As I was once again pondering these questions, trying to recall what had made me persevere through seven years of starting and stopping until I finally reached the end, I took a break to read the news.
The ninety-eight-year-old Henry Kissinger — a man I learned to despise before I learned to read — had spoken at the World Economic Forum the previous day, advising Ukraine to cede part of its sovereign territory to Russia in the interest of geopolitical stability. And where is this conference held? In Davos, Switzerland, the alpine resort where The Magic Mountain takes place.
During the many years in which I was cultivating a desire to read the novel, without actually beginning it, I would be reminded each year of this connection. Although I didn’t have a clear sense of its plot, I knew that it concerned people who were sufficiently privileged to spend years being treated in luxury conditions.
Every time I encountered a polemic about the “Davos set”, those titans of global capitalism who made the rest of the 1% seem downright plebeian, I wondered whether The Magic Mountain would illuminate their perfidy. I knew that Mann had published his novel nearly a half century before the World Economic Forum was founded in 1971. Yet the fact that both took place in Davos didn’t feel like a random coincidence.
I have the sort of mind given to florid speculation, followed by scrupulous fact-checking. Since I first became capable of looking things up, I have expended a substantial portion of my mental energy on testing my intuitions.
My mother used to say that it would drive her crazy, listening to me lecture her about various subjects that I could not possibly know much about at age six or seven, only to find out that I wasn’t just making things up, as children that age typically do. What she didn’t know is that I would only share my thoughts with her after this testing process.
I would spend hours paging through our Encyclopedia Brittanica and the various other books she had acquired for the edification of my sister and me. Because there was nothing I hated more than being wrong.
One thing I realised early on was that our family library had distinct limitations. When I couldn’t properly research a topic I’d been thinking about, I learned to file it away for future examination. Sometimes a trip to the local library would be sufficient to remedy the gaps in our household reference materials.
But there were occasions when I became passionately interested in ephemeral subjects that I couldn’t even figure out how to research. Those I held onto in a kind of mental archive, hoping that one day I would have the necessary information at why disposal.
Even now, decades after I finished my university studies, I regularly find myself revisiting this archive, looking up now, with the help of the Internet, what I was not able to look up at five, ten, or twenty.
One strange offshoot of this approach to learning is that I still permit myself to muse on topics without immediately researching them.
Just as I did when I was a child, I deposit them in that mental archive, waiting until the time seems right for me to follow up on them. As old as I am now, I know that many of these speculations will never be properly fact-checked. So I will keep them to myself.
Others, though, will suddenly feel too important to ignore. That’s what finally led me to start reading The Magic Mountain.
After Trump inauguration, Feeling 100 yrs back in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, looking down of the world & thinking how odd is the world. pic.twitter.com/EGPe6uGB9C
— Holger Zschaepitz (@Schuldensuehner) January 21, 2017
For many years, it had been on my list of titles I would one day like to read. But there were obstacles. Years before, when I was still a German major, I had vowed never to read a German-language novel in English if I could help it. Being a slow reader, thanks to my dyslexia, I was also reluctant to read anything that long.
Then one day in the spring of 2015, almost exactly seven years ago, I was sitting in the café adjoining our local suburban bookstore, reading a Time magazine story about the sudden death, at age 47, of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg.
Although it was a sad tale — and a scary one for me, being only a few months younger than he was – I kept coming back to the first paragraph, which was worded like the beginning of a murder mystery:
For Dave Goldberg, May 1, 2015, was the best day with the worst ending. The SurveyMonkey CEO was celebrating the 50th birthday of one of his closest buddies at a palm-fringed, $12,750-a-night, nine-bedroom villa in Punta Mita, a secluded Mexican resort favored by the Silicon Valley elite. The vacation had been full of what he loved: games with family and friends, walks and long talks by the pool. When he climbed on the fitness-center treadmill that Friday, nothing but blue sky appeared ahead: his company was doing well, his children were healthy, and he was as in love as ever with his superwoman wife Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and the author of Lean In. Then his heart gave out.
Or, at least, it sounded like one to me, because I could easily imagine someone wanting to murder a person with that much wealth and privilege.
I was fixated on Silicon Valley as a teenager growing up in the 1980s, back when I read Byte magazine religiously and had dreams of becoming a programmer. That was part of the reason I decided to attend university in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I loved it from the beginning, for both its beauty and culture, I soon realised that the Silicon Valley Dream was less sanguine than it seemed from afar.
By the time I finished graduate school there in 2000, after witnessing the Dot Com boom’s impact on the lives of longtime residents — especially, those who still held traditional blue and pink-collar jobs – I was starting to see how that dream could turn into a nightmare.
The intervening decade and a half only confirmed this suspicion. Much of what had seemed so egalitarian and hopeful during the early days of the Internet had turned dark.
The old adage that you can’t get something for nothing had become newly relevant, as corporations like Google and Facebook took advantage of the people who used their services free of cost by profiting from their personal data.
And while a few individuals periodically managed to turn their hard work and inspiration into money, the vast majority of the people ensnared in this global web fell on the side of the have-nots. To them, the prospect of spending thousands of dollars a night on a hotel room would be absurd and infuriating.
