Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Mann for All Seasons: The Magic Mountain

Hans W. Geissendörfer, dir: Der Zauberberg (1982)
[based on the novel by Thomas Mann]

As we move into the fourth week of our fourth COVID-19 lockdown up here in Auckland (still stuck at level 4, though the rest of the country has managed to escape into the relative comfort of level 2), I have to confess that I've been beguiling my enforced leisure rereading Thomas Mann's classic novel of sanatorium life, The Magic Mountain (1924).

Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg (1924)

This is the third time I've read it. The first time (after a couple of false starts) was when I was still a teenager. I responded immediately to Mann's brilliant evocation of atmosphere in the opening couple of chapters, as his hapless hero Hans Castorp gradually succumbs to the charms of invalid life in the Swiss Alps.

After that, however, it got a bit more difficult. Each chapter was longer than the one before (no doubt by careful design on the part of the author), and the mass of detail about each of the characters and all of the footling ways they find to kill time up there in the rarefied, TB-intolerant air of the mountains, did rather drag at times.

Overall, though, I did feel a sense of achievement when I got to the finish - signalled, appropriately enough, by the outbreak of World War I. Nor was I blind to the allegorical significance of all of this elaborate life-avoidance given some of my other reading around the subject. It's the one thing everyone knows about The Magic Mountain, in fact - its function as a microcosm of the 'sick' society of pre-war Europe.

Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain, trans. Helen T. Lowe-Porter (1927)

Twenty-five or so years later I read it again. The occasion was my finding a second-hand copy which included the author's late postscript to the novel. I was anxious to see just what he thought it was about, but - being a completist by nature - I thought it necessary to plough right through the whole thing again, all 700-odd pages of it.

The result was, I must admit, a little disappointing: even the charm of those early chapters seemed to have evaporated, leaving only a vast talky expanse of fairly obvious symbolism. The crucial chapter 'Snow', where Hans Castorp, caught in a snowstorm, has a vision of the ideal life (or is it? He wakes up abruptly just as it's shifting into nightmare), fell particularly flat for me at that point.

Gore Verbinski, dir.: A Cure for Wellness (2017)
['inspired' by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain]

I'm happy to report that that has not been the case this time round. Maybe it helps to be in the middle of a huge, collective, world-wide feverdream. The old attraction was back, though whether I'll ever feel inspired to take the long road to the Bergdorf again remains to be seen.

In particular, I was struck by Mann's plaintive appeal, in his late Postscript to the novel, that readers should reserve judgement until they've read it through twice. I must be unusually dumb, because it took me three readings - I do now, however, feel as if I have some kind of a fist on just what he had in mind.

Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers (1978)

That's not to say that this was the whole extent of my reading of Thomas Mann. I had quite a taste for what were then regarded as modern German writers in my teens, and read Franz Kafka (first), Herman Hesse (second), and finally Thomas Mann in as much depth as I was able, given the translations available at the time.

In particular I read all four of Mann's great novels - Buddenbrooks (1901), The Magic Mountain (1924), Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43), and Doctor Faustus (1947). I also read the four shorter, 'interstitial' novels which have attracted so much less attention: the rather silly Royal Highness (1909); the more brilliant Lotte in Weimar (1939 - US title: The Beloved Returns); the weird, late Holy Sinner (1951); and finally the unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, begun as a short story in 1911, and completed and published as the first instalment of a much longer novel in 1954, just before the writer's death.

Thomas Mann: Death in Venice (1912)

Quite likely, though, there's only one thing you associate with the name Thomas Mann: Death in Venice. Or, rather, the wonderfully dreamy 1971 Visconti film about - in the immortal words of Monty Python's "Elizabeth L" sketch - "the elderly poof what dies in Venice."

John Ruane, dir.: Death in Brunswick (1990)

It also inspired an even more inspired spoof about a pitiful mother's boy (played by Sam Neill) in the rather grotty Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, whose series of comic misadventures culminate in an abortive attempt to poison her with a cup of tea as she listens to her favourite record, the slow movement of Mahler's fifth symphony - yes, that leitmotif which keeps going all through Visconti's masterpiece. You can listen to it here.

Helmut Koopman: Thomas Mann (2005)

So who exactly was Thomas Mann? In the picture above, taken in Munich in 1900, you can see him taking a rather subordinate position to his elder brother Heinrich, also a renowned writer. The two would soon change positions, though.

