The Magic Mountain (Mann)

About 15 years ago, a student asked me, “Why don’t we read books that matter?” I had to admit that he had a point. He gave me some Ayn Rand titles to read, and I started thinking about what books there are that have really changed the way people think. The Stranger came to mind. As did Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I still have to read). More recently, I was reading The Prisoner of Heaven, and the character there kept mentioning The Magic Mountain. So I looked into it and decided that it, too, merited inclusion in this category.

Each summer, I  try to read one BIG book, so I decided to make The Magic Mountain this summer’s book. I’m glad I read it, though I suspect it would help to know more about pre-World War I Germany. (Like others, I suspect, I know more about post-WW2 Germany.)

I do take exception with this notion of a “novel of ideas.” As with Life of Pi, the best parts of this were the story. When Mann gets bogged down too much in these epic conversations between these two intellectuals, the piece just bogs down. At times, I was interested in their debates, but mostly, I just wanted to get through those sections.

Thematically, I was interested in what Mann had to say about time, especially as it pertained to Castorp’s experience of it at the top of the mountain. And I liked how Mann self-consciously adjusted the length of his chapters to reflect Castorp’s changing perceptions and used the fickle weather to develop his ideas.

But I do wish he’d done more to let the story speak instead of Settembrini and Naphta.  I was interested, for example, in certain characters, some of whom arrived late on the scene. In short, I wanted more plot.

If I could sit with the book for a half hour or so at a time, I tended to find it more compelling. The chapter, “Snow,” is, itself, a masterpiece.

I found John E. Woods’ translation quite fluid. For me, the test of a good translation is the smoothness of the dialogue, and I found it sounded natural.

So, should you read it? More, perhaps, an experience than in the hope that you will come out of it having changed the way you see the world.

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