The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann, (tr. by H. T. Lowe-Porter)

I’d heard so much about this book and have been meaning to read it for so long that I was very excited that it was finally chosen for Great Books. It’s been on the suggestion list before but never got enough votes. But I was quite disappointed, especially compared to the other Mann we’ve read, Death in Venice. The monologues and dialogues with Settembrini and Naphta were too frequent, too long, and too tedious. I had been looking forward to the theme of time and its subjectivity, but not much of that felt fresh. I did enjoy the cozyness of wrapping yourself in blankets and fur sleepsacks amidst the snows, and the impact of new technology like the x-rays and the gramophone was interesting. The most memorable bits were Hans Calstrop’s memories of his schoolmate Pribislav Hippe (the “Kirghiz”), who lent him a pencil, and the chapter “Snow” about Calstrop getting lost in a storm and dreaming of utopia. One of the Great Books participants, who loved it, says the book is about Germans blindly following the Nazis, not caring or paying attention to what was going on around them. As Mann said in the afterword:

You will have got from my book an idea of the narrowness of this charmed circle of isolation and invalidism. It is a sort of substitute existence, and it can, in a relatively short time, wholly wean a young person from actual and active life. Everything there, including the conception of time, is thought of on a luxurious scale. The cure is always a matter of several months, often of several years. But after the first six months the young person has not a single idea left save flirtation and the thermometer under his tongue. After the second six months in many cases he has even lost the capacity for any other ideas. He will become completely incapable of life in the flatland.

The translation seems quite problematic – I went back to compare the German and often couldn’t find the passage without a lot of effort because the match up is so loose. To my surprise, I stumbled across the fact that occasionally L-P took dialogue in German between Castorp and Clavdia, who often speak French to each other, and translated it into French? Why??? For example, Clavdia says “Du wirst das verstehen” and L-P renders it as “Tu peux comprendre çela” [sic – should be “cela”] So weird!

Short quotes

  • “It went against his grain to eat butter served in the piece instead of in little fluted balls.”
  • “the feeling of reckless sweetness he had felt for the first time when he tried to imagine himself free of the burden of a good name, and tasted the boundless joys of shame”
  • “One always has the idea of a stupid man as perfectly healthy and ordinary, and of illness as making one refined and clever and unusual.”
  • “He talks so well; the words come jumping out of his mouth so round and appetizing — when I listen to him, I keep seeing a picture of fresh hot rolls in my mind’s eye.”
  • Dr. Krokowski says “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.”
  • “the eyes said thou, for that is the language of the eyes, even when the tongue uses a more formal address”
  • Joachim: “You will find that when people discuss and express their views nothing ever comes of it but confusion worse confounded. I tell you, it doesn’t matter in the least what a man’s views are, so long as he is a decent chap. The best thing is to have no opinions, and just do one’s duty.”
  • “Their spirits, particularly the sallow Frau Magnus’s, were proof against any ray of cheer; forlornity exhaled from her like damp from a cellar.”
  • “Walking, he thrust the end of his stick in the snow and watched the blue light follow it out of the hole it made. That he liked; and stood for long at a time to test the little optical phenomenon. It was a strange, a subtle colour, this greenish-blue; colour of the heights and deeps, ice-clear, yet holding shadow in its depths, mysteriously exquisite.”
  • Snowflakes: “little jewels, insignia, orders, agraffes —no jeweller, however skilled, could do finer, more minute work”
  • Conserve jars: “The magic part of it lies in the fact that the stuff that is conserved is withdrawn from the effects of time, it is hermetically sealed from time, time passes it by, it stands there on its shelf shut away from time.”
  • Behrens on a new resident: “Not much hope, my lad; really none at all, I suppose. Of course, we’ll try everything that’s good and costs money.”
  • Tears: “those clear drops flowing in such bitter abundance every hour of our day all over our world, till in sheer poetic justice we have named the earth we live in after them” (meaning “the vale of tears”?)
  • Re Mynheer Peeperkorn, whose name I could not read without laughing: “his trouser pockets … are put in running up and down, not like yours and mine and most people’s of our class.”
  • Also about him: “He had said absolutely nothing. But look, manner, and gestures were so peremptory, perfervid, pregnant, that all, even Hans Castorp, were convinced they had heard something of high moment; or, if aware of the total lack of matter and sequence in the speech, certainly never missed it.” The same observation recurs in a longer quote below.

