Thursday, February 2, 2012

Getting Used to Not Getting Used to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain

All great literature invites and rewards close reading, but only Mann's The Magic Mountain tries to help you read it. Whereas literature generally resists reading, even close reading, Mann's narrator now and then explicates, or makes explicit something about its  form you may have already noticed if you were paying close formal attention.  I don't regard this as a failing of the novel, though at first I thought Mann was overdoing it a bit, providing a laughtrack of sorts telling the reader how to respond (literally "laugh").  In the idioms of the novel, reading is a matter of making its formal, as it were, "acquaintance" (169, 726, 728), (re)acclimating to it (7, 101, 134, 193, 124, 287, 460-62, 598), becoming aware of its modes of "formal address" (731), and "getting used to not not getting used to" (460, 560 461, 574, 689) it.  (All citations to John E. Woods translation, Everyman edition, 2005).  The narrator interrupts the third person narrative now and then (and the author once interrupts the narrator) to speak in the first person plural and make something explicit. For example, the narrator asks “Is it really necessary for us to spell out those private experiences, which both weighed down on Castorp’s days and gave them wings?” (167).  But this "explication" is, to imitate another of the novel's idioms, "a paradoxically unparadox" or "a unparadoxical paradox" (440, 466, 556, 644, 703, 707, 713, 733).  One can follow out  one if its various metaphors for  characters as well as for the novel itself: "blurred" time or personality or "tangle," to take two examples. The narrator's interruptions get looped back into the narrative.  More subtly, some sentences read like metacommentaries on the novel only to be absorbed back into it. Consider, example, this sentence: "In the framework of a week or larger units of time, however, there were certain recurring deviations that made their appearance little by little—one variation might appear, for instance, only after another had repeated itself” (124). One is tempted to classify Mann's style according to the distinctness of various kinds of repetition.  Some non-signifying repetitions might seem almost lazy.  The concierge is always the "limping" (731) concierge; Mynheer Peeperkorn's dimple is always "sybaritic"; Settembrini is always the "organ-grinder,"his manner of speakingalways Stemmbrini’s “graphic” (73, 116, 323, 388, 438, 422, 154, 330). Some repetitions seem like defects (see the bit on music p. 195 and 211—almost identical; or writing a letter on 221 and 223).  Sometimes plot incidents are recalled to the reader explicitly (as when Hans asks Clavdia for a pencil at the Mardi Gras as he had asked the student he had a crush on years earlier).  Other incidents are not (Hans stands over Peeperkorn's corpse in its bed (742) the way he stood over the teenage girl's corpse and the way he stood over his cousin's Joachim's corpse.  But the repetition goes unremarked upon by the narrator). Sometimes the plot makes two incidents parallel but without any comment from the  narrator.  For example, Peeperkorn's incomprehensible speech (Peeperkorn is compared to an orchestra conductor) is repeated literally at the waterfall when he his guest are all "deaf-mutes" (738) because they can't hear him over the thunder of the waterfall.  In both cases, Mann's descriptions of Peeperkorn are hilarious (653; 739-40).  Sometimes incidents seem like literalizations of the novel's departure from the Bildungsroman or adherence it (hard to decide which), as when Hans gets lost in the snowstorm and can make no progress, other as made "false progress," then discovers he has come full circle to the same hut, then cannot get in the hut because it is locked, then has an amazing dream turned nightmare from he has no "genuine awakening" but says three times he will remember it only to have the narrator end the subchapter ("Snow") by gently showing Hans forgetting: "He did justice to his supper. His dream was already beginning to fade. And by bedtime he was no longer sure what his thoughts were" (590).  The novel is strongest in the way it keeps redividing time and undoing hierarchies.  For example, Settembrini, who has been consistently paired and opposed to Nahpta and suddenly paired with Krowkowski, who has been paired similarly with Behrens; this new pairing is  then superimposed over Castorp's two grandfathers, 462. Other plot repetitions don't lend themselves to being read by the narrator, however, as when Nuhpta commits suicide (841), recalling Peeperkorn's suicide (742).  Ditto for Hans' dream returning in the very last sentences of the novel (853) or his singing the same verses from Schubert's Lindenbaum Leid from Die Winterreise he sang earlier in the novel as he engages in trench warfare near the very, very end. There's nothing compulsive about Mann's repetitions.  The narrator's gentle, expansive insistence on the indeterminacy of time ("visit" becomes "residency") and space (the Berghof becomes "home") and difficulty in deciding or resolving major questions, including whether Hans dies in the trenches or survives WWI,  all help you get used to not getting used to understanding the novel, even when the narrator talks explicitly about its theme (not narrating time but about narrating time) and then turns to a metaphor--a "stroll along the shore"--to develop it (641-49).  

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