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The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain

3.9 16
by Thomas Mann

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Mann began working on The Magic Mountain in 1912, following a few weeks' visit to a sanatorium in Switzerland. Twelve years later the novel that had begun as a short story appeared in two long volumes. The war that had postponed the book's completion had "incalculably enriched its content." Now it was a massive meditation on "the inner significance of an


Mann began working on The Magic Mountain in 1912, following a few weeks' visit to a sanatorium in Switzerland. Twelve years later the novel that had begun as a short story appeared in two long volumes. The war that had postponed the book's completion had "incalculably enriched its content." Now it was a massive meditation on "the inner significance of an epoch, the pre-war period of European history." It was an immense international success from the time of its publication.
The Magic Mountain is the story of an unassuming, undistinguished young engineer named Hans Castorp who sits on the balcony of a sanatorium, wrapped in his camel's hair blanket, thermometer in his mouth, naively but earnestly pondering the meaning of life, time, and his love for the beautiful Frau Chauchat. Among the other characters on this Germanic ship of fools are the malapropian Frau Stohr; Hofrat Behrens, the head doctor, and his hearty but sick-looking sidekick, Dr. Krokowski; Ludovico Settembrini, the enlightened humanist; Han's noble cousin Joachim Ziemssen; and Hermine Kleefeld, who, with her whistling pneumothorax, is the pride of the Half-Lung Club. In this community organization completely in reference to disease, Hans Castrop achieves a kind of transcendence unimaginable in the world of the "flatlands" below him.

Editorial Reviews

John W. Crawford
The reader looks in vain through The Magic Mountain for the docketed views and pat opinions of Thomas Mann. That in itself, considering the subject and the nature of the book, is a signal and grateful achievement. What he finds instead, is the extraordinar spiritual, mental and physical adventures of Hans Castorp. -- Books of the Century; New York Times review, May 1927
From the Publisher
“All the characters in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece come considerably closer to speaking English in John E. Woods’s version . . . Woods captures perfectly the irony and humor.” –New York Times Book Review

“[Woods’s translation] succeeds in capturing the beautiful cadence of [Mann’s] ironically elegant prose.” –Washington Post Book World

“[The Magic Mountain] is one of those works that changed the shape and possibilities of European literature. It is a masterwork, unlike any other. It is also, if we learn to read it on its own terms, a delight, comic and profound, a new form of language, a new way of seeing.” –from the new Introduction by A. S. Byatt

