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In Praise of Classics: Mann’s Magic Mountain

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Image Preceding note: I can only hope you come by an excellent translation of The Magic Mountain. Thomas Mann was a master of language, sometimes he was seen in his study debating with himself over finding the one exact word he needed. He also wrote in the language of his time, wrote speech acts in an almost colloquial style and invented words if he needed them (it’s easy in German, we have great compounding!). So the quality of the translation is of vital importance.

Just like it is with some of the other books discussed here. To a certain degree we can never appreciate and judge literature we haven’t read in its original language. Since no one can know it all and it’s a lot to ask you to learn German just to read Mann, go with the best translation you can find. (The quotations in this article are translated by me and more than amateurish. Forgive me!)

Now to get to the point: Apart from the awesome alliteration fort he title of this article, Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain or German „Der Zauberberg“ has much more to offer than at first glance we perceive. What appears to be a story where nothing really happens, is in fact a story where everything happens.


Our hero, so to speak, Hans Castorp plans to visit his cousin Joachim in a sanatorium near Davos (if you don’t know where that is, shame on you and look it up), where he dwells to cure his lung disease. Hans wants to stay for three weeks and winds up staying seven years. Now when was the last time that happened to you? If this ain’t a reason to read the book…

It is made clear to us from the very beginning that Hans is not a hero in the classical sense. He is an average man, of average intelligence, average attractiveness, he is all around Joe Normal. Granted, he hasn’t had the easiest life, losing both his parents to illness (embolism and pneumonia) within two years, then losing his grandfather to illness (pneumonia) to finally end up living with his uncle, but life seems to be going okay for him anyway. He has finished college and is about to start a job, when the Magic Mountain intervenes.

From minute one Hans is strangely fascinated with life “up here” and we as the reader know why.

“And Hans Castorp curiously took one deep, probing breath of the foreign air. It was fresh – and nothing more. It lacked of smell, of content, of humidity, it went in easily and told the soul nothing.”

Pure brilliance demonstrated right here. Plus, Mann gets extra credit for using the word “phantasmagoric” at least twice. 

Though Mann has written many novels, novellas, essays and short stories, The Magic Mountain is his most popular work in America. Which is a bit odd, since it is largely a great German national novel and essentially deals with the unanswerable question “What is German?” (through Hans being what Mann perceived to be the typical German). Maybe the world is as interested in the answer as Germans are themselves.

But it has to be said: this book is for the smart of mind. Intertextuality is incredibly high, Nietzsche has his part, so do Schopenhauer, Goethe and Zola. Of course you understand the novel if you haven’t read all of these authors or aren’t familiar with their theories. But if you have, you get even more out of it. You can understand where Settembrini, Naphta and Peeperkorn get their attitudes from. You can enjoy the debates between the humanist, freemason and individualist democrat Settembrini and the Jesuit turned Catholic, logically thinking intellectual Naphta even more, who both try to win Hans over.

Mann was incredibly well-read, intellectual, a guest lecturer at Princeton and he didn’t hide it. He was a social critic as much as an author. And more than that, he was an observant member of a German society in the middle of change. Magic Mountain was written from 1913-1924. World War I interrupted Thomas Mann (among several other things) and made him think hard about society after and before the war. Magic Mountain presents conflicting ideologies from A-Z and at the same time – although the influence of the war experience is also evident in the writing, since it was finished afterwards – it represents an exact picture of Germany or the German mind pre WWI. Quite an achievement considering it is set in Switzerland, Settembrini is Italian, Naphta a Jesuit and the woman Hans loves is Russian, don’t you think?

Yet there is no moral to this novel and this is what I ultimately love about it most. There is no shaking of the finger, no definite answer. The opposing ideologies Hans considers for himself in the end cancel each other out and he goes to war. The ultimate representation of this “lack of moral” and the sign it is intended like this by Mann, is the final question mark before the words “Finis operis”.

The centerpiece of the novel, which has sparked the most interpretations and for a long time to Mann was where he should have ended his novel, is the “snow dream” in the chapter simply titled “Snow”, about two thirds into the novel. Our hero Hans buys skis and without permission leaves the sanatorium to ski in the massive amounts of snow his second winter there has brought. He gets lost in a snow storm and in his delirium dreams of a beach, a temple and witches devouring a baby. After this dream Hans reflects on his experiences “up here”. He denies both Naphta and Settembrini with their theories and indoctrinations in consequence.

This chapter encapsulates everything Mann stands for. Precise language with which he paints original and accurate metaphors and images, dealing with big issues without being lofty or pathos-filled, presenting complex thoughts and realizations by a hero no smarter than us and through it all carrying across Zeitgeist.  If you can’t bring yourself to read all the approximate 1000 pages of Magic Mountain, at least read this chapter. The description of the snowy landscape alone is mind-blowing.

My personal thoughts are as follows: The Magic Mountain is not my favorite book by Mann (that would have to be Felix Krull or Death in Venice), but it has to me the effect of slowing everything down. Time in the novel moves slower, hence time when I read it moves slower. Mann takes time for detail, not so much it bores you, but enough to see the love he put into his work. And the people in Magic Mountain have so much time. In our hectic world it would be impossible to spend seven years in a sanatorium and not be completely financially and socially ruined. Yet Settembrini has little desire to leave, Hans allows himself to become so absorbed with life “up there” he forgets his real life. And this fact leaves room to breathe for the reader. The real world gets left behind when Hans takes the train to Davos and with him the reader goes to a platform of thought and leisure. More than anything reading Magic Mountain relaxes me while it stimulates my mind to think.

Lastly I want to say that The Magic Mountain is funny and witty. We had the discussion about German humor, but I believe Thomas Mann to be so much “citizen of the world” to create a humor universally funny. He planned Magic Mountain as a humorous opposite to Death in Venice, stylistically more easygoing, though he found it easier to write about the tragic. Consider the following excerpt of Mann’s “Resolution” preceding the novel:

“The narrator will not finish Hans’ story in the twinkling of an eye. The seven days of a week won’t suffice for this and neither will seven months. The best would be he makes himself understand first how much earthly time will pass, while it keeps him enthralled. It won’t, for God’s sake, be seven years now! And so we start.”

Remember: the story runs for seven years and Mann wrote on it from 1913 till 1924. Time did pass and how it did.

In conclusion: reading The Magic Mountain is time well spent. Even if it takes you seven years.