Book Review: The Magic Mountain


The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann
706 pages
Published in 1924

The leisure class under quarantine

Does this sound familiar? There’s a respiratory illness in the world that strikes down some people but not others. This illness is not well understood. There’s no cure or effective prevention. Treatment options are, admittedly, few. For suffers, the best plan is to say goodbye to their regular lives. These people must live in a self-imposed lockdown which experts believe will aid in their recovery. How long will they need to stay apart from the rest of the world? When will it be safe?

If a serious illness and a severe response remind you of today’s global pandemic, you’re not alone. Our current health crisis has uncanny similarities to the one found in The Magic Mountain. The illness described in Thomas Mann’s novel is tuberculosis (TB). The novel’s setting is a sanatorium, a long-stay hospital in the Swiss Alps. Residents flock to the Davos-Platz sanatorium for the prized alpine air. There, the terminally ill voluntarily quarantine themselves in hopes that the region’s mile-high altitude will slow or reverse tuberculosis, as medical experts believed at the time.

How long will they need to stay apart from the rest of the world? When will it be safe?

A question is raised repeatedly in The Magic Mountain. Are these experts correct? Is high mountain air a therapeutic remedy for TB? Is it necessary to leave one’s everyday life to spend months or even years in a remote sanatorium? Will a patient die if this drastic treatment is rejected? How bad of a case does one even have? Using equipment of the day, the doctors can only look as “through a glass darkly” at one’s internal health. Is an X-ray sufficient to judge the severity of a case? Is “better safe than sorry” worth forfeiting one’s freedom? And, are doctors justified in putting the fear of death into patients who leave the sanatorium? Or are they on a power trip, playing God?

The novel’s protagonist finds himself asking these very questions. Hans Castorp is told unequivocally; he needs to stay at Berghof Sanatorium as a patient. There’s a “moist spot” showing on his X-Ray. The bearer of this news is none other than the sanatorium’s director, Hofrat Behrens. Hans Castorp isn’t sure about this diagnosis. He’s in his early twenties. He came to the sanatorium to visit his cousin, Joachim, who suffers from TB. After a few weeks of visiting his sick cousin, Castorp is informed by the head medical expert that he is also seriously ill.

Thomas Mann follows an intellectual class stuck in limbo to stave off an existential threat …

So begins a 700-page novel that mediates on, among other things, the cost of safety. Thomas Mann follows an intellectual class stuck in limbo to stave off an existential threat, a senseless early death. These are thinking people. They recognize the high cost they pay to breathe the rarefied mountain air. To prevent a worsening lung disease with no cure, they cease to live with full agency. They become victims of what Mann terms “The Stupor.” A hellish origin is ascribed to this term. The sanatorium is increasingly depicted as an enchanted place that saps a person of vitality and life. John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond comes to mind. What began as a wise curative plan turned into a different form of a terminal sickness.

If this scenario brings to mind the response to our global pandemic, you’re not alone.

The Magic Mountain begins in 1907 and follows newcomer Hans Castorp through his unexpected seven-year stay at Berghof sanatorium. Castorp is a borderline case. He has a constant fever and flushed skin. He may not have TB. Nevertheless, Castorp accepts the director’s advice to put his life on hold because “better safe than sorry.” Director Behrens becomes one of several father figures for Castorp, who (as it happens) is an orphan in need of pedagogical guidance.

Author Mann is determined to educate Castorp through the novel’s events. (It appears Mann wishes to singularly define the term bildungsroman through this massive book.) In the novel’s forward (novels do not, generally, require the author to speak to us in a foreword), Mann outright remarks that Castorp is “perfectly ordinary.” We get the point. Mann signals he has work to do in making his creation remarkable. In the following pages, a reader will encounter a wide-eyed pseudo-intellectual with an outsized view of his potential. He is a typical literary character for an ego as large as Mann’s.

… a reader will encounter a wide-eyed pseudo-intellectual with an outsized view of his potential.