Product Details

Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

In 1912 Thomas Mann’s wife, Katja, stayed in Dr Friedrich Jessen’s ‘Waldsanatorium’ from March to September, suffering from a lung complaint. Mann himself visited her for four weeks in May and June. During that time, he said, he suffered a troublesome catarrh of the upper air passages, owing to the damp, cold atmosphere on the balcony. The consultant diagnosed a ‘moist spot’ of tubercular infection, just as Dr Behrens in the novel diagnoses Hans Castorp. Mann, however, did not stay in the magic mountain, but hastened back to Flatland and Munich, where his own doctor advised him to pay no attention. There is an ironic twist to this story which would have amused the novelist — Katja, it appears was misdiagnosed, whereas Mann himself, in his post-mortem, was indeed seen to bear the marks of an earlier tubercular illness.
This is the biographical germ of the novel. Its intellectual germ is related to Mann’s great novella, Death in Venice. Death in Venice was a classically constructed tragedy of the fall of a great artist and intellectual. The Magic Mountain was to be the satyr play that accompanied the tragedy — the comic and parodic tale of a jeune homme moyen sensuel, caught up in the dance of death, amongst the macabre crew of the sanatorium. Both tales represented the fate of someone out of context, on a holiday visit, encountering love, sickness and death with a peculiarly German mixture of fascination and resignation.
Work on the novella was interrupted by the First World War. Mann spent the war years writing passionately in support of the German cause. His ‘Thoughts in War’, his praise ofFrederick the Great as a man of action, his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, are definitions of the German genius which, he asserts, is concerned with Nature, not Mind, with Culture as opposed to Civilization, with military organization and soldierly virtues. Culture is compatible with all kinds of horrors — oracles, magic, pederasty, human sacrifice, orgiastic cults, inquisition, witch-trials etc. — by which civilization would be repelled; for civilization is Reason, Enlightenment, moderation, manners, scepticism, disintegration — Mind (Geist).*
*T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition.
Culture is German. Civilization is predominantly French. Mann opposes Frederick the Great and Voltaire as archetypes of the opposition. Voltaire is a man of thought; Frederick, a greater hero, is a man of action. What Mann was arguing was very much what most German artists and writers were arguing — the ‘decadent’ took strength from a sudden nationalist identification. There was, also, a personal battle furiously pursued through the battle of ideas. Thomas Mann’s brother, Heinrich, was against the war, and in favour of socialism, civilization and reason. In November 1915 Heinrich Mann published an essay on Zola, praising Zola’s defence of Dreyfus, praising Zola as a civilized ‘intellectual’, castigating those in France (and by implication those in Germany) who compromised themselves by supporting unjust rulers and warmongers. There is a sense in which the wartime attitudes of the brothers mirror the conflict between the civilized Settembrini and the spiritual nihilist Naphta, in the novel as we read it. And in Thomas Mann’s Unpolitical Reflections (published in October 1918) he makes a direct attack on his brother, in the figure of the Zivilisationsliterat, who claims that he sides with Life, Reason, Progress, and is against death and decay. He quotes the author of ‘that lyrical-political poem which has Emile Zola as its hero’ as saying he himself has ‘the gift of life . . . the deepest sympathy with life’. Mann the ironist observes that ‘the problem of what ‘‘health’’ is, is not a simple problem’.
In August 1915 Mann wrote to Paul Amann:
Before the war I had begun a longish tale, set in a lung-disease sanatorium — a story with basic pedagogic-political intentions, in which a young man has to come to terms with the most seductive power, death, and is led in a comic-horrid manner through the spiritual oppositions of Humanism and Romanticism, Progress and Reaction, Health and Sickness, but more for the sake of finding his way and acquiring knowledge than for the sake of making decisions.
The spirit of the whole thing is humorous-nihilistic, and on the whole the story inclines towards sympathy with death. It is called The Magic Mountain and has a touch of the dwarf Nase for whom seven years passed like seven days, and the ending, the resolution — I can see no alternative to the outbreak of war.
In March 1917 Mann wrote again to Amman about the novel, this time describing the opposed figures of a ‘disciple of work and progress, a disciple of Carducci’ and a ‘doubting, brilliantly clever reactionary’, and qualifying his hero’s sympathy with death as ‘unvirtuous’. He has to write his unpolitical reflections, he claims, to avoid overloading the novel with ideas.
When the thousand-page novel was finally published in November 1924, Mann was reconciled with his brother after a bitter rift, and his attitudes to German culture and the justification of war had changed. The Magic Mountain itself was now a large and complicated work of art, working as a mixture of Dantesque allegory and modern European realism, of German mythic culture and intellectual debate, of Bildungsroman and farce.
The magic mountain itself is a myth and a symbol with multiple meanings and charms. The German magic mountain is the Brocken, up whose dangerous paths Goethe’s Mephistopheles leads the delinquent Faust, to join in the lawless and phantasmagoric delights of the Witches’ Sabbath, or Walpurgisnacht. In the Walpurgisnacht chapter of the novel Settembrini quotes Faust (as he often does):
