In Praise of Long Novels
Mann began writing The Magic Mountain before the first world war, stopped writing it during the war, and finished it afterwards. In all it took him twelve years to write. It was published in 1924, during the era of the League of Nations. The translation into English (by ‘H.T. L.-P.’ – the only information we have about her identity in the 1927 edition) found him an eager readership in America, where he went to live in 1939. Thomas Mann began with the intention to write a short companion novel to Death in Venice. The result was a book of 729 pages, in the Vintage edition I have just read, including the author’s afterword.
Like Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I think is even longer, the novel throws light on pre-war Germany and the end of empire, through a panoply of characters and personalities described in detail and representing different aspects of thought, as in a drama or theatrical production, so that the feeling is of an entire community, giving it a richness of context, such as seems to have been slowly worn away in fiction over the last century. Experiences and sensibilities seem freer, less trammelled, more joyous. And the fact that these books are not over-edited, or perhaps not edited at all, not concerned with looking over their shoulder at what others are writing, not written from the perspective of an animal or a flea, not reduced, (shall we call it that?) not lost in a sea of alienation, not sad, not single, not solipsistic, all these things make me want to celebrate these vast books. Never expecting them, or in Musil’s case, never seeing them, translated into English, their authors do not feel the need to conform to a literary canon quite different to their own. Both novels describe a burning need to get to the heart of what presented, at the beginning of the last century, an extremely confusing muddle.
And so Thomas Mann wrote freely, expansively, with no apology necessary for the length of his book, whose subject matter tended to “spread itself out and lose itself in shoreless realms of thought.” Helped by “the humorous and expansive English style”, he allows himself free rein. “The courage to recognise and express – that is the quality that makes literature – that is humanism.” Or as Hans Castorp, the confused hero, says, “I know I am talking nonsense, but I’d rather go rambling on, and partly expressing something I find difficult to express, than to keep on transmitting faultless platitudes.”
Themes or ‘leitmotifs’ weave in and out of a book in which a subtle lassitude holds sway, until war and death strike like a knife through the text and first leave just a rent, then bring about its sudden ending. The shock of this war in an era of apparent progress, sophistication and enlightenment, was equally abrupt.
Over the nineteenth century, liberal ideas and the current of revolution had apparently all turned backwards, reverting to monarchy and empire, which had in turn begun to disassemble by the time Mann was writing. If a novel can give insight, this one shows the decadence, entropy and general loss of faith of a civilisation imploding from within, due to what is portrayed as the deadening effect of bourgeois capitalism, in alliance with “the silliest realism of science – the sorriest, most spiritless dogma ever imposed upon humanity.” One hundred years or so later, as we mark the centenary of armistice day, in an era when religion is cast down, and when science, realism, materialism, nihilism, in the words Mann uses, appear triumphant, we can perhaps agree with Castorp’s remark, that “there are many kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst.”
In The Magic Mountain, Mann describes Castorp’s journey away from the northern ‘flatlands’, where he has been training as an engineer, for a brief visit to his cousin in the mountains, at the sanatorium Berghof. On arrival at the hospital, Castorp’s body takes centre stage, and his symptoms are deftly and progressively measured by a thermometer, various scientific instruments, x-rays and glass plates, providing evidence of his medical condition and the necessity of a cure. Now the patient is absolved of any personal responsibility and may leave the ‘flatlands’ down below with a clear conscience, retreating indefinitely to the purer air of the mountains. Patients are encouraged to stay on indefinitely, or at best come and go, opting in, willingly, to an atmosphere of pagan freedom where doors can be slammed and seances held. Subtly, and sanctioned by the families who pay for their relatives to stay there, the illness – tuberculosis – up in the mountains becomes a metaphor of rebellion against the status quo down below, allowing the lightheaded freedom to explore anything they decide to think about. The cure at the Berghof is accompanied by regular psychoanalytic lectures concerning love, and there are lively debates on matters of religion, justice, religion, human progress and so forth.
The Berghof is a place of retreat, and its enclosed world is also a place also of discovery, where bizarre humour and bonhomie are present side by side with death. It is a place of asylum, inactivity, eccentricity and withdrawal from the world. Rather than moving through as quickly as possible, the patients inevitably do stay, and their stay is taken for granted. There is an acceptance of death that is almost chilling, but also of difference – the fleeing into sickness of people who are displaced, frustrated, uncomfortable in some way, or simply wishing to die. While examining the body and its ailments, there is also an embracing of the adventures of the spirit, to which the Berghof patients all in different ways subscribe.
Our human journey, as Mann sees it, must inevitably lead us through some kind of inner confusion or darkness, with its possibility of a ‘spiritual backsliding’ to a darker age, however much we try to resist it. It may take us through something which could be characterised as a ‘disease’, to which we submit, in order to move on through sacrifice, possible death, and renewal. Here in the sanatorium Berghof, there is a general ‘slackening’ and a loosing of bonds, where, paradoxically, the spirit flourishes in a body that is sick, and finds its ultimate freedom in the ability to move, without fear, between the possibilities of eros and death, until its final sacrifice on the field of battle, with which the novel ends.
Before the end, Castorp has a dream, that he is “lying in a meadow, with one leg drawn up, the other flung over – and those were goat’s legs crossed there before him.” He was playing on a little wooden pipe – “A young faun joyous on a summer meadow. No ‘justify thyself,’ was here; no challenge, no priestly court-martial upon one who strayed away and was forgotten of honour. Forgetfulness held sway, a blessed hush, the innocence of those places where time is not; ‘slackness’ with the best conscience in the world, the very apotheosis of rebuff to the Western world and that world’s insensate ardour for the ‘deed’.”
It is as if the remorseless approach of the sickness, the disease of love, both in Death in Venice and in The Magic Mountain, liberates its willing victim from an even more sinister betrayal of love, which the return to normality demands. When Aschenbach dies in Venice, with the name of his beloved on his lips, he has finally come to an understanding of the importance of eros, and of creativity. And it is with the same dream of love that The Magic Mountain ends: “The fruit of life, conceived of death, pregnant of dissolution; it was a miracle of the soul, perhaps the highest, in the eye and sealed with the blessing of conscienceless beauty;” He who died for it … “was a hero only because he died for the new, the new word of love and the future that whispered in his heart.”
Such is the joy of literature. The freedom to write for as you long as you like and to speak all the secrets of your heart without fear of censure. The new word of love, and of the future.