There’s nothing quite like a thousand pages of Thomas Mann. It’s a luxurious, slow-moving book in which the way time passes and doesn’t pass is part of the point as well as part of the experience of slogging through this monster. It’s a very simple story: Hans Castorp goes to a Swiss sanatorium to visit his sick cousin for a couple of weeks, and he stays for seven years. The end. In between, in the hermetic world of ‘Berghof’ the “perfectly average” hero finds himself educated in love, life, death, the arts, the life of the mind, what have you. Scores of pages are devoted to the disputes between the Italian free mason Settembrini and Naptha, a Jesuit, while Castorp listens and slowly learns to contribute. It took me hundres of pages to realize how funny it all is–the way Castorp hopes his fever keeps rising so he can stay longer, the way people interact over dinner, the way they wrap themselves up on the veranda every day to air out their infected lungs. By the end, it’s clear that the place is a metaphor for Europe before the Great War (the book is from 1925.) What’s most fascinating to me, though, is Mann’s prose. I haven’t read such quality German in a very long time. No matter what they say, in the right hands, it’s a beautiful, beautiful language, in both vocabulary and structure, which, when Mann really gets going, resembles finely crafted Chinese boxes that are stacked within each other in pleasing and surprising ways. I kept wanting to read passages to Marcy, but she wasn’t having it.
I think Buddenbrooks is next.