|The sanatorium which inspired The Magic Mountain is now the Hotel Schatzalp outside of Davos, Switzerland.|
The Magic Mountain (1924)
by Thomas Mann
Like Ulysses by James Joyce or the multiple-volume Remembrance of Things Past by Proust, The Magic Mountain is one of those classics of 20s literature that sends a shudder down the spine of an otherwise conscientious litterateur. It's 700 pages long with tiny margins (1200 pages according to the afterword by the Author in the Modern Library edition I read.) It's translated from the German language. The locale of a tuberculosis focused sanitarium high in the Swiss Alps is a setting that doesn't particularly resonate in our post-institutionalization environment. Despite the difficulties has remained in print and well read. It probably didn't hurt that Mann himself became a United States citizen after World War II and was on the right side in being against both Fascism and Communism.
Despite dreading actually reading The Magic Mountain- I've started it at least twice and given up- I found it a rewarding experience. Perhaps it's having the experience of reading much of the other literary classics of the 1920s to give me some context. Certainly, when I tried to read The Magic Mountain in college I had little idea about the cultural or historical back drop. Now, I'm well equipped to appreciate it. Simply put, The Magic Mountain is like a little history of the early 20th century, with the central character, Hans Catsorp, being exposed to many of the ideas and trends of pre World War I Europe. It is, as many German-language authors have made the case, a wonderful lost world.
The Magic Mountain is one of those novels that is about "everything." It's the polar opposite of the art about "nothing" that permeates the 21st century like a dense fog. At the same time, Mann never appears to be trying to hard. On one level, The Magic Mountain is a satire of the medical-industrial complex, with its ridiculous melange of germ theory and psychoanalysis. But then on top of that you've got the linkage to the larger currents of intellectual thought: conservatism, freemasonry, spiritualism, antisemitism, all of it.
Mann is also one of the first literary authors to incorporate technological advances into his narrative. Important scenes take place both at the cinema and a late chapter of the novel revolves around the introduction of a third generation gramophone. Other than the length, there is nothing particularly "hard" about reading The Magic Mountain, a stark contrast to Proust or Joyce.