The Magic Mountain

A professor in college told our Continental Literature class that there were certain books you should read before you die. Among them I recall the following: The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Madame Bovary, The Magic Mountain. There may have been a few others. I respected Dr. West’s opinion so much, that I inked that mental bucket list note, and have over the years committed myself to reading these great novels, and I’m happy to say that I have finally completed The Magic Mountain.

IMG_20160710_115826Like all great novels, The Magic Mountain is absorbing, works on many layers of meaning, and features unforgettable scenes and characters. The Magic Mountain is not an easy read. It is dense, very long, and slowly paced. But every time I picked up the heavy book to read another chapter, I would get drawn into Mann’s carefully wrought world, so much so that I wanted to be Hans Castorp convalescing for years in that sanitarium at the top of Europe. The book contains vivid characters who are obviously symbolic but no less real: Dr. Settembrini, Naphta, Madame Chaucat, Dr. Behrens, Mynheer Pepperkorn. It’s definitely a novel of ideas and leitmotifs, and the intellectual debates between Settembrini and Naphta were particularly compelling to follow. It’s also full of memorable set pieces, scenes that jump off the page with cinematic scope: Hans’ carnival party dialogue with Chauchat, Hans’ strange vision after getting lost in the snow, the excursion to the waterfall with Pepperkorn, the seance where Joachim’s ghost is conjured, the climatic duel between Settembrini and Naphta, and the harrowing World War battle scenes that finish the book. Mann said he worked 12 years on the book and that we should really read it twice to get the full impact. I’m putting it on the “re-read” pile. It’s that good. You have to be patient with a book of this size, but its rewards are generous indeed. Great works of art are more than immensely satisfying aesthetic experiences. They have an indelible impact on your thinking; they can change your life.

 

The Voyage Out

Virginia Woolf’s first novel brims with ensemble characterization. A cast of privileged Brits journeys across the Atlantic to a fictitious coastal settlement in Brazil, where they while away idle time dining, reading, gossiping, flirting, playing games, doing hobbies, making excursions, and indulging in self-reflection. Woolf’s knack for dialogue blended with omniscient introspection shows a master artist’s touch. How she is able to juggle all of these narrative perspectives is a feat, especially as this is her first book. As I was absorbing the characters and setting, I thought, this is what Downton Abbey wishes it could be. Her narrative camera roves among the ensemble, it picks up telling details, assembling a world that is felt as much as it is shown. Characters are revealed as distinct entities, and the way they play off one another in various combinations is fun to watch. A lot more fun than the ham-fisted, soap opera, costume drama antics of the gang from Downton, because Woolf knows the power of language as vehicle for storytelling. It can get inside the minds of characters like no other art form can.

Eventually the plot centers on a pair of characters, Rachel and Terence. They get engaged, she suddenly takes ill, and after an excruciating decline that rattles the entire cast of vacationers, she dies. Plotting has been downplayed here; it gives way to the textured descriptions, tangents on themes like death, gender, and marriage. Death haunts the book like a shadow. The suddenness of Rachel’s demise is actually foreshadowed quite well. Woolf is executing a narrative chiaroscuro, where dark and light, death and life, are in constant opposition. Other binary dances can be seen working through the story to one degree or another. Men and women. Old and young. Those who don’t work for a living and those who do. The “civilized” English and the “native” Brazilians. Humans and nature. The persona (how people present themselves) and the inner life (what they say to themselves when no one is looking).

Woolf manages, even at this early stage in her career, to weave these threads into a compelling, absorbing tale. At times, we become a little too aware of watching the young artist at work, trying out different techniques, running through her narrative exercises, working out the details. In those spots, Woolf runs the risk of letting the form over-determine the content. This is certainly a feature of modernism, and The Voyage Out is a modernist text, though not nearly as experimental as what would issue from Woolf very soon. She stretches the conventions here, and to a degree she may be constrained by them. What wins the day in the end is Woolf’s masterful prose. Her touch is impeccable. Those beautiful sentences are a joy to read. By comparison her contemporaries Henry James and Joseph Conrad seem a clotted mess. There’s a lighter touch here, a cleaner prose line, capable of insightful introspection and nuanced external description. Here is one of the handful of great English prose stylists in her auspicious beginning. It’s like watching a hall of fame athlete in her rookie season. She takes the stage, announces her presence: here I am, look what I can do. Watch and learn.

I read the Barnes and Noble classics edition on the Nook e-reader, which includes an introduction, helpful notes and supplements. It was evidently pieced together with some care and would serve well equally at home and the classroom.