Der Zauberberg von Thomas Mann
I don't plan enough to have planned it this way, but my ongoing vacation to the mountains aligns all too perfectly with a reading of Der Zauberberg (Wikipedia spoiler alert)
by Thomas Mann. For those of you not familiar with the work, the surface-layer story takes place in a resort setting high in a mountain village of Davos, Switzerland
. It was the site of a sanatorium
that, among other things, acted as a treatment facility for tuberculosis
and the Spanish Flu
in the 1920s. I might take it as a given how many parallels exist between our current pandemic and the one upon which Magic Mountain
is centred. My own personal parallel as I alternate between ''restcure''
and taking regular daily excursions in a small resort town of Colorado are just as striking to me personally and I am anxious to reflect on it all while immersed under such unique circumstances.Language and book details
Without a doubt, I bit off far more than I could read and the learning process has become decidedly more intense. Intercalated blocks of multi-hour binge-reading subjectively made the difference between being in a groove and being in a rut. To hour, I have accepted and experienced far more in the way of slow, sentencewise progress than I have instances of flow. However, those rare instances of flow give me a peek into what it must be like to read German fluently and are notable confidence boosters. Metacognitively, I learn more about the language learning process when I fall into those states of flow and can simultaneously draw perspective on what it is like during more mundane study circumstances.
I am especially happy to read Magic Mountain in both English and German. Not since I read a version of the Decameron in Spanish now years ago have I enjoyed a translation so thoroughly. The native German is superior, but certainly not at every turn of phrase. In both languages, the work is highly quotable. I am taking rather copious notes and opt to capture both English and German translations for reference. Page for page, I would label this book as the most useful language learning book that I have read to date for or in German. Mann wrote Magic Mountain in a very meticulous manner, describing many of the actual events, social climate, setting and scenery in painstaking detail, using extensive and precise vocabulary. In my notes, I noticed that I became comfortable with his idiolect and general writing style about a fourth of the way through the work. In contrast, sentence length is a more persistent, epic, and ongoing challenge. I wrote a personal note on the topic and will drop it in here in case it helps others. Namely, holding the full parallel English sentence in short term memory does not always work perfectly with [Mann's] longer sentences and the brain's path of least resistance then becomes a curious admixture with the moiety of efforts simply directed at reading German outright. That may be a bit counter-intuitive, but not implausible.
Getting used to the writing epoch was so interesting that I likely didn't perceive that aspect as overly burdensome and have moved past those issues mainly by embedding myself firmly in the relevant zeitgeist. For reference, I did the very same thing when reading 19th-century Spanish literature. To boot, it is also very helpful that Mann employs an elegant leitmotiv throughout the work, making it easy to stay on the path to comprehension and follow the thread of his ideas across time and text. Mann had very specific aims in writing Magic Mountain that, fortunately for me, did not include completely losing the reader.
Interspersed are many and splendid, but not overwhelming references to classical, religious, and philosophical works. Wikipedia is a more useful reference than Duden and Mann's writing is anything but provincial. I feel it is worth setting aside time to explore the references he uses, even to the point of tangential wandering. I enjoyed the Wikipedia experience so much in German that I am likely to include it more explicitly in my future learning endeavours.
It is easy to see why Magic Mountain met with wide acclaim and easier still to justify my own personal indulgence in it. The work itself is written as a philosophical dialectic first and foremost. By extension, don't expect much in the way of action (but the storytelling is excellent) and definitely don't expect it to be anything like a spell-bound page-turner. In case you haven't read the many excellent german learning logs, it is commonly suggested to read other works by Mann before taking up Magic Mountain. There is a reasonable case to be made to read Mann chronologically, which would likely have been the author's own preference given his direct comments on the matter.
As a side note, if you get a chance, even if you choose never to read the book (a valid choice as it is not for everyone by a longshot and other works of his may be significantly better, YMMV), I highly recommend reading the author's endnote presented right after the Finis Operis and available only in the English edition to the best of my awareness. He wrote it himself using quite advanced English directed at an American audience (his words). I won't say more about it to avoid spoilers other than to mention that he gives insight into his personal writing process, his relation to other greats of German literature, certainly into the Magic Mountain storey itself along with his previous and future novels and finally into his choice of language for exposition.
Time marches on and I suspect this work will soon fall in the public domain, so access to this and more is no doubt forthcoming. It is clear that I chose not to wait around. I will share some text analysis that I completed last week in a separate post. The same goes for some quotes I found interesting.Translator's Note H. T. LOWE-PORTER
The translator wishes to thank, in this place, a number of scholars, authorities in the various special fields entered by The Magic Mountain, without whose help the version in all humility here offered to English readers, lame as it is, must have been more lacking still. That they gave so generously is not to be interpreted otherwise than as a tribute to a work of genius. But with all their help, the great difficulty remained: the violet had to be cast into the crucible, the organic work of art to be remoulded in another tongue. Shelley’s figure is perhaps not entirely apt here. Yet, since in the creative act word and thought are indivisible, the task was seen to be one before which artists would shrink and logical minds recoil.
But of the author of The Magic Mountain it can be said in a special sense that he has looked into the seeds of Time. It was in dispensable that we should read his book; intolerable that English readers should be barred from a work whose spirit, whatever its vehicle, is universal. It seemed better that an English version should be done ill than not done at all.
If you read, even a little between the lines, Porter very much had to win over Mann and not the other way around. In the end, they became much closer and separately, I would say she won the fame she deserved.H.T. Lowe-Porter 1907 and a note on her struggles as a female translator