I have a new post for Insiders up on ten breakout players from 2014 whose performances look sustainable to me.
Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was, until this month, one of the only novels to ever defeat me – after reading the first few pages on a vacation (bad idea) in 2008, I set the book aside and couldn’t fathom tackling its heavy, leaden prose again. Its presence on both the Novel 100 and the Bloomsbury 100 Must-Read Classic Novels lists was enough encouragement to get me to try the novel again, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did at least finish the book thanks to a lot of time logged on trains in New York City last weekend. (I read the original translation, because I’ve had the copy for ages, but the link above goes to the newer translation by John Woods that earned high marks from people who actually look into such things.)
The Magic Mountain is a “novel of ideas,” which is a euphemism for a book without a plot. Hans Castorp, the everyman protagonist, heads to a mountaintop sanatorium for tuberculosis patients around 1907, ostensibly to visit his cousin Joachim for a few weeks before embarking on a career as an engineer. A chest cold convinces Hans to extend his stay, which turns into seven years – mirroring the seven years of tribulation in Revelations – that see Castorp exposed to all manner of philosophies of life, death, religion, politics, and meaning, not to mention the rather frequent expirations of his various comrades-in-phthisis. He spends much of his time listening to arguments between the patient Hans Settembrini and Settembrini’s friend Naphta, a dialectic that becomes increasingly rancorous as the book progresses, with Settembrini the humanist speaking in circles around Naphta the Catholic extremist’s outdated, reductive arguments. Neither man has any monopoly on truth, or even a fractional share of it, and their debate ends in the only realistic fashion, speaking to the futility of arguing over such philosophical questions to such an extent that one never does anything concrete about them.
Hans is a truly enigmatic central character, bland like Nick Jenkins of A Dance to the Music of Time, but more involved than Jenkins’ largely neutral observer-narrator, essentially committing himself to the sanatorium on the flimsiest of grounds – the whole institution is more a money-making enterprise than an institution boosting convalescence – partly because he develops a crush on the Central Asian-looking Frau Chauchat. (The Chauchat was a machine gun used by the French Army during World War I, which had just ended as Mann was writing his book but takes place after the novel’s conclusion.) Hans’ participation in the various philosophical debates he encounters, mostly between Settembrini and Naphta but occasionally involving Joachim or other consumptives, is abortive and often uncomfortable. He is a metaphorical man-child, but while his naivete allows his elders to engage in lengthy exhortations on their beliefs, his childishness becomes absurd when he abases himself in front of Frau Chauchat.
Mann intended his novel both as a grand book of ideas and as a subtle satire of other works of the time, much of which is lost on the modern reader because the targets of his parody haven’t held up as well as his own work has. There are passages where he shifts gears into comedy-of-manners territory, and dreamlike sequences – including the long, gripping passage where Castorp takes a walk on his own but is caught in a snowstorm that nearly kills him – that show tremendous imagination and Mann’s ability to create narrative greed that quickens the novel’s pace. But I’ve read most of the major philosophical novels of that era, and while they consistently rank highly on every list of the greatest novels ever written, they always fall short in the aspect of fiction I enjoy most: the story. Castorp grows, sort of, although at the end he’s more educated without being much wiser, and there’s no central plot that gets or even requires some sort of resolution at the end. He marches off to war, with a ten-page epilogue that shows him on the battlefield (and in the trenches), but is he any better off? Perhaps shaking off the illusions of childhood and of a life still permanent arm him better for what would be four years of a very ugly war, assuming he were even to survive it, but the experiences he had on that mountain seemed far from magic to me.
This leaves me with just one title left on the Bloomsbury list, War and Peace, and twelve left on the Novel 100, although I don’t intend to finish that list because some of those books look like they’ll cause me too much pain.
Next up: J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm, the second Cormoran Strike novel, published under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith.