That Thomas Mann has fallen out of fashion is no real surprise. As with many eminently readable authors, it is simply that Mann’s books are of a type no longer widely appreciated, and only very rarely produced anymore. He does not fit into the curriculum. Full appreciation requires at least a layman’s familiarity with a wide breadth of classical and historical allusions. Sadly, such qualities probably serve to disqualify Mann from his rightful place in the modern pantheon—these days, allegory and allusion remain in currency only through their occasional appearance as ironic relics.
Traditionally, critical reappraisals begin with the reconceptualization of the artist in question, a recoloring of their signature virtues to fit modern notions of truth and beauty. Mann resists any such updating. He is, as much as can be imagined, a creature of history, and more so The Magic Mountain is an artifact of one particular moment in history. It does not provide a mirror for the modern mentality, except to say that in its broad scope and unerring rigor we see the degraded state of our own ideological interactions.
As has been repeated, The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas. Between its covers there is a multitude of ideas both large and small, as well as the interaction of ideas with ideology and the intersection of passion and precision. To see the satirically pedantic tone as a deficiency is simply to fail to grasp the scope of Mann’s designs. In her introduction, A.S. Byatt pointedly characterizes modern audiences:
Novel-readers expect certain emotional satisfactions—love and liking, drama and tension, insights into the motivations and drives of characters. At first, and at second glance these things are deficient in this story . . . Nevertheless, I think, we persist in trying to read this story as a novel, and not simply as an allegory. This is partly at least because Mann always raises his structure of meaning on a foundation of the real, the solid, the banal, the observable.
Byatt here pinpoints one of the novel’s chief virtues, that is, the inimitable sense of moral and metaphysical ambiguity that permeates almost every page. We are accustomed to having our allegories dressed in strange clothes, containing fantastic elements that sever the story from the realm of the mundane. Whether you’re reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are usually textual implications which signal the reader to be aware that multiple layers of meaning are present for interpretation. These same indicators are at once absent from and obvious in Mann’s work. Indeed, the milieu of The Magic Mountain could not be more precisely literal and exact in its level of immersive description and attention to realistic minutia. However, it also revels in an almost picayune fascination with ideological and mythological errata—characters make commonplace references to myth and legend, and these references are at once flippant and revealing. The combination of the diaphanous and the direct gives the novel a strange power, like a fever-dream, simultaneously surreal and hyperreal.
The novel stretches a full seven years—seven years during which young Hans Castorp, fresh from university and ready to begin his commission as a civil engineer, is unexpectedly derailed while visiting his cousin Joachim at the Sanatorium Berghof. Joachim is undergoing an indefinite stay while recovering from tuberculosis. During what was designed to be a brief three-week visit, Castorp is himself diagnosed and prescribed to stay—which he does, for the long duration.
If Castorp is presented to the reader as a cipher, it is not because he lacks in convincing psychology, but merely that he represents a forgotten archetype almost wholly alien to the American character. Castorp is the conscientious and methodical student, well aware of his own ignorance and unwilling to be considered callow, an empty vessel as yet unfilled. As he falls into the orbits of the Italian pedant and scholar Settembrini (undoubtedly named for the Italian radical Luigi Settembrini, who maintained that literature “is as the very soul of the nation, seeking, in opposition to medieval mysticism, reality, freedom, independence of reason, truth and beauty”), and subsequently the German pedagogue Naphta (naphtha is a Persian word for “volatile, flammable liquid”), he is slowly filled, not so much with pure knowledge as the awareness and elaboration of dichotomy. Much as the Hegelian dialectic finds synthesis through opposing thesis and antithesis, Settembrini’s brittle, redeeming humanism and Naphta’s verdant, overripe, and essentially decayed romanticism form the two poles between which Castorp’s spiritual and intellectual struggles are contextualized. Here we see not just Castorp’s gradual awakening but the whole spectrum of European—and particularly German—thought in the years leading up to the First World War. The conflict between “cold” rationality and “hot” passion—for the sake of simplicity, between French civilization, as represented by Voltaire and Emile Zola, and German classicism and German romance, represented by the ultimate Dionysian impulses of Wagner and Goethe—eventually came to define Germany’s disastrous ideological ruin.
In the context of the broad metaphysical struggles that form the heart of the book, The Magic Mountain is also, in an indirect manner, deeply autobiographical. Mann became estranged from his brother, Heinrich, during the First World War as a result of Heinrich’s general castigation of the war and outspoken support of the French intellectual character. Thomas became incensed and was inspired during the war years to produce a reactionary philosophical tract entitled Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, directly opposed to the notions of Western European “civilization” in favor of Germanic “romance”. But the Reflections were published in 1918. By the time The Magic Mountain was published in 1924, Mann had seen the folly of Germany’s martial ambitions, and had reconciled with his brother on both a personal and political level. Although Mann is careful to paint both sides of his debate as deeply flawed, there is no doubt that ultimately the forces of life and progress must back the rational humanist against the passionate reactionary.
Byatt refers to the novel as a “Dantesque allegory”, but I believe the novel’s kinship with the poet runs deeper than mere structure. Dante’s Divine Comedy, more than merely an allegory, served as a metaphorical atlas of the medieval mind, an exhumation of the thoughts, fears, beliefs and aspirations of the poet’s society. The Magic Mountain lays bare the complex web of philosophical, political and metaphysical contradictions and conflicts which eventually fueled the defining wars of the 20th century. The novel ends, as it must, with the onset of the war, the proverbial thunderbolt that symbolizes the end of the past and the beginning of modernity. If, after 850 pages of philosophy, it seems brutally superfluous, well, such is the nature of war: to comprehend the vastness of conflict, and the scope of its indelible spiritual bankruptcy, is to loathe it as anathema.
From 1928 until the early 1980s, the only legal English translations of much of Mann’s work were those of Helen Lowe-Porter. For the fifty years during which Lowe-Porter’s work enjoyed a monopoly, bilingual scholars and critics grumbled that not only were her translations exceedingly sloppy, but in many places stunningly inaccurate. (For an excellent examination of this, please see David Luke’s introduction to the 1988 Bantam Classic edition of Death in Venice.) When Lowe-Porter’s exclusive copyright finally lapsed, a multitude of scholars leapt into the breach. John E. Woods’s translation, published by Knopf in 1995 and here presented as the latest addition to Random House’s venerable Everyman’s Library collection, carries the weight of authority that will help establish it as the new standard.
Under no circumstances could The Magic Mountain be considered an easy book to read, but Woods eases the burden of an awkward translation. Those readers, such as myself, who struggled with the Lowe-Porter translation will emerge from these pages with a new appreciation for the book. For a clear understanding of how superior Woods’s translation actually is, here is Lowe-Porter’s translation of the novel’s famous final sentence:
Out of this universal feast of death, out of this extremity of fever, kindling the rain-washed evening sky to a fiery glow, may it be that Love one day shall mount?
Contrast Porter-Lowe’s leaden, awkward prose with Woods’s infinitely more supple phrasing:
And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the evening sky all round—will love someday rise up out of this, too?
It’s impossible not to see the improvement. Mann’s original German prose is notoriously difficult: circuitous, occasionally labyrinthine and filled with elaborate constructions. Woods succeeds admirably in translating the hefty style without sacrificing tone or flow. This is a translation for the ages.