Allein bedenkt! Der Berg ist heute zaubertoll,
Und wenn ein Irrlicht Euch die Wege weisen soll,
So mu¨ sst Ihr’s so genau nicht nehmen.
But bear in mind the mountain’s mad with spells tonight
And should a will-o’-the-wisp decide your way to light,
Beware — its lead may prove deceptive.
The Walpurgisnacht of the novel is Shrove Tuesday — the Munich ‘Fasching’ or licentious carnival feast of disorder. Mann marks the curiously timeless passing of time in the magic mountain with feast days like Midsummer, as well as fleeting seasonal weather. The hectic patients become phantasms and apparitions — Behrens, the superintendant is compared by Settembrini to Goethe’s leading warlock, Herr Urian.
But there are other, equally powerful magic mountains. There is the Venusberg of Wagner’s Tannha¨}user, in which the Thuringian Wartburg becomes the secret dwelling of Venus, who entices young knights into its depths, and surrounds them with sensuous delights, amongst nymphs and sirens. This Venus is a descendant of an ancient German goddess Holda, originally the white lady of spring, a figure not unlike the fairy queen who in British fairy story lures True Thomas into the hillside, where, also, seven years appear to be only one day. The dwarf, Nase (Nose), of Mann’s letter to Amann is also a fairy-tale figure, in a Romantic tale by Wilhelm Hauff — a little boy imprisoned by an enchantress and transformed into a dwarf — for whom also time passes at seven years in a day. The mysterious Clavdia Chauchat, and Castorp’s increasing erotic obsession with her, are part of these Venus-dreams, which shrivel and distort everyday reality.
German literature is a dialogue between German classicism and German romanticism, and there is also a German-classical original of the magic mountain. Nietzsche uses the precise word, ‘Zauberberg’ in The Birth of Tragedy (1870-71) to refer to Mount Olympus. ‘Now,’ he writes, ‘the Olympian magic mountain opens itself before us, showing its very roots.’ This ‘now’ in The Birth of Tragedy, is the moment when Nietzsche quotes the wisdom of Dionysus’s satyr companion, Silenus, who tells King Midas what is the greatest good of the human condition:
‘Ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon.’ What is the relation of the Olympian gods to this popular wisdom? It is that of the entranced vision of the martyr to his torment. Now the Olympian magic mountain opens itself before us, showing its very roots. The Greeks were keenly aware of the terrors and horrors of existence; in order to be able to live at all they had to place before them the shining fantasy of the Olympians.
Here is a very pertinent concatenation of a satyr, the desire for death which tempts Hans Castorp, and a mountain hutching illusory forms. Nietzsche’s argument in The Birth of Tragedy is that the beauty of Greek tragedy derives from the satyr chorus, which was originally a religious ritual celebrating the dismemberment and eating of the dying god, Dionysus, and later became the chorus, and the comic fourth satyr play which accompanied the classical tragic trilogy of plays at the City Dionysia. Nietzsche’s text turns on the opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysiac principles in Greek art. Apollo goes with clarity, definition, individuality, dream and illusion. Dionysus represents the drive to bloody dissolution, annihilation, and a strong and gleeful admission of the terror and meaninglessness of life. Sophoclean heroes, Nietzsche tells us, are Apollonian masks, which are the opposite of the dark circles we see when looking at the sun. They are luminous spots designed to ‘cure an eye hurt by ghastly night’.
The Birth of Tragedy haunts European culture. Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) establishes a death drive, or principle of thanatos, to change his vision of dreams as essentially pleasure-seeking. It was written partly in response to the persisting dark dreams of the soldiers of the First World War, forced to relive horrors. Mann plays with its ironies and ambiguities in many of his texts. Both Aschenbach, in Death in Venice, and Hans Castorp, have riddling dreams, directly drawn from Nietzsche’s vision, which are turning-points in their respective stories.
Aschenbach, the lucid artist, begins his descent into madness when he meets the stranger outside the mortuary chapel in Munich. This sharp-toothed person, with ‘an air of imperious survey, something bold or even wild about his posture’, and looking exotic and strange, is surely the figure of Dionysus who appears outside the little temple and greets Pentheus at the beginning of Euripides’ Bacchae. The boy, Tadziu, with whom Aschenbach falls in love in Venice, has a name that sounds like Zagreus, a name for the dismembered Dionysus. The stranger god, with his panthers, and the cholera, both come out of the East — as does the smiling Clavdia Chauchat, with her slanted Kirghiz eyes. Like Pentheus, Aschenbach disintegrates and has a very precise dream-vision of the stranger-god, with his flute-music, his rout of companions, ‘a human and animal swarm’ of maenads and goats, who tear at each other and devour ‘steaming gobbets of flesh’. It is a vision of the loss of self in the religious frenzy of the sacrificial feast.
