Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Magic Mountain

I have been up here for a long time, Mynheer Peeperkorn, for years and years - I don't precisely know how long, but they are years of my life, which was why I spoke just now of 'life' - and I shall return to the matter of 'fate' at the appropriate moment. My cousin, whom I came here to visit, was a military man, an honest and good fellow, but that did not help him - he died here, leaving me behind, and here I am still. I was not a military man myself, I had chosen  a civilian profession, as you have perhaps heard, a sturdy, reasonable profession, of which it is even said that it may bring nations closer together, but of which I was never particularly fond, I must admit. As to the reasons, I can only say that they lie in darkness, lie there together with the origins of my sentiments towards your travelling companion - and I expressly call her that to make clear that it would never occur to me to try to alter a legitimate state of affairs - with the origins of my sentiments with Clavdia Chauchat and of my addressing her with only informal pronouns, a relationship that is never denied from the moment her eyes first met mine and fascinated me - fascinated me in the most irrational sense of the word, you understand. For the sake of her love, and in spite of Herr Settembrini, I subordinated myself to the principle of irrationality, to the principle behind the genius of illness, to which, admittedly, I had long since, perhaps from the very start, submitted myself and to which I have remained true up here - for how long now, I no longer know, I have forgotten everything, broken off with every thing, with my relatives, and my profession in the flatlands, with all my prospects. And when Clavdia departed, I waited for her, just went on waiting up here, so that the flatlands is entirely lost to me now, and in its eyes I am as good as dead. That is what I meant when I spoke of 'fate', and went so far as to suggest that I might possibly have cause to complain about my present situation. I once read a story - no, I saw it in the theatre - about how a good-hearted young fellow, a military man like my cousin, by the way, gets involved with an enchanting Gypsy - and she was enchanting, with a flower behind her ear, a savage, mischievous creature, and he was so fascinated with her, that he got completely off-track, sacrificed everything for her, deserted the colours, ran off with her to join a band of smugglers and disgraced himself in every way. And after he had done all that, she had enough of him, and came along with a matador, a compelling personality with a splendid baritone. It ended outside the bullring, with the little soldier, his face chalky white, his shirt unbuttoned, stabbing her with a knife, though you might say she as good as planned the whole thing herself. A rather pointless story, really, now that I think of it. But then, why did it occur to me?

Like Count Almasy's Heredotus, if there would be only one book which I would be allowed to carry with me for the rest of my life, and die with, it would possibly be The Magic Mountain. It's been a year since I read John E. Woods's brilliant translation for Alfred A. Knopf. I remember my AC was whirring that afternoon when I opened the book and read about Hans Castorp beginning his journey - just as it is whirring now. It's only ironic that I still do not possess the single most important book of my life. On a sad, humid summer afternoon, while thinking of creoles and southern plantations, and dreams and races, someone writes to you about a man scribbling on the walls of Saint Petersburg because he had a story to tell, and he didn't have paper to write it on. For no apparent rhyme or reason, you move west, and are suddenly reminded of the rarefied Swiss air, of a humanist professor and a young, inexperienced man. Now you'll know that every time you think of Margarita, a completely different story will also come to your mind, vying for remembrance. Of that sad, humid, summer afternoon, and of letters written.

The passage quoted above is one of my favourites from the book. I'd copied it down in my diary while reading, and have revisited it innumerable times.


  1. Up there in my top 20 novels. Think I've read it twice. The character of Settembrini seems to stick in memory. If I read Mann again I will embark on something more succinct like 'Death in Venice'. His 'Dr. Faustus' v. good too if a bit technical on music and creepy/intense in mood.

  2. Oh, the humanist. Such deft character portrayal, he is bound to stick out of the crowd. This book is definitely among my top ones. 'Death in Venice', I'm afraid, is something that never leaves you. When I was in Venice, despite Vivaldi, the gondolas continuously reminded me of Aschenbach. I'd like to read the original 'Der Zauberberg' sometime, slowly, for months and months, taking each word, each syllable, and each idea, rolling them inside, before turning the pages.