So, this book. I kind of wish I didn’t have to talk about it (I spent long enough reading it). But I’ve sworn to give every book on The List its due, and it’s The Magic Mountain’s turn today.
Let’s start at the very beginning, Sound of Music-style. Hans Castorp (who always goes by his full name for some reason) is a perfectly healthy and “simple-minded” man who goes to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim, at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. He intends to stay for just three weeks but ends up with his own diagnosis: a “moist spot” on his lung. Three weeks at the sanatorium turn into seven years as Hans Castorp attempts to recover his health.
If you took out all the mundane details of Hans Castorp’s daily routine at the facility, the book would be half as long. We are repeatedly subjected to the specifics of Hans Castorp’s routine temperature readings, his many outdoor “rest cures,” his blanket-wrapping technique to keep warm during said rest cures, his seat assignment in the cafeteria, and his incurable boredom (…as if we didn’t know the feeling). In the second half, we read long, textbook-like passages on anatomy, as well as tedious debates on philosophy and politics.
Then there are the women. You’d think that Hans Castorp had never seen or spoken to a real, live, adult woman before, based on his behavior in The Magic Mountain. He decides upon arrival that he will remain heels-over-ass in love with Frau Chauchat for the rest of his stay, no matter what. “What” includes:
a) Frau Chauchat’s feelings on the matter,
b) Frau Chauchat’s marital status (currently attached), and
c) Frau Chauchat actually leaving the sanatorium.
Hans Castorp’s courtship strategy is perplexing at best. He looks at Frau Chauchat across the cafeteria a lot, and then looks away when she notices him. He finds excuses to pass by her in the hallway. He refuses to speak to her when they’re in the same room, citing “manners.” He begs to see her portrait, painted by Dr. Behrens, without her knowledge—and obsessively compliments the rendering of her skin.
And then, seven months after his initial ogle, he gets drunk at a Mardi Gras party and asks Frau Chauchat to borrow a pencil. Cue a long and deep conversation that ends with Frau Chauchat informing Hans Castorp of her imminent departure from the sanatorium.
That sounds about right.
Then there’s Hans Castorp’s entourage, including Ludovico Settembrini, an Italian “man of letters”; Leo Naphta, a Jew-turned-Jesuit; and—for a brief period—Hans Castorp’s own uncle, James Tienappel. After Joachim’s exodus, Mr. Tienappel pays a visit to Hans Castorp in a not-so-subtle endeavor to smuggle him back home. He is distracted in his efforts by one Frau Redisch’s captivating breasts.
I’m not kidding. Read for yourself:
Most assuredly, in matters of civilized behavior she could not have held a candle to Madame Tienappel down in the flatlands. But one Sunday evening in the salon after supper, the consul made a discovery, thanks to a black, very low-cut sequined gown: Frau Redisch had very feminine, soft, white, close-set breasts and a cleavage visible from a considerable distance. And this discovery had stirred the mature, refined man to the depths of his soul, thrilling him as if this were a totally new, unexpected, unheard-of phenomenon. He sought out and made Frau Redisch’s acquaintance, carried on a long conversation with her, first standing, then seated—and went to bed humming. The next day Frau Redisch was no longer wearing a black sequined gown, but a dress that covered almost all of her; the consul, however, knew what he knew and remained faithful to that first impression. He made a point of catching up with the lady on their walks, so that he could stroll beside her and chat with her, turning and bending toward her in a special, insistent, but charming way; he toasted his glass to her at dinner, and she responded with a smile, revealing several sparkling gold-capped teeth; and in a conversation with his nephew he declared her to be an absolutely “divine creature”—and at once began to hum again.
He knew what he knew, folks. He could not un-see those breasts.
Come to think of it, every time a woman is mentioned in The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann thoughtfully describes her breasts for us, good man that he is. He may be struggling with some extreme Freudian affliction, but how else could we differentiate the “flatlands” from the mountains? How else could we objectify women we’ll never see?
Minor characters are summed up in similarly offensive ways. There is a “hunchbacked Mexican” and a “dwarf,” as well as a “girl with the face of a tapir.” I consider this last one a step up, however, from the alternative: “girl with the breasts of a tapir.”
Hans Castorp may be our guide through the halls and chambers of the sanatorium, but he has little to offer as a protagonist. He’s more of a springboard for others to bounce ideas off of, with the sanatorium serving as the setting of his “education.” So what does he learn? Oh, a little of this and a little of that. The nature of time, the significance of spirituality, the meaning of life, the nuances of love, and the opposing ideologies of a world on its way to a Great War. That kind of stuff.
The Magic Mountain is a work of realism, but also deeply symbolic. In other words, it’s both dull and demanding—every reader’s birthday wish. There’s a small, morbid part of you that cannon-balls into the book thinking, “Ooh, a bunch of dramatically ill people gathered on a mountaintop, fascinating!” But that part of you will start to drown in disappointment right around the 100th time Hans Castorp takes his temperature and brags about its irregularity like the insufferable hypochondriac he is. He’s not even good at being chronically ill.
I was very excited about the prospect of coming full circle and wrapping this up Sound of Music-style—in the mountains—but Hans Castorp had to go and ruin even that. The final pages of The Magic Mountain find him on a battlefield in World War I. And he’s not even fighting for the winning team.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
This is a tricky question when it comes to a book I didn’t personally enjoy. I can recognize some of its merits—but for me, this book is a loser on par with Hans Castorp himself.
There is one force, one principle that is the object of my highest affirmation, my highest and ultimate respect and love, and that force, that principle, is the mind.
I don’t wish to offend you, and I admit that you are caught up in an awful mess. But there was a story they used to tell at home about a girl whose punishment was that every time she opened her mouth, snakes and toads came out, snakes and toads with every word. The book didn’t say what she did about it, but I’ve always assumed she probably ended up keeping her mouth shut.
And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round—will love someday rise up out of this, too?