Hans Castorp, in the late chapter, ‘Snow’, lost and wandering in circles, falls into an exhausted sleep. Castorp’s dreamvision is at first a blissful and idyllic vision of a classical Mediterranean landscape (based on a painting by Arnold Bo¨cklin) of beautiful and healthy humans working and playing in orchards, in meadows, by the sea. But the dreamer is led into a temple where two old hags in the sanctuary are dismembering a living child above a basin, and cracking its bones between their teeth. The lovely order is intimately connected to the mystery of the dismembered god. This vision causes Castorp to understand that the ‘courteous and charming’ people are intimately connected to ‘that horror’. They are interdependent, health and horror. Castorp is the object, like Everyman, of a tug-of-war between the two philosophers, the life-loving, reasonable Settembrini and the destructive, voluptuous and malicious Naphta. In the snow he sees that neither is right. What matters is his heart-beat, and love.
The Magic Mountain, as well as being a German myth, is a parody of the Bildungsroman, in which a young man goes out into the world, and discovers his nature through his encounters. The two talkative opponents are pedagogues, representing visions of human nature and the world which were tested in Thomas Mann himself during the 1914-1918 war. Settembrini is partly attractive, and partly, as Castorp sees him, an organgrinder playing one tune, resolutely unaware of its limitations. Naphta, Jew, Jesuit, connoisseur of the irrational, the anarchic, the nihilistic, is closer to Mann’s own vision, which itself is closer to Nietzsche’s strong pessimism than to the hopefulness of the Age of Reason. An enormous proportion of the novel consists of bravura descriptions of battling ideas, and it is fashionable now to dismiss Mann as a ‘dry’ (even desiccated) ‘novelist of ideas’, as though that description meant that he did not understand human feeling, or passion, or tragedy. It is possible to argue that novelists in general give disproportionately less space to intellectual passions than their power in society warrants. People do think, and they do live and die for thoughts, as well as for jealousy or sex, or erotic or parental love. As that wise critic, Peter Stern, remarked drily, ‘seeing that modern men are as often intellectuals as they are gamekeepers or bullfighters, Mann’s preoccupation is, after all, hardly very esoteric’. It is perhaps worth making the point that my own early readings of The Magic Mountain, impeded by scholarly earnestness, trying to get my bearings in an ocean of unfamiliar words, and baffled by an inadequate translation, quite failed to see how funny, as well as ironic and subtle, much of the argumentation and debate is. The nature of our relation to the comedy changes as Castorp educates himself out of the extraordinary bourgeois unreflecting innocence in which he begins. He begins to be amused, and we readers begin to share his amusement, rather than laughing at him, or observing him from outside his world.
It is necessary to say something about the late appearance of the Personality, Mynheer Peeperkorn, a figure somewhere between Dionysus and Silenus, who is so little part of the verbal argument that he can never finish a sentence. The idea behind him is that here is someone who does not discuss living and dying, but simply lives and dies. He is what he is, and claims Clavdia because he is alive. To take him seriously as someone who transcends the dialectic between the disputing angels of ‘life’ and ‘death’ we need, I think, to see him in terms of Thomas Mann’s essay on Goethe and Tolstoy, published in 1922.
This complicated, passionate, witty essay compares the two great writers as earthy writers, comfortable in their skins, possessed of a natural egoism which is at the centre of their power as writers and as observers of the earth they live in. He uses for both of them the legend of the giant Antaeus ‘who was unconquerable because fresh strength streamed into him whenever he touched his mother earth’. Mann tells tales of playing games called ‘Numidian horsemen’ with a room full of adults and children. He recounts an incident recorded by Tolstoy’s father-in-law, Behrs:
They were walking about the room together in light converse one evening, when suddenly the elderly prophet sprang upon Behrs’s shoulder. He probably jumped down again at once; but for a second he actually perched up there, like a grey-bearded kobold — it gives one an uncanny feeling!
In the case of Goethe, Mann records, among other things, his sensitiveness to weather conditions:
It was due to his almost exaggerated sense-endowment; and became positively occult when that night in his chamber in Weimar he felt the earthquake in Messina. Animals have a nervous equipment that enables them to feel such events when they occur and even beforehand. The animal in us transcends; and all transcendence is animal. The highly irritable sense-equipment of a man who is nature’s familiar goes beyond the bounds of the actual senses, and issues in
the supra-sensual, in natural mysticism. With Goethe the divine animal is frankly and proudly justified of itself in all spheres of activity, even the sexual. His mood was sometimes priapic — a thing which of course does not happen with Tolstoy.
Mann contrasts this earthy self-possession with the spiritual ‘shadow-world’ of Dostoevsky (‘exaggeratedly true’) and with Schiller, another ‘son of thought’. Schiller’s
essay, ‘On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry’ was described by Mann as ‘the greatest of all German essays’. In it Schiller distinguishes between the ‘naive’ poet who has the plastic energy simply to make a world (Shakespeare, Homer), and the ‘sentimental’ poet who can only find a world through his own sensibility and reflections. Mann puts Schiller with Dostoevsky:
. . . the conflict between contemplation and ecstatic vision, is neither new nor old, it is eternal. And it finds complete expression in, on the one side, Goethe and Tolstoy, and on the other Schiller and Dostoevsky. And to all eternity the truth, power, calm and humility of nature will be in conflict with the disproportionate, fevered and dogmatic presumption of spirit.

