The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann is incredibly challenging to write about unless perhaps you have the time and inclination to fill the same 700+ page count that this jewel of a novel occupies. Richard, who read this with me in March, agrees but says so in a much catchier way than I do. I believe he pulled out the word "awesomosity" as a descriptor. The themes of illness and death, a world divided by the pre and post first World War positions of Mann, humanism versus a more radical political stance, and time as well as a host of other topics play out with erudition and slowly as if to mirror the growth, the education of the protagonist Hans Castorp. And the novel is incredibly sly and funny in parts as well, as one might assume from the storyline of a young man who visits a sanatarium for a three week stay to see his cousin and remains there for seven years. Presumably perfectly healthy but permitted to indulge his escape from the real world due to a slightly elevated temperature.
As appropriate to one of the principle themes of the novel, time just slows down when you read this book. I lost track of how long I was reading it, and it began to occupy my dream life. A Proustian experience. I knew in a generic and unsatisfying way that I was loving the book, but struggled to articulate what exactly appealed in such an intense manner. And then I thought "intimacy." Not intimacy or connection with Hans Castorp who is always referred to by both his first and last name except in the very beginning and end. Not intimacy with any other character although this small world on the mountain creates an environment where the most intimate moments cannot escape the gaze of others. But intimacy with the author. Or the character that he places before the reader as the "storyteller," first in the foreword to the novel.
"We shall tell it at length, in precise and thorough detail - for when was a story short on diversion or long on boredom simply because of the time and space required for the telling? Unafraid of the odium of appearing too meticulous, we are much more inclined to the view that only thoroughness can be truly entertaining.
And so this storyteller will not be finished telling our Han's story in only a moment or two. The seven days in one week will not suffice, nor will seven months. It will be best for him if he is not at all too clear about the number of earthly days that will pass as the tale weaves its web about him. For God's sake, surely it cannot be as long as seven years!
And with that, we begin."
The fictional author's voice is present throughout as are the influences of the real author's existence from struggles with political beliefs and his sexuality to the divide that existed within him between the more fanciful or creative and the practical or obligatory. But I sensed that whatever Mann had afoot, he was always in complete control. I believe that happiness in reading the novel is in surrendering to that control, a willingness to accept a variety of truths from a variety of sources.
And then I picked up The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, and there it stood, right on page 13. "Not quite." It is indeed the not-quiteness of the novel, a term more satisfying than intimacy that is its major draw for me. Wood, in discussing the large question of "Why?" as it relates separately to faith and fiction, quotes Mann from his essay "Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner."
"To the artist, new experiences of 'truth' are new incentives to the game, new possibilities of expression, no more. He believes in them, he takes them seriously, just so far as he needs to in order to give them the fullest and profoundest expression. In all that he is very serious, serious even to tears - but yet not quite - and by consequence not at all."
If your reading experience with The Magic Mountain is like mine, you will give yourself willingly to the "truths" of the book in an emotional sense, in those moments of great poignancy, but will catch yourself before you fail to see the plays Mann makes and the humor he infuses here. You may not quite be ready to wholly surrender to fiction.
This may not make a lot of sense but that is the beauty of a reading journal. Maybe I will get to the actual details of the book another time. Maybe after the second time I read it.