Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain [1924/27] – ★★★★★

But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight,
And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light
Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray

(Goethe, Faust (tran. H. T. Lowe-Porter)).

Hans Castorp is a young man on a threshold of a very successful career of an engineer at a prestigious shipping firm in Germany when he enters an international sanatorium Berghof in the picturesque Swiss Alps for three weeks and only to support Joachim Ziemssen, his sick cousin, and keep him company. Little does Castorp suspect that the sanatorium, with its orderly routine and confused sense of time, will start working insidiously on his mind the moment he steps onto its premises and he will end up living there for the next 7 years. During that time, Castorp will make friends with the most extraordinary individuals, engage almost daily in deep philosophical discussions on virtually every topic under the sun, fall hopelessly in love, and in that whole process entangle his body, mind and spirit so deeply in this “enchanted” place with its own particular passage of Time that any disentanglement will become out of the question. In this story, matters of science and spirituality converge, forces of time sweep people off their feet and then the re-consideration of what is Life and what is Death, and what is to be healthy and what is to be sick, may lead to some divine insights and instances of ultimate self-discovery. Translated from the German, The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of the world literature, a splendid study of a man undergoing inner transformations in an environment of perpetual unchangeability.

Upon entering the sanatorium, Hans Castorp recognises it as being an unusual place surrounded by “eternal snow”. The institution is led by two eccentric medical practitioners Dr Behrens and Dr Krokowski, and their practices soon work magic on our flabbergasted visitor. Firstly, there is a strict regime to be followed at the sanatorium which produces “magical” results: there are lavish breakfasts, lunches and dinners to be had at the cafeteria, a variety of “cures” on offer for those sick followed by periods of rest and relaxation, which may then be followed up with intellectually and emotionally-steering lectures. In the evening, there is another delight – one can build a pyramid out of blankets for oneself on a balcony and stay star-gazing in a chilly air all through the night. Finally, in the basement there is also a “magic” X-ray machine which is capable of making transparent anything hidden to a naked eye. In sum, temptations are at every corner, both for the body and the mind, and soon the routine of the place proves irresistible to our hero to starts falling in love with the life of constant leisure. He has no defences against the pleasures of intellectual talks with friends and the soothing softness of the reclining chair. Hans Castorp may be showing first signs of an illness, but sociologist Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (1920 – 2012) also wrote of institutions in general comparing them to those communities that control their residents through rituals and monotony, putting them into the state of perpetual Kafkaesque uncertainly, surreptitiously brainwashing them and instilling in them the fear of, and aversion towards change of any kind. Berghof seems to be an institution that is prepared to run your life for you.

Despite most people being sick with pulmonary diseases at the sanatorium, Castorp finds a rather cheery group of people all coming from different countries (a microcosm of society with its own social hierarchy (“bad” and “good” tables in the cafeteria)). He makes friends with eloquent Italian Herr Settembrini, and is curious about many other patients too. The residents’ “special status” becomes very clear to him since people are talked of as being divided into two groups: those “up here” (implied “divinities”) and those “down below” (implied “mere mortals”). Following in the steps of Goethe, Mann touches on the topic of the romantisation of an illness, especially incurable tuberculosis, discussing the concept of the disease “beautifying” people and giving them special insight into the matters of life and death that healthy people simply do not possess: “one always has the idea of a stupid man as perfectly healthy and ordinary, and of illness as making one refined and clever and unusual” [Mann, Lowe-Porter, Alfred Knopf 1924/27/99: 95]. Sensitive Hans Castorp sees his temperature climbing with the rise of those seductive, feline-like vibes emanating from Madame Chauchat.

Thomas Mann wrote that he saw his protagonist as a knight, the “pure fool” that searches for the Holy Grail (in the tradition of Perceval); image is a painting by Hans Thoma Die Gralsburg (The Castle of the Grail) [1899].

The world free from worldly concerns and obligations is an irresistible world, but Castorp does not stop just at relaxation and trying to get well. Slowly, the main character transforms from a purely practical man destined for a serious profession of an engineer to a dreamy philosopher thirsting for all kinds of knowledge, trying desperately to understand the causes of things and the mysteries of life. Intoxicated by big ideas, he wonders and wonders and then wonders some more. The hero’s intellectual pursuits amaze as he starts reading on such diverse topics as astronomy, biology and medicine, and then tries to understand the intricacies of opera. His intellectual explorations are fuelled by his friendship with two men: Herr Settembrini, representing humanism, and Leo Naphta, representing radicalism in the book. Different ideas and schools of thought fight in Castorp’s mind as he plunges deeper and deeper into politics, philosophy, psychology, medicine and history. Moreover, Castorp’s learning is not all theoretical because at one point he and his cousin Joachim take rounds around the sanatorium visiting those people who are close to death, trying to understand their mental state and ease their mental suffering in their last stages of life. This desire to get intimate with the forces of Life and Death makes Castorp an interesting character, both passive and active at the same time and, paradoxically, Castorp’s inaction becomes his greatest action (in his mind at least, he tastes love to the fullest, conquers unheard of “knowledge” mountains and comes to terms with the very essence of life and death). Was the waste of this young life worth all the insight gained?

