Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 1

So we begin our journey with The Magic Mountain! Approximately 40 pages in and I, for one, am already hooked. I love how Mann signals so clearly in the Foreword how this book will be concerned primarily with the “problematic and uniquely double nature of that mysterious element,” time. Given our current pandemic quarantine status, I am very much here for this exploration. 

In chapter 1, Hans Castorp travels from Hamburg, his hometown — from his “everyday world,” bustling with work and preoccupations — to a Sanatorium high up in the mountains, presumably for a “rest” and to see his cousin. “He had not planned to take this trip particularly seriously, to become deeply involved in it,” but even in the first few pages his perception begins to be altered. “‘Home in three weeks,'” says his cousin, “‘that’s a notion from down below.'” I love how simply and matter-of-factly all is described in this first chapter, and yet how subtly strange it all is, so as a reader you get the sense of a very real-life place and also a place where absolutely any fantastic thing could happen. There is a distinct ominousness — the cough that Castorp hears, for example, which is “not even human,” and the sense the reader has that Castorp has landed here for a very long time, even if he doesn’t know it (always a creepy feeling to know things, when reading, that your character doesn’t yet know). 

Chapter 2 gives us a bit of Hans Castorp’s back story – we learn that he has been well-acquainted with death from a young age, having lost his parents and his grandfather before he was ten, and then was raised by his uncle. I was struck by this statement, which seems highly relevant to our present moment: “…the damage inflicted by the times on someone’s personal life can have a direct influence on that person’s physical organism.” Not news, but a reminder of how our personal circumstances — our actual organisms — are intricately connected to the times we are living in, and therefore to each other – and another way Mann reminds us of the importance of the “mysterious element.” 

For next week: Read up to the section titled “But of course – a female!” in Chapter 3.  

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