Books: The book that changed me

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it?

I was about 27, working in the House of Commons at a job I loathed.

Why did it strike you so much? It just seemed like an incredible broadening of horizons, a demonstration of the astonishing truths that you can find in a book. Until that point I'd followed a certain inevitable path in my life: a clever boyhood, Oxford and a good first, a Cambridge doctorate and a smart job in the fast stream of the Civil Service. And then there was Magic Mountain, and for three unforgettable weeks, it was a small tattered paperback, saying, quite patiently, to me, `we can all be ordinary, and all of us have the opportunity not to be ordinary.' At first it seemed to be a revelation of technique, of range, a demonstration of things a book could do, of places a book could go. It's a blazingly generous book, and I began to find two overwhelming monolithic truths in it. The first, the beginnings of how I, too, could teach myself how to write novels which weren't just small, clever elegant novels - that a novel could be trajectory, going from one place to a an unsuspected and secret conclusion. And the second truth was just this: "You don't have for ever. Get on with what you want to do and don't apologise for it." No book was ever in less need of an apology than The Magic Mountain, and that's because there is no ounce of embarrassment or shame in it.

Have you re-read it?

Six or seven times, and every time seems like a major event in my life.

Do you recommend it?

Not especially. Unlike many of the greatest novels - even War and Peace or Proust - it offers nothing to children and people sometimes come to it too early. I think it is the greatest novel in the world and its readers come to it when they are ready. It can wait and if it is read at the right time of your life, you will come to the death of Joachim, and look up, and find that the contents of your mind are permanently, subtly different.

Philip Hensher's latest novel, Pleasured, is published by Chatto, pounds 14.99

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