Monday, 23 January 2017
Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
‘…The gentlemen have been shopping?’ he asked, adopting a lighter tone.
‘No, not really,’ Hans Castorp said, ‘that is…’
‘We bought a couple of blankets for my cousin,’ Joachim replied casually.
‘For the rest cure, what with this miserable cold weather. I am supposed to join in for these few weeks.’ Hans Castorp said with a laugh, looking down at the ground.
‘Ah, blankets, rest cure,’ Settembrini said. ‘Yes, yes, yes. I see, I see, I see. Indeed: placet experiri!’ he repeated it with his Italian c; and now, when he took his leave, for they had arrived at the sanatorium, where they were greeted by the limping concierge…
[later that day] When they came back up from their meal, the package of blankets was lying on a chair in Hans Castorp’s room, and he made use of them for the first time. Joachim, as the expert, gave him lessons in the art of wrapping oneself the way they all did it up here, something every novice had to learn right off.
commentary: After reading Linda Grant’s terrific new novel Dark Circle, which I blogged on yesterday, I decided the moment had finally come to read this book – something I have been vaguely intending to do for more than 30 years. Thomas Mann is a great writer, and I have loved other works by him, but Magic Mountain is 704 pages long in my edition. But with the encouragement of Dark Circle – well, it was now or never.
The book tells the story of a young man who goes to a Swiss sanatorium to visit a cousin with TB. He intends to stay a few weeks, and then finds himself a little ill, and ends up staying there for seven years. The world outside carries on without him, and there are vague intimations of the shattering events of the century.
Magic Mountain begins in the early years of the 20th century, while Grant’s book is set in the late 1940s – but it is obvious that the treatment for TB hadn’t changed in that time: cold and clear air and bedrest were all a doctor could suggest. There are moments when the content is parallel, such as the discussion of lung operations and lung collapse. And both authors have taken the chance to look at a small closed community, and the thoughts of those who are cut off from family, and know they may be dying. Yesterday’s extract featured sheepskin mittens: here we have the special blankets, and the rather cosy-sounding fur-lined sleeping bags.
It is not as depressing as it probably sounds: the shadow of death does hang over it, and the idea of coming for a visit and getting pulled in to stay forever is fairly horrifying. The text is ambiguous over whether he really needs to stay… and the book in general does a remarkable job in being convincing and realistic, and making you believe this is what the hospital would really be like – but also obviously making points about the world, the characters, the status of someone who perhaps prefers to be out of the world, who fears going back. The passage above shows the early signs that Hans Castorp is settling in for the long haul… Placet experiri is Latin for ‘he likes to experiment.’
It is not an easy read, but I did find it compelling and was very glad I ploughed through all those pages, and there are some very funny and entertaining passages.
However, I have just found to my horror that Mann ‘recommended that those who wished to understand it should read it through twice’. I don’t think I’ll be doing that.
The colour pictures are from a booklet advertizing a sanatorium.
The patients are all very intrigued by the x-rays that are taken – looking for the shadows on their lungs. The 2nd picture is an early demonstration of the uses of X rays.
Third picture shows the open air system so widely used for TB patients, from a booklet on the subject.