‘Der Zauberberg’ (‘The Magic Mountain’) by Thomas Mann (Review)

Recently, a climber in the Swiss mountains found a rather peculiar document as he was leafing through a book in the library of the hotel he was staying at – a building which, according to a receptionist he talked to, used to be a sanatorium specialising in the care of tuberculosis victims.  The document appears to be a tale of a climber’s slow ascent of one of the local peaks, but it is (rather strangely) written as much in the form of a book review as of a true climber’s journal.  It is possible that the climber was a little disorientated from the altitude (or sickness?), but the text is immensely confusing at times.  Perhaps it is best if the reader judges for themself…

Day 1:
Today finally saw the start of my attempt to conquer The Magic Mountain, the peak the locals call Der Zauberberg.  It’s one I’ve been wanting to tackle for a long time now, and the conditions seem perfect for the ascent.  I decided to take it easy to begin with; in fact, the first part was by train (the scenery is spectacular!).  I got chatting to a nice young man from Hamburg called Hans Castorp, who is spending a little time here visiting his cousin, and we both agree that the air up here is wonderful, guaranteed to improve your health.  I think this is going to be a great experience 🙂

Day 2:
The incline is still fairly gentle, which is a good thing – I haven’t quite acclimatised to conditions yet.  Yesterday, I talked to a few other visitors in the village, some of whom have been here for a good while longer than I would have thought necessary.  Castorp doesn’t appear to be taking to the mountain air – he was looking very pale this morning.  To be honest, I’m feeling a little tired myself – let’s stop there and push on tomorrow…

Day 4:
Things are getting tougher as I push on up the mountain.  Today, I made the acquaintance of Settembrini, an Italian literary type, both scholar and philosopher – and a man who likes to speak his (and everyone’s) mind.  I sense that if I fail in my endeavour and come tumbling down this mountain, it’ll be his face that I see frowning down at me as I fall into the abyss below…

Castorp and Settembrini seem to have become as thick as thieves, and they are constantly having discussions on freedom and progress.  In particular, Castorp seems obsessed with the topic of time; it is said to pass quickly in the sanatorium (where the month is the smallest unit of time), yet the seven minutes waiting for a thermometer to take a reading seems like years (in fact, am I sure it’s only been four days since I started off?  It seems like months.).

Settembrini is constantly warning Hans to leave the mountain as soon as possible (at times, I get the distinct impression that the warning is actually intended for me…).

Day 6:
I’m pushing on grimly again towards my planned stop half-way up the mountain; I could definitely do with a rest.  Time is flying by, yet it’s also strangely dragging.  Some of Castorp’s days, weeks, months pass in seconds, yet some minutes take days…

The going has become harder again as the climb moves from the physical to the metaphysical.  Castorp’s obsession is now the human body, fuelled by an equally ardent obsession with the lovely Clawdia Chauchat.  He’s spending his time reading and talking about bodies, looking at the aesthetic, spiritual and artistic sides, before descending into an analysis of protein and fat.  An endless biology lesson – Hans, what are you doing to me?!!!

It’s high time I took a well-earned rest…

Day 7:
After a relaxing interlude spent preparing for the ordeal ahead, we resume our climb.  Almost a year (a year?) has passed since setting off, yet our return to the lowlands remains a distant promise (do I mean mine or Castorp’s?  I’m not really sure anymore…).

Settembrini!  Settembrini!  He’s back to torment me, and this time he’s brought a friend – Herr Naphta, a sick Jesuit with a love of corrupting philosophy and politics…  If only I could throw the two of them off the mountain, the climb would become much more enjoyable (alas, I fear the thin air is having an effect on me…)

Day 8:
Joachim, Castorp’s cousin, has descended the mountain leaving Hans (like me) all alone.  Unlike me, Castorp is fine on his own up here – I’m struggling to keep up…

Day 10:
I’m lost, we’re lost – we’re all eternally and frighteningly lost…

There have been more metaphysical, metaphorical wanderings through the tortured, twisting discussions of the elegant Settembrini and the scowling Jesuit Naphta, and I’m starting to lose my grip on sanity and ice pick alike.  Why?  Why must they do this to me?  Is it not enough that I’m barely two-thirds of the way up this accursed mountain?  Must I be tormented by soulless imbeciles blathering on about revolution, nature and death?

