Thomas Mann wrote Magic Mountain, so the story goes, by being sat every day with a fresh sheet of writing paper, and toiling until he thought his labours had produced the perfect 200 words. His wife then typed and looked after his six children. He wrote vast novels. The Magic Mountain was among the greatest works of world literature (according to a Channel 4 documentary). Proust, Kafka, Conrad and Dostoevsky were the other runners and riders.
My copy of the Magic Mountain is 1002 pages long and each page is around two sides of handwritten text. That means it took him 5 years 5 months to write, which isn’t that bad. Many of us have been hacking around on novels, much shorter, for three of four years. Mann started the novel in 1912, finished in 1924, but wrote nothing on it during WW1. After the war, he revisited,
rethought and rewrote the whole project. In that time (6 years) it grew from a novella, much in the style of Death in Venice, to the monster it now is.
My copy has been out of reach on the top shelf since 2000. I can be sure because I used a
postcard as a bookmark and can still read the date on it. The postcard was last inserted on page 380 – where I gave up. Mann said that any prospective reader should be prepared to read it twice so I have 1624 pages still to do. I read on a little, from where I stopped.
Then death was just the logical negation of life; between life and barren nature was a gaping abyss, which research tried unsuccessfully to bridge. I’m amazed I got that far before throwing in the towel. I’m amazed men and women faced the task of translating it into every major language.
The truth is, I started reading it because of the Channel 4 documentary and everything else of Mann’s I’ve read is a breeze and pure genius. The Buddenbrooks – read twice and the same for Death in Venice – pure delight. What went wrong with Magic Mountain for me?
Simple. It’s too clever for mere mortals. In one volume he redefined sickness and health, time and place, and everything and anything else we can think of. A sanatorium up a mountain is the setting and the perfect place to do this.
It is full of sick, educated people, hanging on, loads of money, unlikely to recover, trying to make sense of their mortality, but each with their own little bit of worldly wisdom and philosophy, which they have time to impart to their companions. Mann got the idea when visiting his wife, who spent time in Davos, recovering from exhaustion. Without her money and management, Mann could never have fulfilled his genius.
In the story, Castorp goes to the mountain to spend a few weeks. The doctors find an ill-
defined murmur and convince him to stay – years. He loses touch with time, space and reality, except once, when caught in a snowstorm.
The book is about the ideas with which Castorp -the main protagonist – is bombarded. Maybe he was a metaphor for the millions bombarded on the battlefields of Flanders, a bombardment which changed our world view forever and is discussed by the patients on the Magic Mountain. Germans discuss things to death.
Thomas Mann lived for a while in Nidden, then East Prussia, now Lithuania. That is further east than Pomerania, once Prussia, now Poland.
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