A year later Thomas published his first novel, Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, still regarded by Germanists as his main claim to fame, given its importance as a chronicle of the decline of the great merchant families of Northern Germany. It was probably the decisive factor in earning him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, and it certainly established him as something of a pundit among commentators on German culture and society.

All through the turbulent years of the First World War, the post-war famine, the Weimar Republic, and the turn to Right-Wing Nationalism in his native land, he continued to struggle with his complex fate: a bourgeois but also an artist, a patriot but also an internationalist.

Brother Heinrich, a thorough Francophile and critic of Prussianism - one of his early novels, Professor Unrat, was filmed as the Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel (1930) - faced no such ideological struggles. So far as he was concerned, aggressive German nationalism was a form of mental illness, which needed to be exorcised thoroughly before Germany would be fit to take its place among the other nations of Europe.

In retrospect, it's hard to disagree with him, but the brothers fell out in 1914, and found it difficult to maintain more than an uneasy truce ever after, despite Thomas's eventual espousal of a not dissimilar position.

He wrote novels, short stories, and essays in abundance. Not all of them have been translated into English, but enough is available to give you a pretty good idea of his progress from Protestant Burger to ardent New Dealer. When Hitler came to power, Mann fled to Switzerland and subsequently to the United States, where he was welcomed with open arms as the embodiment of the purer manifestations of German Kultur.

This marble-monument version of Mann does not really do him justice, however. His work is both diverse and perverse - by the standards of the time, at any rate. Visconti did not misinterpret the underlying themes of perhaps his greatest work, the novella Death in Venice. It's only one in a series of works which associate artistic inspiration with illness and deformity - a kind of leprosy of the soul which is nevertheless necessary to achieve such great heights.

Heinrich Breloer, dir.: Buddenbrooks (2008)

Mann was, of course, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, and his ideas on the declining energies of great mercantile families - the first generation pirates and pioneers, the next generations consolidators and businessmen, and the generations after that neurotics and artists - were very much influenced by Freud's ideas on the debilitating tendencies of modern civilisation.

Among his other interests were psychic phenomena (he wrote an interesting essay called "Okkulte Erlebnisse" [An Experience in the Occult] about his own attendance at a séance with celebrated medium brothers Willi and Rudi Schneider). This, too, is one of the many influences which bore fruit in the later chapters of The Magic Mountain.

Is it his masterpiece? I would say so, yes. I greatly enjoyed reading the immensely lengthy Joseph and His Brothers, but it could be accused of a certain avoidance of contemporary phenomena. Amusingly enough, on one of my family visits to the UK, I discovered my 94-year-old Great-Aunt Morag ("It's a great age!") in the process of reading this vast, strange novel, which had been taken out of the library for her by my cousins under instructions to find her some religious books. She said she found it interesting, if a bit long-winded.

Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus (1947)

Nor have I ever been able quite to fathom the exact point of Doctor Faustus, which others tell me should be regarded as his greatest work. I hope to remedy my deficiencies in this respect when I'm finally able, quite soon, to get hold of a copy of his book-length explication of it, The Story of a Novel (1961), however.

One thing's for certain, The Magic Mountain has nothing whatsoever to do with the Gore Verbinski horror film A Cure for Wellness, despite the director and screenwriter's claims to the contrary. Much though I enjoyed this film, I couldn't honestly see any kinship between their respective projects, apart from the fact that both stories take place at sanatoria in the Swiss Alps.

Gore Verbinski, dir.: A Cure for Wellness (2017)

I certainly do recommend Thomas Mann, though. In certain moods - when one has a lot of time on one's hands - his complex, intertwined narrative style is just what the doctor ordered. And his subject matter is anything but predictable and traditional.

'Polymorphous perversity', Freud's term for infantile sexuality, fits most of his heroes better than other, more conventional descriptions. Mann himself, though on the one hand a bourgeois family man, had another side which required a series of passionate male friendships. Doing justice to these two aspects of himself explains a good deal of his oeuvre.

In the late 1930s his actress daughter Erika required an English passport, having run into difficulties as a 'stateless person' due to her left-wing political affiliations. At the recommendation of Mann family friend Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden was asked to marry her in order to secure her a passport. 'Delighted,' he telegraphed in reply, and British nationality for her was duly obtained.

Some years later a photograph of Thomas Mann and his extended family was being taken for a feature article in America, and the journalist enquired just what Mr. Isherwood's connection with the Manns might be? "Family pimp," growled Thomas.

If you do start into his labyrinth, beware!

