Thursday, October 25, 2012
THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Thomas Mann
Of all the novels frequently cited as exemplary masterpieces of Modernism (a list that also includes Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, To The Lighthouse, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Master and Margarita, The Great Gatsby, etc.), The Magic Mountain impresses me least. After spending a week at the International Sanatorium Berghof (cough, cough), I left that mythical institution never to return. I concluded early in my reading that Mann was indulging--in a manner much more subtle and refined than David Foster Wallace's--the fallacy of imitative form: writing boringly about boredom, statically about stasis, etc. In so doing, he constructs a novel that's longer and duller than it has any reason to be. The Magic Mountain is one of the major disappointments of my reading life. (Perhaps I read it too late. It should probably be read around age 20--just as On The Road should probably be read at age 17--for if the reading is delayed into middle age, the reader will expect too much.) Which is not to say the novel is devoid of interest. There are some very good parts: the 'Snow' chapter, Herr Naphta, Hippe and the pencil motif, the climactic duel (bit of a 19th-century cliche, that; Mann is the most 19th-century of major twentieth-century novelists), the X-ray scene, several other scenes and passages. But these are all like Alpine peaks snowbound amidst too much deliberate tedium. The Magic Mountain might be interpreted as an anti-novel, a book written against itself and against a culture in which people have the luxury to read 706-page philosophical novels while the world crashes around them. The extent to which Mann's text supports such a reading is unclear to me, and since I wasn't impressed enough to re-read the book, it will likely remain so. But the narrator and his tone would probably be the interpretive crux of such a reading: that tone of annoying, deliberately irritating irony. The Magic Mountain might be interestingly read as a book written against its readers--but not by me. My ticket out of the Alps was strictly one-way.