And so one day during his second winter up here, Hans Castorp decided he would buy skis and learn how to use them – well enough at least for his practical purposes. He was no athlete, had never been interested in sports, did not pretend he was, the way many Berghof guests did – the ladies in particular, who decked themselves out in sporty outfits to match the spirit of the place. Hermine Kleefeld, for example – although her lips and the tip of her nose were blue from shallow breathing – loved to appear at lunch in woollen trousers…
Hans Castorp discovered that you quickly learn a skill if you truly need to. He made no pretence of becoming a virtuoso. What he required to know he learned in a few days, without overheating or having to fight for breath. He worked hard at keeping his feet nicely parallel… He gradually increased the range of his activities.
The wintry mountains were beautiful – not in a gentle, benign way, but beautiful like the wild North Sea under a strong west wind. They awakened the same sense of awe – but there was no thunder, only a deathly silence.
commentary: Another entry on this book, a major reading project for the beginning of 2017…
The description of skiing is wonderful – there is quite a lot more of it, and it is highly recommended. And I am a person with zero interest in the sport as a general rule. But the writing is marvellous.
The long days at the TB sanatorium alternate with these bright moments when the patients get out or do something different. There are also expeditions to see skating and bobsled races, all equally beautifully described. The skating reminded me of this picture, which I used for a recent blogpost on Ian Fleming’s OHMSS:
The setup of the book – that Hans Castorp arrives to visit another patient and ends up staying at the sanatorium for seven years – is strange and discomfiting. There is a terrible inevitability about it, even though it simultaneously seems ridiculous. It’s almost surreal, like a film by Bunuel or Resnais.
There are endless characters who may be only in the book for a few pages, and some lovely conversations and recognizable descriptions. Hans Castorp has a crush on a Russian lady, and finds he shares his passion with an older spinster schoolteacher, who says of the love object:
Yes, she’s a darling woman, a spoiled creature, that’s why she’s so careless. We all love people like that, whether we want to or not, because when they annoy us with their carelessness, the annoyance becomes just one more reason for being fond of them- and you do know what she means, it is recognizable.
It is a long book, and it is very difficult to try to work out what Mann is intending by it. As I was reading it I was left with two thoughts. First, how dare he write this incredibly long book, full of difficult passages and strange conversations, and philosophical discussions, and endless talk of the treatments for the patients - how can he expect the reader to plough through all this? And secondly, yes it really is a phenomenal work, a masterpiece, and it makes its own rules,and is totally worth reading.
Skiing fashion drawing from NYPL.
The second picture shows a European sanatorium of the era.
Skaters: the Winter Skating Rink by Konstantin Somov, from the Athenaeum website.