Carl Mydans: Thomas Mann and family (1939)
l-to-r: Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Erika Mann, Thomas Mann, Katia Mann, Monika Mann, Klaus Mann

Thomas Mann (1937)

Paul Thomas Mann

    Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901)


  1. Buddenbrooks – Verfall einer Familie (1901)
    • Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family. 1902. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1924. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947.
  2. Königliche Hoheit (1909)
    • Royal Highness. 1909. Trans. A. Cecil Curtis. 1926. Rev. Constance McNab. 1962. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
  3. Der Zauberberg (1924)
    • The Magic Mountain. 1924. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1928. London: Secker & Warburg, 1948.
    • The Magic Mountain: With a Postscript by the Author on The Making of the Novel. 1924. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1928. London: Nationwide Book Service, 1979.
  4. Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943)
    1. Die Geschichten Jaakobs (1933)
    2. Der junge Joseph (1934)
    3. Joseph in Ägypten (1936)
    4. Joseph, der Ernährer (1943)
    • Joseph and His Brothers. ['The Stories of Jacob' (1933); 'Young Joseph' (1934); 'Joseph in Egypt' (1936); 'Joseph the Provider' (1943)]. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1948. London: Secker & Warburg, 1956.
    • Joseph and His Brothers. ['The Stories of Jacob' (1933); 'Young Joseph' (1934); 'Joseph in Egypt' (1936); 'Joseph the Provider' (1943)]. Trans. Helen T. Lowe-Porter. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  5. Lotte in Weimar (1939)
    • Lotte in Weimar. 1939. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: Secker & Warburg, 1940.
  6. Doktor Faustus (1947)
    • Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. 1947. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1949. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
  7. Der Erwählte (1951)
    • The Holy Sinner. 1951. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1952. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.
  8. Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull. Der Memoiren erster Teil (1911 / 1954)
    • Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: Memoirs Part I. 1954. Trans. Denver Lindley. 1955. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  9. Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar (1939)

    Short Stories:

    [Included in Stories of a Lifetime. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1961);
    included in Six Early Stories. Trans. Peter Constantine (1997)]

  10. Vision (1893)
  11. Gefallen (1894)
  12. Der Wille zum Glück [The Will to Happiness] (1896)
  13. Enttäuschung [Disillusionment] (1896)
  14. Der kleine Herr Friedemann [Little Herr Friedemann] (1896)
  15. Der Tod [Death] (1897)
  16. Der Bajazzo [The Dilettante] (1897)
  17. Gerächt [Avenged] (1897)
  18. Luischen [Little Lizzy] (1897 / 1900)
  19. Tobias Mindernickel (1898)
  20. Der Kleiderschrank [The Wardrobe] (1899)
  21. Der Weg zum Friedhof [The Way to the Churchyard] (1900)
  22. Die Hungernden [The Hungry] (1903)
  23. Das Wunderkind [The Child Prodigy] (1903)
  24. Ein Glück [A Gleam] (1904)
  25. Beim Propheten [At the Prophet's] (1904)
  26. Schwere Stunde [A Weary Hour] (1905)
  27. Wӓlsungenblut [The Blood of the Walsungs] (1905)
  28. Das Eisenbahnunglück [The Railway Accident] (1907)
  29. Anekdote [Anecdote] (1908)
  30. Wie Jappe und Do Escobar sich prügelten [The Fight between Jappe and Do Escobar] (1911)
  31. Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull [Felix Krull] (1911 / 1922)

  32. Plays:

  33. Fiorenza [Florence] (1905)

  34. Novellas:

  35. Gladius Dei (1902)
  36. Tristan (1903)
  37. Tonio Kröger (1903)
  38. Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] (1912)
  39. Herr und Hund [A Man and His Dog / Bashan and I] (1918)
  40. Unordnung und frühes Leid [Disorder and Early Sorrow] (1925)
  41. Mario und der Zauberer [Mario and the Magician] (1930)
  42. Die vertauschten Köpfe – Eine indische Legende [The Transposed Heads] (1940)
  43. Das Gesetz [The Tables of the Law] (1944)
  44. Die Betrogene: Erzählung [The Black Swan] (1954)

