What the Swedes Read
A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate
by Daniel Handler
- LAUREATE: Thomas Mann (Germany, 1929)
- BOOK READ: The Magic Mountain (translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter)
The Magic Mountain is a big book, and big books are completely different animals from your run-of-the-mill regular-sized ones. I guess it’s like people: you can reach maybe seven feet and three hundred pounds, but after that there’s a whole separate set of behaviors. Somewhere past the five-hundred-page mark, the game changes—a pace and an affect that make a big book feel like a separate kind of literary endeavor.
In my experience there are two basic types of big book. One is the one-damn-thing-after-another variety—Charles Dickens is the acknowledged king of these—and the other is the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind, loaded with digressions, experiments, B-sides, demos, and remixes. Moby-Dick is obviously one of this type, along with Ulysses; The Arcades Project; The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard; Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments; and No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again; A Symphonic Novel, which I finally have occasion to mention in print.
Both types of big book have their delights and drawbacks. The one-damn-thing-after-another one is more likely to be a consistently good read, but doesn’t always close the deal. When I finished Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, I had the satisfaction that a good novel gives, but just that, and no more. I was left wondering why the thing had to be king-size when it held a single serving of gratification. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, on the other hand, tends to have some very difficult slogging at some point or another. I would defy anyone to read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, for instance, and not be tempted to give up more than once, so bamboozling and bitchslappy are the tougher sections. But if the book doesn’t defeat you, you will close it with the rare and deep pleasure of “Now that’s a book.” It all depends on what you’re in the mood for, really: The Woman in White is a great read, with cliff-hangers and twists galore. Infinite Jest, with its footnoted rulebooks and meandering puppet scripts, is a great book.
So what type is The Magic Mountain? Well, it opens with the hero, young Hans Castorp, “neither genius nor dunderhead,” visiting his cousin at a sanatorium, where he is being treated for tuberculosis. (If you have an image of patients wrapped in blankets on a patio overlooking the mountains, this is part of the vapor trail The Magic Mountain has left in the world.) Hans plans to stay for three weeks, and about seven years later he’s just about ready to leave. It’s bad timing: the First World War is starting up, and Mann implies that Hans, following his long convalescence, will likely be killed in action.
But this is like saying The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is about a girl in Kansas who bumps her head and then wakes up.