A successful theme in The Magic Mountain is the mystical thinking surrounding the tuberculosis cure. Doctors and patients regard the sanatorium’s minor treatments with the seriousness of religious sacraments. The principal therapy for TB suffers isn’t medical. Antibiotics were only discovered as a cure decades later, in 1945. Instead, patients are instructed to wrap themselves in blankets and lay exposed to the mountain air for several intervals per day. This lazy treatment is given official terminology, a rest cure. Castorp asks early on, won’t sitting outside cause you to catch a cold? The reply holds the power of religious zeal. Colds don’t exist in Davos-Platz. The mountain air is a cure. Castorp proudly gives this answer later, showing the extent of his immersion in sanatorium life.

Residents also pop thermometers into their mouths several times per day in a type of communion. They appear to believe that tuberculosis will favor the vigorous habits they keep as if they’re required to appease a vengeful God, not manage an illness. Castorp rightly scoffs at these treatments when he arrives. What good will they do? As he trades his independence for the magical reality of the sanatorium bubble, however, he clings to these habits, termed cures, which appear designed to occupy patients’ time and give them hope. For each patient who arrives, the sanatorium becomes the standard for healthy living, the place where people were destined to live. The flatlands below become an underworld that an enlightened few have escaped for an affluent, impregnable home in the clouds. This theme is the most successful of those found in the novel.

… he trades his independence for the magical reality of the sanatorium bubble …

Is the sanatorium a benevolent place? Hans Castorp receives evidence to the contrary. He hears residents describe the blow when Director Behrens nonchalantly adds more time “to their sentence” as if they’re stuck in prison. The director uses jokes and even mockery to keep patients from giving up his prolonged treatment and leaving. The fanciful rest cure is rigorously enforced. Patients talk worriedly of someone defying Behrens’s orders as if he’s Moses bringing down the tablets from Mt. Sinai. Patients also forego personal autonomy. The dining arrangement is selected by sanatorium staff. Patients can’t sit where they choose. Everyone complies with this practice and patients glance at each other from their assigned seats like schoolchildren.

At around the 200-page mark of The Magic Mountain, the reader thumbs ahead. “This novel is a fat 700 pages!” It is set in a sanatorium where patients are, by and large, stuck living lives of leisure and small pleasures. Does anyone see a problem with the book’s length, given this restrictive story? It’s an issue, for sure. Many readers have concluded, there is way more book here than Mann’s narrative calls for.

At around the 300-page mark, the reader takes a breath and observes, “Mann appears hell-bent on making The Magic Mountain a long book!” Long books are great. And yet, why did Mann choose this story to make so long? Perhaps, he fell in love with the book’s concept, a novel set on a mountain being a climb of its own. Unfortunately, Mann’s focus is too small, and this is a 300-page story stretched to 700 pages.

… this is a 300-page story stretched to 700 pages.

When Tolstoy wrote a long novel, he included more than one storyline. Anna Karenina is actually two novels in one. It’s the story of the love triangle between Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin, and also of Levin and Kitty’s romance. Tolstoy goes back and forth between these two compelling narratives, and he also weaves them together in a satisfying way.

Thomas Mann is determined to make this novel about one person. Never mind the fact that Mann says Hans Castorp is unremarkable. Never mind that the story is set in a place where people sit around and talk. The decision to focus a mammoth narrative on one character, any character, is a scale of difficulty that Mann couldn’t achieve.

Of course, Mann did succeed in dragging his narrative to the 700-page mark. He is forever known as a great writer because he tapped into the mythos of a gloomy mountain and had a lot to say about it. Where Mann succeeds in historical literature, the reader suffers. We pay the price for Mann’s greatness. How so?

Where Mann succeeds in historical literature, the reader suffers.

We’re asked to wade through a lot of filler. The author’s strategies for extending his narrative are annoying, grating, and regrettable more often than not. Had Mann synthesized the best part of his book, the magical thinking of desperate intellectuals, this novel would be as great of a read as it was a success.

So, what is the novel about? Mann uses two idealogues, Settembrini and Naptha, to argue at length about Western society. It’s Mann’s wish to make his novel a visionary statement about humanity right before The Great War that ushered in modern life. Settembrini, a socialist, cautions Castorp to follow a materialist path. Naptha, a spiritist and Jesuit, encourages Castorp to embrace chaos because within it lies the hand of God. It sounds more interesting here than it is. Whenever either man appears, the reader is treated to long monologues of abstract rhetoric. It’s hard to imagine Castorp being corrupted when the instructions he hears are so vague. He’s not told to rob a bank or to go back to school. Instead, he’s implored to pledge allegiance to a lofty ideal. Despite its vaunted reputation, The Magic Mountain is a novel about coffeehouse squabbles.

