The Rack (Ellis)

Published 30+ years after The Magic Mountain, A.E. Ellis’ The Rack has some similarities with Mann’s novel, though, thankfully, it’s several hundred pages shorter. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Mann, but Ellis’ book came across to me as more thoughtfully constructed. Ellis is asking a lot of questions here – about the relationship between science and God, about the power relationship between doctors and patients, about the role of technology and medicine, about the rich and poor, about resilience and, indeed, about the purpose and meaning of life.

Paul is stuck in a sanitorium – one that’s running out of money, serving lousy food, and seemingly doing little good for its patients. Just when something positive finally happens for Paul (he falls in love), it becomes genuinely unclear whether he really wants to leave. Is there something reassuring? addictive? about being a permanent patient? Is the medical industry holding on to him in order to feed itself?

Though the characters here are often archetypes, Ellis puts them together like a playwright. The scenes, particularly one in Part II in which Paul and Michele stumble into a cemetery, are greater than their individual pieces.

On the front of the print-on-demand edition I ordered, there is a quotation from Graham Greene –

There are certain books we call great for want of a better term, that rise like monuments above the cemeteries of literature: Clarissa Harlowe, Great Expectations, Ulysses. The Rack to my mind is one of this company.

I am a fairly well-read person. Why had I never heard of The Rack before it became my book club’s selection? Why has it become a print-on-demand book? I’ve read every word of Ulysses -once with the notes and then later, without. Guess how that second attempt went? I’ve read and taught Great Expectations.  I’ve never known anyone to read Clarissa, except for my very first Principal who seemed intent on conquering it? I’m not sure why he’d chosen that title, and I am not sure if he ever finished it. Why do some books stay and others fade?

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