  45. Collections:

  46. Die Erzählungen, Erster Band. 2 vols. 1975. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1981.
    1. Vision (1893)
    2. Gefallen (1894)
    3. Der Wille zum Glück (1896)
    4. Enttäuschung (1896)
    5. Der Tod (1897)
    6. Der kleine Herr Friedemann (1896)
    7. Der Bajazzo (1897)
    8. Gerächt (1897)
    9. Luischen (1897 / 1900)
    10. Tobias Mindernickel (1898)
    11. Der Kleiderschrank (1899)
    12. Der Weg zum Friedhof (1900)
    13. Gladius Dei (1902)
    14. Tristan (1903)
    15. Die Hungernden (1903)
    16. Tonio Kröger (1903)
    17. Das Wunderkind (1903)
    18. Ein Glück (1904)
    19. Beim Propheten (1904)
    20. Schwere Stunde (1905)
    21. Wӓlsungenblut (1905)
    22. Anekdote (1908)
    23. Das Eisenbahnunglück (1907)
    24. Wie Jappe und Do Escobar sich prügelten (1911)
    25. Der Tod in Venedig (1912)
  47. Die Erzählungen, Zweiter Band. 2 vols. 1975. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1983.
    1. Herr und Hund (1918)
    2. Unordnung und frühes Leid (1925)
    3. Mario und der Zauberer (1930)
    4. Die vertauschten Köpfe – Eine indische Legende (1940)
    5. Das Gesetz (1944)
    6. Die Betrogene: Erzählung (1954)
    7. Fiorenza (1905)
    8. Gesang vom Kindchen: Idylle (1919)
  48. Stories of Three Decades. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. The Modern Library. New York: Random House, Inc., 1936.
    1. Little Herr Friedemann (1897)
    2. Disillusionment (1896)
    3. The Dilettante (1897)
    4. Tobias Mindernickel (1897)
    5. Little Lizzy (1897)
    6. The Wardrobe (1899)
    7. The Way to the Churchyard (1901)
    8. Tonio Kröger (1903)
    9. Tristan (1903)
    10. The Hungry (1903)
    11. The Infant Prodigy (1903)
    12. Gladius Dei (1902)
    13. Fiorenza (1904)
    14. A Gleam (1904)
    15. At the Prophet's (1904)
    16. A Weary Hour (1905)
    17. The Blood of the Walsungs (1905)
    18. Railway Accident (1907)
    19. The Fight between Jappe and Do Escobar (1911)
    20. Felix Krull (1911)
    21. Death in Venice (1912)
    22. A Man and His Dog (1918)
    23. Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925)
    24. Mario and the Magician (1929)
  49. Stories of a Lifetime: The Collected Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1936. Vol. 1 of 2. Mercury Books 8. London: The Heinemann Group of Publishers, 1961.
    1. Little Herr Friedemann (1897)
    2. Disillusionment (1896)
    3. The Dilettante (1897)
    4. Tobias Mindernickel (1897)
    5. Little Lizzy (1897)
    6. The Wardrobe (1899)
    7. The Way to the Churchyard (1901)
    8. The Hungry (1902)
    9. Tristan (1902)
    10. Gladius Dei (1902)
    11. Tonio Kröger (1903)
    12. The Infant Prodigy (1903)
    13. A Gleam (1904)
    14. Fiorenza (1904)
    15. At the Prophet's (1904)
    16. A Weary Hour (1905)
    17. The Blood of the Walsungs (1905)
    18. Railway Accident (1907)
    19. The Fight between Jappe and Do Escobar (1911)
  50. Stories of a Lifetime: The Collected Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1936. Vol. 2 of 2. Mercury Books 9. London: The Heinemann Group of Publishers, 1961.
    1. Death in Venice (1912)
    2. A Man and His Dog (1918)
    3. Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925)
    4. Mario and the Magician (1929)
    5. The Transposed Heads (1940)
    6. The Tables of the Law (1944)
    7. The Black Swan (1953)

  51. Thomas Mann: Six Early Stories (1997)

  52. Six Early Stories. Trans. Peter Constantine (1997)
    1. A Vision: Prose Sketch (1893)
    2. Fallen (1894)
    3. The Will to Happiness (1896)
    4. Death (1897)
    5. Avenged: Study for a Novella (1897)
    6. Anecdote (1908)

