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Monday, August 04, 2014

The Magic Mountain (1924) by Thomas Mann

The sanatorium which inspired The Magic Mountain is now the Hotel Schatzalp outside of Davos, Switzerland.

Book Review
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.

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