Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great books #3: The Magic Mountain

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The Magic Mountain

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

Whenever I think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I always begin with the blankets. They’re a pair of lovely camel-hair blankets, “extra long and wide, in a natural beige fabric that was delightfully soft to the touch,” and they’re used by the residents of a sanitarium in the Alps while lounging on their balconies for their daily rest cure, which can last for hours. They certainly sound cozy:

Whether it was the texture of the cushions, the perfect slant of the back support, the proper height and width of the armrests, or simply the practical consistency of the neck roll—whatever it was, nothing could possibly have offered more humane benefits for a body at rest than this splendid lounge chair.

If you can understand the appeal of those blankets—and of their promise of a life spent in glorious inactivity—you can begin to grasp what makes this novel so fascinating, despite its daunting appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, The Magic Mountain may be the least inviting of all major twentieth-century novels: it lacks the snob appeal of Ulysses or Proust, its structure is classical and crystalline, and a plot summary doesn’t exactly make it sound like a page-turner. The first necessary step is a leap of the imagination, a willingness to acknowledge the part of yourself that, like the young Hans Castorp, is drawn to the idea of giving up all ambition, all advancement, all action, for the sake of a life spent in the confines of a comfortable chair. Hans Castorp’s reasoning may not be airtight, but it’s hard to deny its power: “On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.”

In the end, Hans, a perfectly healthy young man, ends up staying at the sanitarium for seven years. Of course, what he and the reader soon discover is that this retreat into inactivity is secretly a plunge into something else. Despite its unlikely subject matter, The Magic Mountain vibrates on every page with life, intelligence, and insight. Mann likes to remind us, a bit too insistently, that Hans is “ordinary,” but really, as Harold Bloom points out, he’s immensely likable and curious, and you come to identify with him enormously. The story in which he finds himself has often been called a novel of ideas, and it is, but it’s much more: Mann stuffs it with compelling set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans’s nearly fatal misadventure in the snowstorm, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that would be high points in any novel, and it isn’t hard to see why the book was a huge bestseller in its time. Like Proust, Mann has useful insights into a dazzling variety of subjects, ranging from medicine to music to the nature of time, even as he depicts a world in which these ideas are on the verge of being destroyed. The characters are rendered with uncanny vividness, and when you’re done, you feel as if you’ve passed half a lifetime in their company, and the memory is charged with nostalgia, longing, and regret. It took me a long time to come around to this book, and it sat unread on my shelf for years. When I finally started it for real, it was with a distinct sense of obligation. And what I found, much to my surprise, was that it was the novel I’d been looking for my entire life.

Written by nevalalee

September 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

3 Responses

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  1. So many of your top ten books would be on my greatest list, too! Mann would be at the peak.


    August 1, 2015 at 9:30 pm

  2. @Kurt: Glad to hear we’re on the same page! I’ve been meaning to reread Mann again—it’s been a few years since I last picked it up, and I miss it.


    August 9, 2015 at 7:58 pm

  3. My favorite novel of all time. Funny how you mention it was sitting on your shelf for a long time before you read it and realized it was the novel you had been looking for. Exact same thing happened to me, except I had kept looking at it on the shelf in the bookstore when I first started reading serious fiction. I was totally judging the book by its cover. Then I decided to read it, and then read every Mann novel, and he has been my favorite ever since.

    Justin D.

    November 27, 2018 at 9:14 am

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