Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The mountain

Another exercise in reading slowly and carefully. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. I'm not sure what led me to this book — Mann keeps coming up over the last little while — a few choice soul-jarring quotations and a title that evokes days past, my own secret mountain. It's calling out to me. Here I am. It's time.

I'll save AS Byatt's introduction and the chronology for later.

From the author's foreword: "[I]n Hans Castorp's favor it should be noted that it is his story, and that not every story happens to everybody." This is a historical novel, not because the story is old but because it took place at a very particular point in time, that is, before the Great War, which changed life as we know it forever. We are warned also that the story will be told in precise and thorough detail. Indeed, Mann spent something like 12 years writing this novel.

Hans Castorp is journeying from Hamburg to Davos-Platz. (My mother's been there! I must find pictures!) I'm instantly reminded of another Hans, in Swabia, I read about not too long ago.

So Hans is headed to the sanatorium for a little vacation. He's 23 years old, he's written exams, he's set to start a kind of engineering apprenticeship. I'm not sure why he's taking this 3-week sojourn, but very suddenly, helped by distance and heady heights, he finds that he's been lifted out of himself. His cousin Joachim meets him at the station. A military man? He's been here for 6 months aleady. Their relationship is familiar yet awkward; they are conscious of not appearing (to themselves? to observers?) to be too warm with each other.

The air at 5300 feet?: "It lacked odor, content, moisture, it went easily into the lungs and said nothing to the soul. (p 9)"

Joachim seems to identify with the community of the sanatorium: us, we, our. We learn that bodies, presumably dead ones, leave the sanatorium. Also that patients undergo psychic dissection. Hans finds this all pretty hilarious (and so do I). A woman died day before yesterday in the room to be Hans's.

They had reached the second floor, when Hans Castorp suddenly stopped in his tracks, mesmerized by a perfectly ghastly noise he heard coming from beyond a dogleg in the hall — not a loud noise, but so decidedly repulsive that Hans Castorp grimaced and stared wide-eyed at this cousin. It was a cough, apparently — a man's cough, but a cough unlike any that Hans Castorp had ever heard; indeed, compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life — a cough devoid of any zest for life or love, which didn't come in spasms, but sounded as if someone were stirring feebly in a terrible mush of decomposing organic material.


Why is Joachim here? During dinner he lets on to the monotony of the forever here. He's here under orders.

To this point, the book really is quite funny thanks to some ridiculous images and the pacing of them.

Chapter 2 is a flashback through Hans's childhood and youth, remembering his father and his grandfather and the baptismal bowl:

His father's name was there, as was in fact his grandfather's, and his great-grandfather's; and now that syllable came doubled, tripled, and quadrupled from the storyteller's mouth; and the boy would lay his head to one side, his eyes fixed and full of thought, yet somehow dreamily thoughtless, his lips parted in drowsy devotion, and he would listen to the great-great-great-great — that somber sound of the crypt and buried time, which nevertheless both expressed a reverently preserved connection of his own life in the present to things now sunk deep beneath the earth and simultaneously had a curious effect on him: the same effect visible in the look on his face. The sound made him feel as if he were breathing the moldy, cool air of Saint Catherine's Church or the crypt in Saint Michael's, as if he could sense the gentle draft of places where as you walked, hat in hand, you fell into a certain reverential, forward rocking motion, your heels never touching the ground; and he also thought he could hear the remote, cloistered silence of those reverberating spaces. At the sound of those somber syllables, religious feelings got mixed up with a sense of death and history, and all of it together somehow left the boy with a pleasant sensation — indeed, it may well have been that it was solely for the sake of that sound, just to hear it and join in reciting it, that he had once again asked to be allowed to see the baptismal bowl. (p 24)


Hans and his grandfather have a mutual sympathy and physical affinity. "Children and grandchildren observe in order to admire, and they admire in order to learn and develop what heredity has stored within them. (p 27)"

Hans relishes the ritual of his life. He also loves living well.

The narrator refrains from calling Hans mediocre, qualifying the suggestion. Hans doesn't rise to meet the occasion not because he's not capable but because he doesn't see why he should (sounds like my generation). And this is on page 37 very poetically laid out to be not the fault of the individual but of the times (oh, it's not my fault after all?). He respects work, but does not love it; it stands in the way of, while being the means to, his enjoyment of a fine cigar. He works to live.

As for the rest, Hans is an unwritten page. He does not know himself what kind of person will grow out of his past. At this point, his doctor prescribes for him a change of air. (Joachim, it turns out, is seriously ill — sounds like tuberculosis.)

Here ends chapter 2.

I get the feeling Hans's life will take a turn he had never imagined, his stay at the sanatorium to be life-changing, life-defining.

José Saramago is also currently rereading The Magic Mountain. Perhaps he will post his thoughts here.
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