Long quotes

[from the foreword] We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail — for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reasons of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.

Space, rolling and revolving between him and his native heath, possessed and wielded the powers we generally ascribe to time. From hour to hour it worked changes in him, like to those wrought by time, yet in a way even more striking. Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness ; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached state. Yes, it can even, in the twinkling of an eye, make something like a vagabond of the pedant and Philistine. Time, we say, is Lethe; but change of air is a similar draught, and, if it works less thoroughly, does so more quickly.

A familiar feeling pervaded the child: a strange, dreamy, troubling sense: of change in the midst of duration, of time as both flowing and persisting, of recurrence in continuity — these were sensations he had felt before on the like occasion, and both expected and longed for again, whenever the heirloom [baptism basin] was displayed.

Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time ; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, flow, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one “gets used to the place,” a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully — but only the first few, for one adjusts oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or — and this is a sign of low vitality — it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.

Our account of the first three weeks of Hans Castorp’s stay … has consumed in the telling an amount of time and space only too well confirming the author’s half-confessed expectations; while our narrative of his next three weeks will scarcely cost as many lines, or even words and minutes, as the earlier three did pages, quires, hours, and working-days. We apprehend that these next three weeks will be over and done with in the twinkling of an eye.

Which is perhaps surprising; yet quite in order, and conformable to the laws that govern the telling of stories and the listening to them. For it is in accordance with these laws that time seems to us just as long, or just as short, that it expands or contracts precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it did for young Hans Castorp.

Waiting means hurrying on ahead, it means regarding time and the present moment not as a boon, but an obstruction; it means making their actual content null and void, by mentally overleaping them. Waiting, we say, is long. We might just as well — or more accurately — say it is short, since it consumes whole spaces of time without our living them or making any use of them as such. We may compare him who lives on expectation to a greedy man, whose digestive apparatus works through quantities of food without converting it into anything of value or nourishment to his system. We might almost go so far as to say that, as undigested food makes man no stronger, so time spent in waiting makes him no older.

[Naphta says] The Fathers of the Church called mine and thine pernicious words, and private property usurpation and robbery. They repudiated the idea of personal possessions, because, according to divine and natural law, the earth is common to all men, and brings forth her fruits for the common good. They taught that avarice, a consequence of the Fall, represents the rights of property and is the source of private ownership. They were humane enough, anti-commercial enough, to feel that all commercial activity was a danger to the soul of man and its salvation. They hated money and finance, and called the empire of capital fuel for the fires of hell. The fundamental economic principle that price is regulated by the operation of the law of supply and demand, they have always despised from the bottom of their hearts; and condemned taking advantage of chance as a cynical exploitation of a neighbour’s need. Even more nefarious, in their eyes, was the exploitation of time; the monstrousness of receiving a premium for the passage of time — interest, in other words — and misusing to one’s own advantage and another’s disadvantage a universal and God-given dispensation.

Not sure I understand this at all? But it’s in the mouth of Naphta, who often says nutty things. And maybe I haven’t run with the right kind of Protestants:

Judaism, by virtue of its secular and materialistic leanings, its socialism, its political adroitness, had actually more in common with Catholicism than the latter had with the mystic subjectivity and self-immolation of Protestantism; the conversion of a Jew to the Roman Catholic faith was accordingly a distinctly less violent spiritual rupture than was that of a Protestant.

