Monday, January 13, 2014

Pushing through Magic Mountain

For the read-a-thon a couple of weeks ago, I started reading Mann's Magic Mountain.  It's on a couple of my reading challenge lists, and I started it once before, only to let it fade from my reading radar after about 100 pages. After I finished the read-a-thon, I knew it might happen again.

It's a weirdly seductive novel, but it is also a novel that requires you to build your way slowly into the rhythm and pacing of the writing.  Not a lot happens in conventional plot terms.  The protagonist goes to a sanatorium in the mountains to visit his cousin and falls into the routine of the actual patients.  That schedule includes a) lots of meals, and b) lots of time lying on a deck chair for the rest cure.  I've had moments, while reading it, where I was reminded of the pacing of Moby Dick:  long periods of inactivity waiting on the boat followed by short, intense periods of action during the whale hunt.  The difference is that, one-third of the way through Magic Mountain, there haven't been too many mountainside whale hunts.  Or elk or moose hunts, for that matter.

And yet, and yet . . .  There are also moments when it seems as though Mann has distilled much of human existence down to the routine of the sanatorium:  eating, flirting, falling in love, being sick and dependent on the care of others, and resting/sleeping.  The dramas that develop in the dining room are inconsequential but significant.  The scenes at mealtime offer the action; the periods of rest are taken up with meditations on any number of things.  One wonders whether the pattern of life down the mountain is simply a more dressed-up version of the sanatorium life with many more objects and material possessions crammed.

The closed circle of acquaintances in the small community (with the exception of the occasional new patient) makes for an intensity of interactions that draws you in.  I continue to be drawn in.

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