What The Magic Mountain becomes is a study in literary ambition. Read the novel this way and it stays interesting partly for how an author exposes his greed. We follow not his boring one-note story but his method for achieving it. How does a writer with prodigious talent, as Mann surely had, debase himself to reach his predetermined goals? It’s an often-embarrassing process.

A reader of Mann’s novel can’t help but notice specific details being mentioned again and again.

Let’s start here. How often should a great writer repeat his references? A reader of Mann’s novel can’t help but notice specific details being mentioned again and again. Repeating these phrases affords the opportunity to reiterate the context of these phrases, which adds to the page count. Thanks to the search feature of the Kindle edition, we can count precisely how many times Thomas Mann refers to certain things:

Number of times Hans Castorp mentions his cigar brand Maria Mancini: 23

Number of times Hans Castorp mentions his childhood friend Pribislav Hippe: 25

Number of times Hans Castorp remarks about Clavdia Chauchat slamming the dining room door: 30

Number of times Hans Castorp refers to Lodovico Settembrini as “the humanist:” 31

Number of times a pencil is referenced as a symbol of romantic curiosity: 52

Number of times Settembrini refers to Hans Castorp as “my good engineer:” 73

Of course, it may appear obsessive to catalog these instances of repetition! For a reader of the novel, it’s a reassuring exercise. One begins to question one’s sanity after seeing these details again and again. The final tally tells the story. The author’s pet names hold their charm through the first dozen references. After that, the cleverness wears thin.

(Readers of the novel will note the omission of mentions of the Good Russian and Bad Russian tables.)

Did Mann have an editor for this book? It doesn’t seem very likely. This novel breaks every rule of etiquette that a kind writer should show to his reader, and they’re the rules that a good editor would attempt to enforce.

  • After a first lengthy description, keep subsequent descriptions of clothing, food, building interiors and nature short and economical; if you must continue with long explanations, tie them to the larger goals of the story; no scenery for scenery’s sake.
  • Omit scenes that add little to nothing to the story; some writers can fill pages with beautiful prose that nevertheless wear down a reader’s patience.
  • Choose dialogue wisely; avoid combative exchanges between characters that allow for long monologues.
  • Show, don’t tell; make forward-moving action the norm; keep a character’s interior thinking to a minimum; give the reader something to see and do, not just to ponder.

For the sake of brevity, consider that Thomas Mann does the opposite of everything listed here. Mann spends half a page writing about stairs to a basement. Enough said.

Mann spends half a page writing about stairs to a basement. Enough said.

Thomas Mann was regarded as one of Europe’s most stylish writers. He was photographed in a studious pose, in a high-breasted suit, his hair slicked back with pomade. Mann wore an imperial glower at being interrupted as if to say, “fine, I will permit you one picture. One!” Thomas Mann did win the Nobel Prize. He was esteemed.

He clearly had a narrative gift for describing a scene impeccably. Mann wrote in a verbose but effortless style. His work has attracted many admirers, including fans of The Magic Mountain. And yet, perhaps due to the age of the novel, his artistic choices don’t land in the way they should today, starting with character names.

The novel takes place in an international sanatorium. A modern American reader can’t pretend to know how faithful these names are to a pre-World War I setting. One can only question the level of pretension in the names and how distracting they can be.

  • Why the alternate spelling Clavdia instead of Claudia?
  • Why Lodovico instead of the more accepted Ludovico?
  • Mynheer Peeperkorn? Really?

It can seem petty to dissect an author’s naming style. And yet, this novel strains for artistic glory on every page. The names do become another instance of an author trying too hard to separate himself from other novels and his book suffering because of it.

… this novel strains for artistic glory on every page.

Clavdia Chauchat is a name that simply tries too hard. The novel is full of them. Joachim Ziemssen becomes the most grounded name in the book.

Another place where an editor would have helped; Thomas Mann’s descriptions of women can be off-putting, even creepy. He repeatedly describes a woman’s prominent chest as if it’s a character defect. He labels her chest worm-eaten, to reference her tubercular lungs. The description jumps out absent any political agenda. It’s bad poetry.