“Ah, the trees, the trees! Oh, living climate of the living — how sweet it smells! “

It was a park. It lay beneath the terrace on which he seemed to stand — a spreading park of luxuriant green shade-trees, elms, planes, beeches, birches, oaks, all in the dappled light and shade of their fresh, full, shimmering foliage, and gently rustling tips. They breathed a deliciously moist, balsamic breath into the air. A warm shower passed over them, but the rain was sunlit. One could see high up in the sky the whole air filled with the bright ripple of raindrops. How lovely it was! Oh, breath of the homeland, oh, fragrance and abundance of the plain, so long foregone!

Narration resembles music in this, that it fills up the time. It “fills it in” and “breaks it up,” so that “there’s something to it,” “something going on” … For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound up with it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once. Thus music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are, whereas narration — like music — even if it should try to be completely present at any given moment, would need time to do it in.

“Mynheer Peeperkorn has a gift, say what you like; and thus it is he can stick us all in his pocket. Put Herr Naphta in one corner of the room, and let him deliver a discourse on Gregory the Great and the City of God — it would be highly worth listening to — and put Mynheer Peeperkorn in the other, with his extraordinary mouth and the wrinkles on his forehead, and let him not say a word except ‘By all means — capital — settled, ladies and gentlemen!’ You will see everybody gather round Peeperkorn, and Herr Naphta will be sitting there alone with his cleverness and his City of God, though he may be uttering such penetrating wisdom that it pierces through marrow and cucumber, as Behrens says.”

In this book I learned

  • Third breakfast! Wikipedia only traces it here, but I doubt Mann made it up.
  • I can’t find anything about “Scotch-thread drawers” online except in full-text versions of MM, but looking up the German original it’s “file d’écosse-Unterhose.” So the translation should really be “lisle underwear.” (I doubt my blog has enough Google traction to make “Scotch-thread drawers” come up in this context – I posted the first instance of “kalegarth” back in 2005 and now it doesn’t even come up (because the blog was inaccessible for years and I’ll never get my rankings back, ah well…))
  • Original sweaters: “The women wore chiefly close-fitting jackets of wool or silk — the so-called sweater — in white or colours, with turnover collars and side pockets.” Cardigans, I guess. The German has “sogenannte Sweater… mit Fallkragen und Seitentaschen.” Love those Compound Nouns!
  • I knew Blue Peter only as the British television show, which supposedly refers to a flag indicating a vessel is about the leave, but here it’s a sputum flask. Again the translation is weird, though – it’s “Blauen Heinrich,” Blue Henry, and that’s how it’s most commonly known in English. There’s even a book – looks interesting. Blue Peter is a known variant in English, but I’d love to get more information.
  • Gala Peter chocolate
  • Formamint – “Formamint was a lozenge made up of formaldehyde, milk sugar, citric acid and pepsin-hydrochloric acid” per this very interesting-looking article I want to go back and read someday…
  • Jonathan had just told me about the parlor game of sketching a pig with one’s eyes closed, and here it is in MM, one of the faddish parlor games the residents play.
  • Soldanella, which Mann describes as having “little eye-lashed bells of rose-color, purple, and blue”
  • Coincidentally, Jonathan was reading the September 1927 issue of The Bookman and came across this: “Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain, seems to be winning American favor even greater than that of Hermann Sudermann, whose Song of Songs was for long the most popular of modern novels translated from the German.” Wikipedia says “after 1945, [Sudermann’s] plays and novels were almost completely forgotten,” but Song of Songs has an entry, and the Garbo vehicle Flesh and the Devil was based on one of his novels.
  • Tula-silver-handled cane (Tulasilberkrücke): synonym for niello, found on the very helpful Canequest site
  • Skilly – but in the original it’s Linsen, lentils!
  • The Seven Sleepers
  • Philopena (Vielliebchen, translated “philippina”)
  • Weird fact: Boris Johnson is the great-grandson of the translator.

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