The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

I have finally conquered the Magic Mountain. It has taken me six long months to reach the summit. I started the ascent as early as last August, then laid languid in a sun-filled flat in Helsinki thinking I could get over it before I went back to work. I finished it yesterday evening. In the bath.

Has ever a book had such an apt title? Just like a mountain, Thomas Mann’s magnificent novel is no easy climb. It’s nearly 900-pages long and some of the passages, particularly those the characters discuss metaphysics at great length – each as involved as a university lecture – are hard going indeed.

And it can be grim. I suppose what do you expect of a novel set  in a Swiss sanatorium before the outbreak of the first world war? Several of the main characters die of tuberculosis. Others commit suicide. There’s one particularly harrowing sequence when a young girl patient goes to visit a nearby cemetery. With a subtlety that is profound (I don’t use that word lightly) Mann shows you that she is visiting the grave that she will inhabit in a few weeks hence. Nothing is said, nothing is spelt out, you somehow manage read her fate in the expressions of the characters and in what is not said between them. The House at Pooh Corner this is not.

What it is, though, is one of the most beautifully written books that I have read. The view from the mountain top, and at several vantage points along the way, is frequently wonderful. The bath water often went cold around me as I read about the goings on of the patients, a terrific game of cards, the arrival of a gramophone, a ghost story as spine-tingling as anything by Poe. There’s a lot of humour in the book and much delicious food.

Mann is known for his depth, he’s was a German Nobel Prize laureate for christsake, and the book is often forceful in its exposition of humanism (personified in the character of Herr Settembrini), which he explores assiduously. But he’s at his best when he’s merely describing the outer world. Here is a scene from the novel’s early pages, when Hans Castorp, the novel’s protagonist, visits the dock at Hamburg. Describing the hordes of workers, the “cadavers” of ships returning from far-flung corners, the goods piled high, it is as fine a piece of descriptive writing as I have ever read.