All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924)
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The Independent Culture
Plot: Long on ideas, short on plot, the novel centres on Hans Castorp, a naive young engineer, who visits his cousin in a sanatorium in the Alps (hence the title). Hans is persuaded that, like his cousin, he too is suffering from tuberculosis: the three week visit is extended to seven years, only coming to a close with the outbreak of the First World War. Up the Magic Mountain, Hans loses contact with the "flatland" and its attendant horrors of mortgages, kids, taxes, etc, and instead engages in intellectual discussion with a series of hilarious bores, mentors and freakish experts on "life", including:

1) Settembrini, the liberal, democratic, Euro-person, who is also a fatuous windbag.

2) Naphta, the Jewish-Catholic-Marxist, a sinister creature of chaos who is gripped by dark gods.

3) Claudia, a Russian sex-tigress whose notion of foreplay is to expose herself to Hans by showing him her X-ray plates.

4) Peeperkorn, a charismatic Dutch merchant-mystic who promises eventually to unlock the secrets of existence but chooses, instead, to poison himself.

Hans grows up, learns to reject their influences, and throws himself into the trenches of the Somme.

Themes: Apart from the "growth of the soul" stuff, the novel is built on a series of oppositions: the desire to live against the almost erotic attraction of death, the need for responsibility against the magnetism of decadence, classical harmony against pagan dissolution, the powers of intellect against the forces of nature. Thesis is set in motion to be squashed by anti-thesis in true Hegelian dialectical fashion. Unbelievably, the novel is also great fun as each character hangs him or herself on the rope of his or her own ill-conceived philosophy.

Style: Lofty, ironic, analytic, pedantic. Mann will lecture remorselessly on some piffling detail of medical care and then withhold judgement just when the reader needs guidance - Mann's idea of a joke, possibly, and both infuriating and challenging.

What they thought about it then: The book turned Mann into a national monument in Germany (except for the Nazis), setting him in heavy duty cement until his death. Big in Norway, the novel gained him the Nobel Prize in 1929. Nabokov found it obvious, laboured, humourless, indigestible and Freudian. (For Nabokov, these were synonymous.)

What we think about it now: To be ranked with Joyce's Ulysses and Proust's A la recherche as a modernist cornerstone, but in America and England, where the Novel of Ideas is instinctively (rather than intelligently) mistrusted, it is largely unread.

Chief strengths: First of all, you learn what it must be like to be chronically ill. If you read the book when fit, by the end you will think you have 'flu; if you read it with a mild cold, you'll be phoning for the Funeral Directors. The novel also has the courage to attempt to explain the catastrophe of the First World War in terms of a grand allegorical drama, in a way which manages to be both intellectually provoking and slyly comic.

Chief weaknesses: Castorp's vacant personality can come across as irritating, not charming; Mann, the narrator, is self-consciously pedantic, but the joke wears thin; his much prized ambiguity is sometimes a cloak for muddle and confusion.

Responsible for: Not much on the Anglo-American scene where writers don't go a bundle on German novels (eg the complete neglect of Theodore Fontane and Robert Musil), the only exception being Hermann Hesse, who was popular in the Sixties, when his books were thought to be a bit like dropping acid.