Der Zauberberg. (Allemand) Relié – 31 août 2003
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So after having read Tolstoy War and Peace it is time for me to have another go at this book. My German has improved much over the years and I really enjoy the richness and typical German way of writing. Somehow I thought Der Zauberberg would be a heavyhanded, almost depressing book. But it is actually quite the opposite. Like a neighbour you 've known all your life suddenly surprises you with a complete new way of looking at things.
I like it :-)
Not sure how to write a review of Der Zauberberg with something of value added to what others have written. Other reviews have included the important plot elements and themes. All pretty monumental: the relativity of time, illness as metaphor, life and death, civilian life vs. military duty, forebodings of catastrophe, repressed desire, liberal humanism, revolutionary philosophy, East vs. West, Apollonian vs Dionysian world views, music as a dangerous influence, paranormal experiences, dreams and visions as a special reality, it's all in there. Einstein, Freud, and Marx all get a workout, without the names ever being mentioned. So instead of a comprehensive review, a few details perhaps:
Mann loves the new technologies becoming available in the early 20th century. His intensely detailed and poetic description of an ordinary record player is enchanting even today after it has been superseded by newer technology. And he loves the concentric grooves of the record itself. Later I saw a photograph of him watching a record play,and his whole body language shows how he is entranced. His family called him "Der Zauberer", the magician. But his magic was possible because he himself is susceptible to the magic in ordinary things.
And what he does with ordinary x-rays, never using the common German word based on the name of the inventor Roentgen. It's Lichtbild, or some other substitute identification. Hans Castorp is horrified and enchanted by the process of looking into the body and seeing the heart. Castorp treasures an x-ray of the lungs of the woman he loves. That's a bit creepy, and adds to the erotic Venusberg mood of the mountain top hospital.
I think Mann may have studied the savage news photos coming out of World War I. They were circulated widely not just in newspapers, but as millions of postcards with scenes of battlefields and destruction. I have no documentation that Mann was fascinated by them, just a little internal evidence. There is a fleetingly weird and incongruent glimpse of cannibalism in one of Castorp's otherwise idyllic visions when he is dazed out in the snow. Disturbing photos of cannibalism were circulated after the Russian Revolution, part of an attempt to solicit international aid. And the concluding scene of the novel seems based on these postcard depictions of battlefields, and possibly early documentary film footage.
Nature has its magic: the snow storm is the favorite scene for most reviewers. For me the waterfall scenes are the most beautiful, and the waterfall plays a role at several pivotal moments: when newly arrived Castorp has a nosebleed by the waterfall and decides he must be ill somehow too. When Peeperkorn delivers a rant no one can hear because of the noise of the rushing water, but it doesn't matter that no one understands, because his words never make sense anyway...but the rant precedes his suicide.
Beyond the weird magic of ordinary things and the spell cast by nature, there is the entertaining magic of different personalities. Each character seems to have an attribute like classic gods and Catholic saints. Marusja, the woman that Castorp's cousin is in love with, is always giggling into an orange-scented handkerchief. Frau Stoerr mutters one malapropism after another, to great effect. Castorp's love interest, Clawdia Chauchat has a number of attributes: poorly manicured hands, letting doors slam, touching the back of her head to smooth her hair. He is initially put off by these characteristics, and gradually they become part of her seductive charm. Mann plays with these attributes, setting little traps that spring shut later in the story. When his beloved Clawdia returns, Castorp anticipates hearing the door to the dining room slam behind her, but for once it doesn't. She's accompanied by a new lover, Peeperkorn, who holds the door for her. The non-slam ushers in the dramatic confrontation between the two men, leading to the lover's suicide, Clawdia's second departure, and Castorps recovery from an imaginary illness.
Mann plays constantly with language. Ordinary words are introduced and then recombined in extraordinary ways. Rest treatments are a Liegekur, two common words made into something odd. Joachim is obsessed with military duty, and his attribute is devotion to military service or Dienst. Out of this Mann comes up with Liegedienst...obligation to rest at designated times. Ordinary things start to seem weird, and odd things seem to be accepted reality. Some kind of alienation. He likes to take the common term for something and translate it root by root into German, so he doesn't use Psychoanalyse, instead he writes Seelenzergliederung...again alienation and a bit of magic.
Once I finished the book, reality started to look a bit unreal. Ordinary things took on abstract meaning, even getting a fever seemed like a moral question that required extensive examination. And I can hear Settembrini and Naphta commenting on the things I buy at the grocery store. These unreal characters have taken on a life of their own off the page.