Monday, February 24, 2014

On Re-Reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain

In 1980, I studied at the University of Heidelberg, in what was then West Germany. Although I did not pursue my academic studies with much vigor, I did challenge myself in other fields and in other ways.

One of those challenges was a promise to read Thomas Mannʼs nearly 800 page novel Der Zauberberg, The Magic Mountain, in the original German before the year was up. My German literature professor at university recommended it as essential to understanding 20th century Germany and its place in the European family of nations.

Along with traveling to almost every country on the continent (one of my other self-directed challenges that year), I managed to read the entire novel before I returned home to Washington, DC at the end of the summer. Iʼll admit it was tough going at first. But as my German language proficiency improved, so did my enjoyment of this most weighty book, considered to be one of the classics of German literature.

The Magic Mountain is a richly textured, densely packed Bildungsroman, a sort of coming of age novel. But it is also much more: an allegory on European culture as it entered the modern age as well as a philosophical investigation into the nature of time. It can also be read as an examination of the new psychological interpretations of art, illness and death that incorporated the insights by a range of 20th century thinkers and artists, including Friedrich Nietsche, George Lukacs, Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy and Sigmund Freud.

At its heart though, it is the story of Hans Castorp, a young man fresh out of college who, before starting a new job in the shipping industry, travels to Davos, Switzerland to visit his cousin, who is recuperating from a bout of tuberculosis in an Alpine sanitarium. He plans a three week stay.

 Hans winds up spending the next seven years at the sanitarium.

And now, over thirty years later, Iʼve challenged myself to re-read The Magic Mountain, in English this time. Will it still hold my attention as it did so long ago? Iʼll let you know.

 Newport Libraryʼs copy of The Magic Mountain will be checked out for the foreseeable future, but you can reserve one of the other OceanBooks copies here.

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