Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Adventure classics -- Mountain of refuge, flatlands of death

The Magic Mountain

by Thomas Mann


“An ordinary young man was on his way from his hometown. . . .” is the suitably fairy tale-like beginning Thomas Mann gave to The Magic Mountain. For the journey of this ordinary young man, Hans Castorp, will be as extraordinary as any fairy tale. Planning to spend three weeks at the mountain sanatorium with his tubucular cousin, Hans instead finds his sojourn stretching to seven years, in which he will mingle with a microcosm of the Europe about to explode into war.

Inspired by his wife’s visit to a similar institution in Davos, Switzerland, in 1912, Mann began writing this epic novel as a comic counterpoint to his novella Death in Venice. But a cataclysmic thing happened as he wrote -- the outbreak of the first World War. By the time The Magic Mountain was published in 1924, difference between the Europe before and the Europe after the time of the novel’s setting would cause Mann in his foreword to characterize it as “a story that took place long ago, and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history and must necessarily be told with verbs whose tense is that of the deepest past.”

At first glance, a sanatorium for a disease incurable in the pre-antibiotic era hardly seems the safest of refuges. Assigned a visitor’s room in what is as much a luxurious hotel as a hospital, Hans is at first startled to learn that a patient died two days earlier in the bed he will sleep in. But half-lulled by the resident physicians into believing himself ill, half-intrigued by the languorous atmosphere -- “you wouldn’t believe how fast and loose they play with people’s time around here,” his cousin assures him -- he lengthens his stay away from the “flatlands” that residents believe are deadly to them, until what was a hospital becomes his home.

Inside the charmed atmosphere of introspection, eroticism and erudition, he mingles with representatives of countries his German homeland will soon be at war with. It’s almost a idyllic United Nations -- with excellent food -- until the outbreak of war sets the residents fleeing to the deadly flatlands where, Mann implies, Hans will probably perish in battle.

“What Castorp learns to fathom,” Mann later wrote, “is that all higher health must have passed through illness and death.” But if the writer hoped the illness and death of a great war would lead his country to greater health, that hope was soon dashed.

Realizing that his resistence to Hitler would make Germany unsafe for them, Mann and his wife, from a secular Jewish family, fled the country in 1933. They emigrated to the United States, then after World War II to Switzerland, where Mann would remain, away from the deathly “flatlands” for the rest of his life.

Epic though Mann’s novel is, I couldn’t help comparing it to Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s much slighter, wistful fantasy of 1933, the year Mann fled Germany. Hilton’s Shangri-La hidden in the Himalayas, like the mountain of Davos, houses a cultural microcosm saved from the ravages of time. And like the sanatorium, descending from Shangri-La’s mountain heights to the flatlands around it brings about the death of its inhabitants.

Mann descends from his mountain, hoping for the world’s health after its trials. Hilton takes his characters up a still-higher mountain, hoping some remnants of culture will survive the next conflagration.

Mann’s novel was so complex, he suggested reading it twice. But for sounding profound, whether or not you’ve climbed the mountain, chose his finest words at

And for more about James Hilton and the sanctuary of Shangri-La, see my March 23, 2012, post, “Sanctuary from the world,” at this site.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a month of young protagonists with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.)

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