There are two extended scenes where a man describes his carnal desires. The reader may not take a literal shower after reading these scenes, but it’s the thing you say when you encounter such stuff. The first scene is Hans Castorp speaking to his love interest Clavdia (not Claudia). Castorp says things I don’t want to list here because, to be honest, I don’t want a search engine connecting this blog to the type of language he uses. Let’s just say he goes far into the “delicious zones” of the human body. It has the opposite effect on the reader, neither romantic nor passionate. The body becomes a dismembered object as Castorp speaks and it’s clear Mann feels that he is showing off.

The other scene involves a man with an obsessive twitch speaking to Castorp about Clavdia. His monologue is worse than Castorp’s earlier one. He talks about the woman as a piece of flesh and argues that Clavdia is obligated to let him have his way with her.

There’s a delicate balance when describing anti-social attitudes.

A literary novel can have its gritty moments. There’s a delicate balance when describing anti-social attitudes. Mann writes as if his passion for the subject will be self-explanatory. It’s where an editor could steer a writer toward a better solution.

In terms of grittiness, do we learn what young Hans Castorp does with his passions? We follow Castorp through the minutest details of his day. We read nothing about his romantic life outside of pining for Clavdia whom he barely speaks to the entire novel. Mann seems to forget that how a young man deals with his procreative drives defines this season of life. Most men get married. From what we’re not told about him, Hans Castorp seems to lead the sexless existence of a Catholic priest, an unlikely outcome.

What’s the plot? Not much. The author favors events. This novel is a series of episodes viewed over the shoulder of “perfectly ordinary” Hans Castorp. There are plot points that arrive, eventually. For a reader who is semi-paying attention, these plot points are what you would expect to find in a literary novel, i.e., plot twists are based on a common sense of irony. You’ll guess them before you get there.

And so, Hans Castorp comes to a sanatorium perfectly healthy but must stay for seven years. His cousin Joachim leaves the sanatorium against the doctor’s orders, gets ill, and dies. Castorp pines for a married woman who, through her indifference, comes to respect Castorp, but they never consummate their affair. Two ideological mentors of Hans Castorp’s, fiercely opposite in their views, eventually have a duel, but one doesn’t kill the other. Instead, one kills himself. Hans Castorp finally awakes from the malaise that has kept him on the enchanted mountain for seven years. Except, what wakes him up is World War I. He leaves the sanatorium only to fight and die in battle.

Did Hans Castorp learn anything?

This last plot point is senseless to a reader who has survived the novel’s avalanche of pages. The reason for Castorp’s stay at the sanatorium was his health. For clinging to the sanatorium’s rules, he lost his career, his family, and his identity. Thomas Mann sees fit to have intellectual Castorp leave his safe room to run headlong in a war that (Mann knows) Germany will lose. What of the moral development we had witnessed? Did a rash action of any kind become the answer for a young man afraid to live? What did we read for 700 pages?

A bildungsroman is the moral and spiritual education of a character. Did Hans Castorp learn anything? He pondered the meaning of existence from a hospital bed for seven years, only to grab a rifle and die on a battlefield.

Anyone who has read this lengthy review will understand; this is a novel that readers are afraid of—the long, pretentious classic that wastes your time. We say, “you should try reading a time-tested book, one of the greats!” Your first thought is a book like this one. Meandering, indulgent, and largely pointless today, The Magic Mountain has aged poorly. Frankly, this book gives classic literature a bad name.

Meandering, indulgent, and largely pointless today, The Magic Mountain has aged poorly.

And yet, it’s not the norm. The Magic Mountain is read much less often than David Copperfield or War and Peace. It’s an example of a novel we don’t see much anymore, “a novel of ideas.” Many of us prefer to read a story of characters, action, and humility. Nearly all of the surviving classic books were written in this style, fortunately.

The Magic Mountain survives to tempt readers much as Hofrat Behrens tempts Hans Castorp into staying at the sanatorium. Thomas Mann suggests he has something you need to know for your own moral and spiritual development. Some of us leave after a full stay. Others flee within an hour. What say you, Thomas Mann asks. What say you?

Published by Eugene Havens

I'm an American writer, author of "Marble on a Table: A Novel." I have an MFA in fiction writing from The New School and a BA in journalism from the University of Oregon. I live in the Pacific Northwest.

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