- The Magic Mountain, Then and Now
I cannot say I have a favorite novel (not one, anyway), but can say that certain novels changed my life, or at least marked it indelibly. Such a one is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which I read when I was in college. It was the summer after freshman year and I was working as a typist in the large office of an auto insurance company in Chicago, addressing form letters to people who were behind on their premium payments. I truly hated that job, but Barnard College was expensive even with my scholarship, and my family was not wealthy; my parents and I had agreed that I would work over the summer to help pay the difference.
Carrying the book around with me on my daily commute to the Loop was a reminder that the mind-numbing job was only temporary, that I would soon be back in New York on Morningside Heights, thinking about Things That Mattered. Thomas Mann (through no fault of his own) was the perfect alibi for my sophomoric arrogance, or rather, my insecurity. He appeared to me as the most profound, most excitingly intelligent writer I had ever encountered; and the miracle of his prose, even in translation, was that he made his reader, me, feel intelligent as well. The story of Hans Castorp, a likable but quite ordinary young German (the narrator keeps reminding us of his ordinariness), who becomes transformed—refined, as it were--into a thinking being during his long sojourn in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, could not but appeal to me. I too was quite ordinary, the daughter of a Jewish immigrant family who was doing her best to become American, "just like everybody else." At the same time, I yearned for the cultural sophistication that Mann promised and that I associated mainly with Europe. The fact that Hans Castorp and the woman he falls in love with at the sanatorium speak to each other in French, and that Mann did not hesitate to give us their dialogues untranslated, was proof of his high expectations from his readers. I knew French, had even learned it before I learned English, during the months my family had spent in Haiti on our way to the United States seven years earlier. I felt validated!1
And then there were the intellectual fireworks between Settembrini and Naphta, the Enlightenment humanist and the Jesuitical dialectician, who vie for Hans Castorp's admiration and concurrence as if they were sparring over possession of his soul. Their debates were a whole education, [End Page 146] and while I didn't follow all their arguments, I felt their magic. In the end, the magic comes crashing down with the outbreak of World War I, which sends Hans Castorp back to the everyday world below and to an almost certain death, along with so many other young men in that conflagration.
All in all, The Magic Mountain delivered on its promise. I was enthralled with Thomas Mann.
And now? By a tried-and-true narrative logic, what comes next should be a deflation: as a young, insecure reader I was enthralled, but now that I am older and presumably wiser, I see many faults in the novel: my earlier response was exaggerated. Not so. I reread it recently, in the newer translation by John E. Woods (I had read the one by H.T. Lowe-Porter, Mann's first translator), and was still enchanted with it, even as I noticed things I had not seen before. For example, the object of Hans Castorp's love is described as "Asiatic," a woman from the eastern reaches of the Russian Empire, whose "Kirghiz eyes" captivate him; but I forgave Mann that bit of ethnic stereotyping, just as I forgave myself for having failed to notice, at age eighteen, what any college student today would surely remark on: the source of the captivating Clavdia Chauchat's sway over Hans Castorp is her gender ambiguity. Her "Kirghiz eyes" are exactly the same as those of a boy Hans had been infatuated with when he was in school.
What really drew...