So would Sandberg’s advice to “lean in”, in all likelihood. While it might prove valuable in certain corporate and institutional settings, not many women around the world find themselves close enough to the boardroom tables she has in mind to make their confidence count.
As I was thinking about the disconnect between her message and the plight of the “99%”, as Occupy Wall Street had fortuitously called them, I decided to look up what she had been doing before her husband’s death.
The first thing I found was an account of the World Economic Forum’s 2015 meeting in Davos, where she had been present along with other high-tech executives.
Listening to Sandberg talk about the importance of giving the “data-impoverished” inhabitants of the planet better access to information, I felt my ire quicken. Information is only valuable if you can make productive use of it. But corporations like Facebook don’t give ordinary users access to their vast reservoir of data.
That’s when it hit me. I had been thinking about reading The Magic Mountain for a long time. And here I was, sitting next to a bookstore, suddenly overcome by an intense urge to get underway.
I made my way to the letter M in the Fiction section and found the tan spine on the shelf. Pulling it off, I noticed that it was translated by John E. Woods, whom my friend Christopher, a fellow Germanophile, had once met and praised very highly.
I began paging through it, looking at passages here and there. After a few minutes, it became apparent that the combination of Mann’s style and the clearly excellent translation, full of casual wit, would make the experience of reading it in English worthwhile.
That night, I eagerly read the first fifty pages or so of the novel, which recount Hans Castorp’s arrival at the Berghof Sanatorium to visit his ailing cousin Joachim Ziemssen. At first, he is dumbfounded by what he finds, a society that functions according to rules of its own, with seemingly no regard for how people act in the real world down below.
Even Ziemssen, who wants nothing more than to recover sufficiently to join his military regiment, has succumbed to its logic, repeatedly implying that Castorp should reserve judgment until he better understands how things are done there. Having made it this far, I could already sense that my intuition about the Davos setting was on the right track.
Even though the upper-class European world depicted in The Magic Mountain had disappeared long ago — only a few years later as Mann’s narrator makes clear — its rejection of life down in the “flatlands” served as a perfect figure for the disconnect between participants in the World Economic Forum and the everyday existence they imperiously converse about from their alpine retreat.
Castorp’s incredulity is similar to the sort I imagined other readers of that Time magazine article on Sheryl Sandberg experiencing. While he is intellectually aware that the residents of the Berghof Sanitorium are suffering from tuberculosis, an illness that often proved fatal, how they respond to their plight makes it hard for him to feel sympathy for them.
Even if, like Sandberg’s husband David Goldberg, they will soon meet an untimely end, the freedoms they are enjoying imbue this fate with the patina of irony. They might as well be on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, revelling in the luxuries of life at the top, while the rest of the passengers are crammed into unpleasant quarters below.
This was my initial response to The Magic Mountain. Once Hans Castorp starts to settle in, however, acculturating himself to this life apart, I found it harder to make progress. The allegory I had been hoping to find was beginning to transform into something else. Because I was reading too carefully to pretend otherwise, I took longer breaks, hoping to find new motivation.
Every novel I begin passes through a probationary stage. If I can make it past a certain point, be it ten pages or a hundred, I know that I will eventually read it to the end. If I don’t, I set it aside, with little hope of resuming it in the future.
I reached this point unusually late in The Magic Mountain. Although I had enjoyed its wit from the get-go, its slow pace and lack of a well-defined plot were impediments. So were the many interruptions caused by having to reread the books I was currently teaching or brand-new titles, like my friend Viet Thanh Nguyen’s superb debut novel The Sympathizer.
It ended up taking me several more years of reading news stories about the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos to make it halfway through The Magic Mountain.
I pressed on, though, in fits and starts, until one day I found myself sitting alone at a table in Tucson’s Casa Video, nursing a pilsener while I waited to find out whether my daughter, then a university freshman, would need a ride home from a party.
As the hours dragged on, I grew tired of looking at my phone and went out to my car to find something better to read.
The Magic Mountain was lying on the floor behind the driver’s seat, where it had spent the last several months. I picked it up and brought it inside, wondering whether I would be able to get any traction under these conditions.
Whether it was the anxiety I was trying to keep at bay — bad things happen to young women at college parties – or the beer I was drinking, or both, I found myself connecting with the novel on a deeper level. I realised not only that I would one day manage to finish it, but that it would become one of my all-time favourite books in the process.
Like Hans Castorp, I was no longer an outsider to the goings-on at the Berghof Sanatorium. Instead of regarding them with wry detachment, I was emotionally absorbed by even the most minute details of his routine.
Mann’s critique of upper-class European society in the years leading up to World War I still resonated. I continued to recognise the absurdity of the Berghof residents’ situation. But I was no longer content with this satire. Just as his interest in the subject had changed during the years in which he was working on the novel, so had mine during my years of reading it.
Instead of asking myself why a person would want to read a novel as long on words and short on plot as The Magic Mountain — whether it was worth the effort, in other words – I was wondering how anyone could stop reading it.
I couldn’t help but recall the Eagles’ “Hotel California”, where the eponymous lodge is described as a place where “You can check out anytime you like/But you can never leave”.
This article is the second in a series. The first is The Thomas Mann Mountain.
Photograph courtesy of Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.