If the deceptively cheery sanatorium is one character in this book then Time is another. Upon entering Berghof, Castorp notices immediately that time in the place flows very differently from its usual course in his hometown: “ideas about time were different up here from those ordinarily held about the length of stay at the baths…The smallest unit of time, so to speak, was the month, and a single month was almost no time at all” [Mann, Lowe-Porter, Alfred Knopf 1924/27/99: 222]. The never-ending monotony of the place and its constant routine “stops time”, morphing each day into another, but it also helps our hero to understand concepts causing problems to people “down below” more clearly by taking him out of these people’s usual time pressures. But, while a helper in this way, Time is also one of the biggest adversaries of Castorp in his journey to uncover the Truth of Life and the mystery of his own existence. With its power to change people and circumstances unnoticeably, Time is a sinister personage in the book working its way through every individual in the sanatorium. Time may charm with its “emptiness” at the sanatorium, with patients looking forward to hours and hours of relaxation and “doing nothing”, but it also hides, cheats and deceives. It becomes an entity that “must-not-be-named” (like the antagonist in Harry Potter) and yet every patient is too aware of it on some subconscious level. Time likes “to stand still”, unnoticed by everyone, but when it does make itself known (by someone “breaking the blurred monotony of the marching hours” [Mann, Lowe-Porter, 1924/27/99: 200] or by mentioning it in the open), it comes as a shock for everyone.

Joachim Ziemssen, Castorp’s cousin, is another interesting character in the book. If the main hero loses track of time and mental links with the world “down below”, Ziemssen, being a soldier standing for duty and responsibility, never severs his mental link with the world “down below”, always wanting to go back and rejoin his army. He, together with Herr Settembrini, often signals to Castorp that there is a world “down below” and they should never forget it. However, paradoxically, Ziemssen is also the one responsible for bringing Castorp to that place of “enchantments” and he is the reason Castorp visits the sanatorium in the first place. Ziemssen is like the ferryman Charon from the Greek mythology who on his boat (in the book – train) takes Hans Castorp to the otherworld (the kingdom of the dead (in the book – the sanatorium)). Ziemssen becomes Castorp’s close friend and “guardian” there, witnessing the conversion of his cousin from a healthy individual into “one of them” (sick ones). Ziemssen is a very tragic figure himself. Like the hero in Dino Buzzati’s later novel The Tartar Steppe [1940], he stands for the soldierly valour wasted and there are few images as sad as a soldier ready for a fight but being in a perpetual state of inaction. Much like in Buzzati’s novel, Ziemssen thinks he is only entering the sanatorium (castle in Buzzati’s work) for a very short stay, but ends up staying there for a much longer time, being caught up in the perpetual routine of the place and always hoping for the return of better times (for the return of health in Mann’s novel, for the return of glorious battles in Buzzati’s fiction).

A Spanish edition of The Magic Mountain.

Clavdia Chauchat is the protagonist’s love interest. Possibly, this lady with Asiatic features also contributes to Hans Castorp overstaying his welcome at the sanatorium because time seems to stand still when one is in love, and Castorp soon becomes his own prisoner and guard in this willing amorous entrapment and confinement. Castorp’s relationship with Clavdia is portrayed as being beyond words, being something otherworldly and mysterious. At first, Clavdia and Castorp do not speak and only exchange meaningful glances. They are apparent strangers, and yet in their hearts that they are becoming to each other something special (or so Castorp thinks), and form a bond that is full of strange magnetism and intensity. Thomas Mann was certainly very interested in this type of a purely platonic relationship filled with mysterious significance and with its thousand hopes and possibilities which will be reduced to nothing the moment the two people involved utter their first words to each other because at that point their relationship will be defined for the first time: “Nothing is stranger or more ticklish than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who meet and observe each other daily – no hourly – and are nevertheless compelled to keep up the pose of an indifferent stranger, neither greeting nor addressing each other, whether out of etiquette or their own whim” (Thomas Mann, Death in Venice [1912]). Hans Castorp wants to stay in the sanatorium because “every beloved object is the centre point of a paradise“, as Novalis, a German poet, wrote in the eighteenth century. No place on earth is dearer or more beautiful to Hans Castorp than Berghof because that is the only place on earth where he can spot his beloved daily.

