Mann, unlike Joyce and Proust, was a bestseller in his own land during his lifetime, and in The Magic Mountain, he does what David Foster Wallace struggled to accomplish in The Pale King: write a novel about boredom that is alive on every page.

It’s always difficult to predict the role that a given novel will play in one’s life. Some make a huge impression, then quickly fade; others grow in one’s imagination over time (as John Crowley’s Little, Big has begun to do with me). It’s safe to say that The Magic Mountain is the best novel I’ve read in at least five years, and it may be even more: a book that will ultimately play a central role in my understanding of the world. I’m in awe of its intelligence, its savage parody of the Bildungsroman, its astonishingly accurate depiction of romantic obsession, and, most surprisingly, its warmth and humor. And as often happens with great books, I seem to have discovered it at just the right moment. It’s hard for me, and I suspect for many readers, not to identify with Hans Castorp, who is twenty-three when the novel begins and thirty when he descends from the magic mountain to his own ironic destiny. Looking back at my twenties, I see more of Hans in myself than I’d like to admit. Where my own Bildungsroman will take me, or any of us, remains to be seen. But I can’t imagine a better guide for the journey than Mann.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2011 at 10:13 am

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