A few words in advance
This is my second attempt to do the cannonball read. My first was rather short-lived because I could not find the time to write reviews anymore and I hope I will make it this time. Bear in mind that English is not my first language, which means I will make mistakes. Feel free to point them out to me in the comments.
Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) is set before World War I. Hans Castorp, scion of a wealthy merchant family in Hamburg, Germany, travels to Davos in Switzerland to visit his cousin Joachim Ziemßen. Joachim is a patient in the Berghof, a sanatorium for lung disease (mainly tuberculosis). Initially, Hans only wants to stay three weeks. However, the sanatorium’s atmosphere as well as its patients and staff soon start to exert a strange fascination on the young engineering student, so he extends his sojourn.
The Magic Mountain is described as a Bildungsroman, a novel that describes a character’s educational voyage. When Hans Castorp arrives in Davos, he is a person lacking in ambition, and suddenly comes into contact with all kinds of people from different walks of life and countries. Several of them try to teach him something about various issues, like philosophy, politics, love, illness and death. Castorp himself observes how his perception of time changes during his stay and he develops a somewhat morbid taste in music.
Mann’s use of language was beautiful. I have rarely read something like it. Considering that the novel was first published in 1924, it can appear somewhat old-fashioned, so keep that in mind. I cannot say how well the translation captured the author’s style, though, since I read the book in German. The translator of the edition the Amazon link leads to has worked on several other of Thomas Mann’s works, so I trust he delivered a faithful rendition of the original.
Mann’s proficiency as a writer does not mean that The Magic Mountain is easy to read. The author may have had an exceptional style, but he took a very long time to say anything, which resulted in a very thick and dense book. Mann also referenced a lot of earlier German literary works – the eponymous mountain is a long-running element of German literature, for example. I only caught about half of them, which did not help in my understanding of the novel, I suppose.
Mann’s characters are either archetypes or caricatures of persons Mann knew in real life (his wife had spent some time in a Swiss sanatorium), and almost every one of them comes across as unsympathetic. Of course, that is only Hans Castorp’s perception, and Mann frequently made the effort to take a step back and talk to the reader about his protagonist, saying that he did not want to describe him as better or as worse than he really is.
The frustrating thing is that, while The Magic Mountain is supposed to be a Bildungsroman, Castorp does not really learn anything. I assume that the author wanted his readers to look into a mirror and see their mediocre selves, so they don’t do what Castorp did: wasting their lives.
In the end, The Magic Mountain is a really well written but hard to read book. You may require a bit of knowledge about the time period it is set in as well as about literature and philosophy to enjoy it. It might also require several readings to fully grasp what Thomas Mann wanted to tell his audience. I certainly recommend it, even if you only want to challenge yourself.