The Magic Mountain is a deliberately slow-paced and episodic novel containing numerous philosophical digressions, but reading it is also an unforgettable experience: it is like ascending to a particular state of mind, lethargic, intoxicating, strange, magnetic and enchanting. And with what subtlety and delicacy Thomas Mann weaves for his hero a trap in this story, pulling him almost unconsciously into a set of circumstances from which he can no longer escape and then pinning him down with the weight of Time. The Magic Mountain is a detailed, sublime examination of the human soul grappling with the breadth and nature of human knowledge, and with the meaning of its own existence, in the most extraordinary of places.

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23 thoughts on “Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

  1. I too thought ‘The Magic Mountain’ was wonderful Another fine novel by Thomas Mann is ‘Buddenbrooks’ which is even longer, but it is a business world novel rather than in a sanatorium.

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  2. As I was reading your review, it sounded like something I might have an interesting time with.

    First, though, I wondered about the financial underpinnings of this institution – it costs a lot of money, and takes a lot of people to cosset a group of sick individuals. ‘Going in to support’ someone else sounds like someone with a lot of financial support (which I may find on reading was provided by some rich beneficiary supporting the whole thing), as I now know from the retirement community we have permanently joined.

    I’ve heard of the author and the book, of course, but it didn’t cross my sights, as I was that engineering/physics student, and did not get diverted. There was little time and no requirement for taking the kind of college or graduate courses that would include this kind of literature, and my own readings in the classics were based on what was lying around in English when I grew up in Mexico City, transplanted from California at 7 by my parents. So, definitely not planned.

    The final part is that I have now been ill for three decades, and skipping a few interesting possibilities connected with the similar long-covid in these two past years, there has never been a possibility of getting well, and going back to the fray of real life. So I would come to the Magic Mountain from a different perspective than most people.

    You’ve got me curious. I am an incredibly slow mainstream novelist, using what’s left of me to create realistic fiction, and I’ve never sought out much philosophy, but you’ve intrigued me. And I’m now wondering whether some of the patients in this supportive/restrictive setting were female. Maybe some day.

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    1. Thank for sharing your experience and yes, you will probably make different connections with this book. Some of the patients in the book were female, but I cannot say I enjoyed their portrayal (since it was all about the male gaze and they were unreachable love interests).

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    2. I don’t exactly know how these institutions might have operated financially, but I have just found this curious article which may be of interest to you – on the connections with Kafka and hints on how such sanatoriums operated in real life, very interesting. Kafka apparently later described them as “excruciating prisons” where “patients were forced to become living experiments”: https://newcriterion.com/issues/2017/2/kafka-tuberculosis-magic-mountain-8610

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      1. “Doctors, he felt, “both believe in conventional medicine and are helpless when you need them most.””

        I live with a chronic illness doctors have been useless to improve; this cuts quite close to the bone. At least I have not had Kafka’s experience. But it isn’t fun.

        OTOH, if I recall correctly, tuberculosis sanatariums (sanataria?) in places with high dry mountain air did actually enjoy some success – if memory serves – in the US.

        Nasty. Fascinating article.

        And I have plowed my experience with mine into fiction. The second volume in the trilogy will be out soon.

        Let me know if you’re curious.

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  3. I agree that this novel creates a state of mind. I read it when I was 22, during a summer when I was working a boring job for minimum wage. During every break and every lunch hour I immersed myself and remember it as a wonderful experience, although I’ve never had the urge to re-read it.

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  4. Though I’ve yet to read this — how long has this been on my wishlist?! — I appreciated this extended overview, Diane, thanks. What I do have first to read, a reread really after half a century, is The Glass Bead Game which, being set in a semi-enclosed monastic community, reminds me a bit of the sanitarium in The Magic Mountain and being to a certain extent cut off from mere mundanity.

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  5. Thomas Mann is one of my favourite authors, probably my favourite German author and, being German, that means a lot. You have written a fantastic review of The Magic Mountain. Absolutely great. Thank you.

    If you’re interested, read my own little review here I will put up a link to this page because it is so extraordinary.

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  6. Thanks for a very thorough review. You’ve made me interested in this book. The sanatorium is an interesting setting and I could easily imagine an environment like that would support reflection and philosophical discussions. I’ve never read any Thomas Mann (except a little bit in school).

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  7. I have always found it hard to get to grips with Mann, whether in translation or (even harder) in the original. I have read Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice and one or two other short works, but not this one. You have done a good job with your review – maybe I’ll be tempted to try again!

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    1. I think it could be more philosophical than the two books you mention (though I am yet to read Buddenbrooks), but I think the location in The Magic Mountain and the inner and otherwise condition of the main character are just too interesting not to give it a try!

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  8. I have thought of attempting this several times but heard it was slow and very deep. You have gone through what is contained in this classic quite well, so I may be brave enough to check it out. Would you advise reading or listening to it?

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    1. The book is indeed narratively slow, but I would not say it is particularly deep – only that its characters sometimes engage in rather deep discussions on a variety of topics. I would advise reading it because this way you can skip easily some paragraphs or even pages containing the characters’ discussions and you can know what lies ahead by leafing through, if need be.

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