  53. Thomas Mann: Three Essays (1929)


  54. Three Essays. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1929)
    1. Friedrich und die große Koalition [Frederick and the Great Coalition] (1915)
    2. Goethe und Tolstoi [Goethe and Tolstoy] (1922)
    3. Okkulte Erlebnisse [An Experience in the Occult] (1924)
  55. Past Masters and Other Papers. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1933)
  56. An Exchange of Letters. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1937)
  57. Freud, Goethe, Wagner. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter & Rita Matthias-Rail (1937)
  58. The Coming Victory of Democracy. Trans. Agnes E. Meyer. 1938. London: Secker & Warburg, 1938.
  59. This Peace. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1938)
  60. This War. Trans. Eric Sutton (1940)
  61. Order of the Day: Political Essays and Speeches of Two Decades. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter, Agnes E. Meyer & Eric Sutton (1942)
  62. Listen, Germany! Twenty-Five Radio Messages to the German People over the BBC (1943)
  63. Essays of Three Decades. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947.
    1. Goethe's Faust (1938)
    2. Goethe's Career As a Man of Letters (1932)
    3. Goethe as Representative of the Bourgeois Age (1932)
    4. Goethe and Tolstoy (1922)
    5. Anna Karenina (1939)
    6. Lessing (1929)
    7. Kleist's Amphitryon (1926)
    8. Chamisso (1911)
    9. Platen (1930)
    10. Theodor Storm (1930)
    11. The Old Fontane (1910)
    12. Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner (1933)
    13. Richard Wagner and the Ring (1937)
    14. Schopenhauer (1938)
    15. Freud and the Future (1936)
    16. Voyage with Don Quixote (1934)
  64. Last Essays. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston and Tania & James Stern. 1958. London: Secker & Warburg, 1959.
    1. On Schiller
    2. Fantasy on Goethe
    3. Nietzsche's Philosophy in the Light of Recent History
    4. Chekhov
    5. Appendix: 'A Weary Hour'. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1905)
  65. A Sketch of My Life. ['Lebensabriß', 1930]. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1960)
  66. The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston (1961)
  67. Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man / Thoughts in Wartime / On the German Republic. ['Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen', 1918; 'Gedanken im Kriege' (1914); 'Von deutscher Republik', 1922]. Trans. Walter D. Morris, Mark Lilla and Cosima Mattner, Lawrence Rainey. Introduction by Mark Lilla. New York: New York Review Books, 2021.

  68. Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus / The Story of a Novel (1947 / 1961)


  69. Diaries 1918-1939: 1918-1921; 1933-1939. Ed. Hermann Kesten. 1977-80. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1982. London: Robin Clark, 1984.
  70. Winston, Richard & Clara, ed. & trans. Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955. Vol. I: 1889-1942. 2 vols. London: Secker & Warburg, 1970.
  71. Winston, Richard & Clara, ed. & trans. Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955. Vol. II: 1943-1955. 2 vols. London: Secker & Warburg, 1970.
  72. Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955. Ed. & Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 2 vols. 1970. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  73. Carlsson, Anni & Volker Michels, ed. The Hesse-Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, 1910-1955. 1968. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski. 1975. London: Peter Owen, 1976.
  74. Winston, Richard. Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911. Afterword by Clara Winston. A Borzoi Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
  75. Hayman, Ronald. Thomas Mann: A Biography. 1995. Bloomsbury. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1997.

1 comment:

Richard said...

This is interesting. As I said Leicester recommended Dr. Faustus. I started it but something diverted me away. I liked the idea of it. It was based on a famous (contemporary 20th Cent.) musician. It was absorbing. I myself have Buddenbrucks (unread); Death in Venice (read, this was good); The Magic Mountain (in English 1952) - it includes the comment by Mann; Dr. Faustus; and The Black Swann.

The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice gets mentioned a lot.

I was in Ron Riddell's shop one day and we kept re-arranging the novels and I had just done that and wondered about the Thomas Mann books. Who would ever bother with Buddenbrucks? That old book, I thought to myself. I think it was the same day of the next but an older man came in wanting Buddenbrooks. I was so surprised I said: 'Buddenbrucks?' almost as if he had said something rude. He said rather more strongly: 'Yes! Buddenbrucks!' 'Of course, I just moved all the books and I walked straight up to it and showed him it was indeed in Ron's shop (this was when he was in Balmoral).

I knew nothing about it. I did like books like that as a teenager but didn't get to Mann.

By my then forties I was now less interested (at the time) in novels but have got back into them and much else.

Charming anecdote of your great-aunt Morag at 90+ reading that huge novel! My mother read things more or less randomly from the library and included were some great books but others left out. She typed up all the books in two smallish ring-binders and I consult to see if I have or she had read certain books. She had or has Jessica Mann, Philip Mann, sev. of) Olivia Manning...Dacia Maraini which I have. No Thomas or Heinrich Mann. She'd read all kinds up to Zuravleff 'The Frequency of Souls' which she has marked 'good'. About 1640 books.

When I have taken down a few more books like Musil's etc I will see if I can round on Mann as the very title with 'magic' in it intrigues me....