One of the best things about winter is the way it offers the perfect excuse for semi-hibernation, complete with self-indulgent eating, dozing and reading. It’s even better when the books you’re immersed in involve characters, in the depth of winter, self-indulgently eating, dozing and lazily musing on life. Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ is a meditation on the decadence of a sedentary life-style and is intended to be highly reflective and self-aware. I like to think I’m honouring its characters, if not its author’s intended moral message, through my aspirations to live out my own ‘Magic Mountain’ existence whenever possible.
There is a real hypnotic joy to this doorstop of a novel, and working through it can feel as comfortingly uneventful as its characters’ schedule of five huge meals a day interspersed with compulsory naps. Of course, an 800 page novel in which a man goes on a three-week visit to a TB sanatorium and ends up staying there for seven years is not going to be a draw for everyone. Personally, I love it as I love Goncherov’s Oblomov for making pretty much any routine sound impressively busy and productive by comparison.
For readers in search of intellectual cachet, ‘The Magic Mountain’ also deals with the malaise of modern day life and the nature of time itself. Also, it’s a Thomas Mann novel, so people discuss philosophy and politics at length. Then, hundreds of pages in, the whole book gets genuinely weird, with larger-than-life characters, inexplicable violence and ghostly visitations interrupting the realism and sanitary isolation of the novel’s enclosed setting.
‘The Magic Mountain’ is a winter favourite of mine. I love the protagonist, Hans Castorp, who ‘must be considered mediocre, though in an entirely honourable sense,’ and I love the setting. Mann takes every opportunity to indicate that Castorp’s torpor is not be admired, but I can’t help feeling that by writing a wonderfully crafted epic novel in which nothing happens, he is actively inviting his audience to turn into real-life versions of his characters, forcing us to retreat further and further from the world in order to allow more time for reading. Unlike Castorp, I can’t actually leave my job and all my commitments to spend all my days in self-indulgent, unproductive laziness, but, if I could, I’d definitely pick this book to while away those long, unhurried afternoons!