Of course, there’s also the literal, open-air wandering high in the mountains as Castorp and I cast caution to the (biting) wind and explore the local slopes on skis.  And we’re lost.  The darkness draws ever closer, the gale is tearing at us like a thousand knives – and the snow continues to fall, unceasing, like fresh earth on a waiting grave…

Oh, and it’s *bloody* cold…

Day 13:
What a few days…  A new companion on our ascent, Mynheer Peeperkorn, has certainly livened things up (and even managed to subdue the quarrelling pedagogues).  What a man!  What a character!  What a party!  Wine, Dutch gin and lots of fun…  Time to rest – my head is throbbing a little…

Day 14:
Peeperkorn gone, Clawdia departed – so near to the top and time is dragging (again).  Even Castorp’s interminable patience appears to be waning.  Surely I can’t fail so close to the summit?

Day 15:
I’m here!  I’ve made it to the summit!  I’m standing at the top, looking down upon the flatlands below.  Time seems to be standing still – while the ascent seems to have taken a very long time, in some respects it feels as if I only just set off to conquer the peak.  Time really is relative…

What next?  It would be a shame to just start back down now that I’ve made it all the way up here.  I might just check in at the ‘Berghof’ for a while (room 34 seems to be vacant).  Not for long, three weeks sounds good…

Regrettably, this is all that remains of the text.  We hope that more light will one day be shone on what could be a remarkable literary find.

Then again, it may all just be a dream…

14 thoughts on “‘Der Zauberberg’ (‘The Magic Mountain’) by Thomas Mann (Review)

  1. Hey Tony, congratulations, you did it, amazing! I hope you haven't lost any fingers or toes. And what a nice review 🙂 Hey, I've got the same edition as you. Also the Buddenbrooks is available in such a fancy hardcover.


  2. You lived to tell the tale! Brave Alpine climber, I salute thee! Hopefully, on the way down you get to brag and enjoy the view a bit more. It is the kind of book you like better once you have finished rather than while reading it – unlike his other books.


  3. Birne – My 'Buddenbrooks' is only a paperback, but I wanted the nice version for this one (especially as I won it in a giveaway – I've forgotten who from though…).


  4. Marina – I definitely enjoyed it though 🙂 There were a few tricky parts on the climb, but it was well worth it on the whole. And yes, part of the appeal is being able to put a big stamp in my literary climbers passport 😉


  5. Superb post.

    Sometime about twelve years ago I began reading this book but stooped at about twenty percent through. At the time I felt that I was not knowledge enough about the underlying ideas to “get it” or to scale the peak! As I am a little better shape these days, I may try the ascent again.


  6. Brian – Thanks 🙂 It is a book which lies in wait for the unwary reader, one which should not be attempted until the literary climber is fully equipped to tackle the challenge 😉 Well worth the effort though…


  7. Congratulations, this was a hard book for me too. At the time I read it, a few years ago, it was by far the most challenging book of my life. Nevertheless I found it very moving too. It remains one of the few books that ever made me cry.


  8. One of the best books I have ever read. The philosophizing was rather tedious (Settembrini and Naphta!!!) but what about the wonderful and tragic Peeperkorn? A lovely book, I have read it three or four times, recently in an newer translation (which also translated the French passages, conversations between Castorp and Claudia Chauchat, into English as well – an omission and frustration for me with the original translation). I somehow enjoyed the style of the older translation more. Truly a magical book for me – loved the length, did not want it to end…


  9. Tim – Ah, luckily I can speak German and French 😉 It was a great read, and I'm sure I'll try it again one day, especially as my Hardback edition does look lovely…


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