Meet the Author

Thomas Mann was born in 1875 in Germany. He was only twenty-five when his first novel, Buddenbrooks, was published. In 1924 The Magic Mountain was published, and, five years later, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Following the rise of the Nazis to power, he left Germany for good in 1933 to live in Switzerland and then in California, where he wrote Doctor Faustus (first published in the United States in 1948). Thomas Mann died in 1955.

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The Magic Mountain 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although not the easiest of reading it is a fine book with several themes, Time being one of them. However, I cannot recommend the Woods translation. The purpose of Woods' interpretation is a mystery to me. It's lost all the depth and richness in this slaughtered version. The best translation is by H.T. Lowe-Porter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a dense read. Yet, it is rewarding. Like all great literature, one can relate it to events in his life. It is tragic, but uplifting at the same time. The author wanted the book to be read twice for full effect. I'm only going to climb this mountain once, but I don't regret the journey as the views from the top are beautiful.
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PBrant More than 1 year ago
The German author Thomas Mann had the luck, not of the Irish, but of the novice. His social novel "Buddenbrooks", his first one, became a world bestseller, and literally made his name. First published in 1901, the novel became his best-known work until "The Magic Mountain" appeared in 1924 (n the USA, 1927). Inbetween he published a number of stories and lesser novels, such as "Royal Highness." With "The Magic Mountain," though, Mann undertook a much more expansive and philosophical turn. His novel of the lives of tuberculosis patients in a Swiss alpine sanatorium involved a large cast of characters and a tragic tone. The tragedy not only lay in the patients' illness but in the misguided treatment of their diesease. For sending them to a high altitude sanatorium to be treated was more or less sealing their fate. The altitude debilitated them, and led to their death. The "cure" was fatal. However, the novel is not one of unrelieved gloom, but a portrait of member of pre-World War I society. Indeed, the story is somewhat derailed by some philosophical chapters, that have little to do with the plot. Nevertheless, the narrative is gripping and contains a great deal of moving events about the fates of the patients. All in all, "The Magic Mountain" leaves one touched by the sad fates of those afflicted by a disease that been the subject of many a 19th century novel: tuberculosis. In this novel they belong to a community of sufferers, who nevertheless face their desitny with a good deal of courage.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This 20th century masterpiece is usually billed as an intellectual microcosm of Europe on the brink of World War I. While true the real importance of this work, for me at least, is as a guide to individual spiritual growth. This is a book about myth, a myth thousands of years old that persistently keeps cropping up in the West it is a myth that wears many masks. It is the story of Osirus, Ulysses, Orestes, the Buddha, Jesus, Parzival, and, the unlikely hero of this work, Hans Castorp. It is also about you and me. It is about the journey of an individual soul and its struggle to realize itself, to become what it is destined to become. I,ve read this book four times already and continue to discover something I missed in the previous read. It has shown me that I'm living a myth, that I have gone, and am going, on Hans' path. Join him on his seven-year excursion in a posh Swiss sanitorium. I,ve studied the original German version in graduate school and read the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. The current translation by John Woods deservedly supercedes Ms. Porter's efforts. Thomas Mann privately thought her translations of his works were never quite adequate enough. Read, you won't be sorry.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Magnum Opus of perhaps the greatest 20th century author. How an 'ordinary' German youth in pre-Great War Germany really 'expands his mind' in a TB sanitorium.Vivid eccentric characters,medicine,philosophy,politics,the weather,woman,friendship,read it.It's worth every page,and your own mind will be seriously enlarged when you're through!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Probably one of the most beautiful books ever written about order and decay where the protagonist is in a permanent conflict between the sympathy with death and the acceptance of life. However, Mann never got the Nobel Prize for The Magic Mountain. That was awarded for his first novel Buddenbrooks. It's a pity that the synopsis on this site gives away what happens to Castorp in the end.