Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 11

Week 11: I may need someone to explain this week’s pages to me! Castorp and his cousin listen, in two different scenes, to discourse between Settembrini and his new housemate, Naphta, who, we learn late in these pages, is (gasp!) a Jesuit. The two men speak at length of lofty concepts, arguing about freedom, humanism, dualism, Man and Nature, communism, capitalism, the polarity of God. I admit my attention flagged in these pages, and then I had to laugh when Castorp says: “I was paying attention, but none of it was clear. Instead, the more they talked the more confused I got.” Looking forward to the historians and philosophers among you explaining all of this to me! Meanwhile, time on the mountain continues, and Castorp’s enthusiasm for learning everything never flags…

For next week: read to section “Operationes Spirituales” in Chapter 6

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 10

Week 10: Finally Castorp speaks to Madame Chauchat! What a wonderful scene; I wonder if others were surprised, as I was, at how completely Castorp confesses his love! All had been so repressed until this scene, I was surprised to see it come pouring out. His last gushing speech to her, supposedly all in French which he “does not speak,” felt very characteristic, however – a long discourse on the mechanics of body and death: “Ah, love, you know. The body, love, death, are simply one and the same. Because the body is sickness and depravity, it is what produces death, yes, both of them, love and death, are carnal, and that is the source of their terror and great magic!” And his last amazing plea to her: “Let me take in the exhalation of your pores and brush the down – oh, my human image made of water and protein, destined for the contours of the grave, let me perish, my lips against yours!” Very interested in the theme of love in this book, so clearly explored alongside illness and death…

For next week: read to the section “An Outburst of Temper” in Chapter 6. 

And join our zoom meeting Sunday at 11! to register. 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain Week 9

Week 9: In this week’s pages, Hans Castorp and his cousin begin a practice of visiting the sick and dying at Berghof. Each time they do this, Castorp feels “his whole being expand with a joy rooted in a sense of helpfulness and quiet importance, but intermingled with a certain jaunty delight in the spotless Christian impression his good deeds made–an impression so devout, caring, and praiseworthy, in fact, that no serious objections whatever could be raised against it…” A fascinating series of encounters are detailed, culminating at the end of the section with the visits to the young woman Karen Kartedt, who lives outside of the sanatorium, and who the cousins take on various outings and, eventually, to the cemetery where she will soon be interred. But maybe my favorite moment is when Mann describes going to the movies! I have to quote it in its entirety: “There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. The actors who had been cast in the play they had just seen had long since been scattered to the winds; they had watched only phantoms, whose deeds had been reduced to a million photographs brought into focus for the briefest of moments so that, as often as one liked, they could then be given back to the element of time as a series of blinking flashes. Once the illusion was over, there was something repulsive about the crowd’s nerveless silence. Hands lay impotent before the void. People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return of the dark, so that they could again watch things, whose time had passed, come to pass again, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.” 

For next week: Read to the section “Someone Else” in Chapter 6. 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 8

Week 8: This week’s pages were my favorite in the book so far. From the examination of Director Behrens’ paintings and in particular his portrait of Madame Chauchat, leading Castorp to expound on the link between science and art, how they “blend together because they have actually always been just one thing,” and into his new interest in studying human anatomy and the question of “what is life”…to that incredible pages-long rumination on life and on human anatomy all the way down to the molecular level. Wow! The writing here is nothing short of transcendent. Too many passages to quote; this last chapter, “Research,” is for me reason alone to read this entire book. Who’s with me??

For next week: Read to section “Walpurgis Night” in Chapter 5

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 7

Week 7: Hans Castorp achieves his “freedom” by writing home for the third time, telling his relatives he has to stay at the sanatorium and asking them to mail him his winter clothes. He has settled in, and begins to take real pleasure in his obsession with Madame Chauchat, even as the others around him titter about it. He is looking for “some satisfactory answer about the meaning and purpose of life,” and “would not have stayed with the people up here” had such an answer “been supplied” from “out of the depths of time.” I wonder what everyone makes of Settembrini’s long discourse toward the end of today’s pages…and the role of Settembrini in general. Looking forward to discussing on Sunday!

To register for Sunday’s meeting:

For next week: read to the section “Danse Macabre” in Chapter 5. 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 6

Week 6: Castorp stays in bed for three weeks, “impounded by fate.” Time collapses — “it is always the same day – it just keeps repeating itself … [so] it is surely not correct to speak of ‘repetition.’ One should speak of monotony, of an abiding now, of eternalness.” This description reminded me of the eternal present tense of our recent months in quarantine. Castorp has fully become “one of them,” though as he is “only slightly ill” he is “considered inferior by local standards,” a fascinating clue to the logic of this place, and one Castorp abides by. He and his cousin go and have their X-rays done (the Clavdia obsession deepens!), and Castorp is unnerved both at seeing the “interior” of his cousin’s body and of his own hand, feeling in both cases that it is an encounter with the grave. One aspect surely of what this entire stay in the sanatorium has been? 

For next week: read to the section “Humaniora” in Chapter 5.

And join our zoom meeting next week, July 12th, at 11 am! Go to to register.

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 5

Week 5: In this week’s pages Castorp gets his first official “admittance” to the sanatorium as a “patient” rather than a “visitor.” It feels inevitable to us, of course, knowing he will stay, and having watched Castorp’s progression up to now. But for me maybe the most fascinating element of the book so far is the way that Mann makes this slide into illness feel not only inevitable but also, for Castorp, desirable. He feels pangs at the idea of leaving his cousin up there alone, but the reader understands he actually doesn’t want to go.The near giddiness with which he takes his temperature! Also his obsession with Frau Chauchant is fascinating, and I look forward to discussing it with you all (he loves her, and yet has no plans to speak to her, and calls her “worm-eaten”)! And at the end of chapter 4, with some relief, he is declared “secretly one of the locals,” and ordered to bed. 

For next week: Read to the section “Freedom” in Chapter 5. 

Also: Our next zoom meeting with be July 12th, 11am EST (moved one week because of July 4th holiday). More details TK!

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain Week 4

Week 4: The attached quote, referring to the idea of a sick physician (in a paragraph questioning whether a person who is sick can nurse “others in the same way a healthy person can”), seems particularly apt for our current moment, as our country begins (hopefully) to reckon seriously with the ways systemic racism is built into our foundations. We spoke on our zoom call sunday about the ways Magic Mountain is allegorical or metaphorical, a theme that will no doubt come up over and again as we move through it. How purposeful was it for Mann not to explicitly name Tuberculosis, so the illness/sanatorium becomes more generalized and therefore more easily metaphorical? I keep thinking about the subtle strangenesses in this world — the way Castorp’s cigar tastes terrible, for example — small details that suggest to us that this is a world with its own rules. And how this otherworldliness then frees Mann to really be able to move anywhere he wants to go. How about Dr. Krokowski’s speech, declaring “any symptom of illness was a masked form of love in action, and illness was merely transformed love”? Looking forward to talking about that idea with all of you, and to seeing the way Mann weaves it into his book. 

For next week: Read to the end of Chapter 4.

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain Week 3

Week 3: Hans Castorp has barely been at the sanatorium even a week, but he feels he has been there “a very long time” – the reader, too, feels a sense of expanded time, and wonders at the way that Mann, the writer, is creating for us a sense of what his character is experiencing. Many interesting themes are emerging in these pages — the relation between body and soul, between sickness and health, between memory and feeling (what is it that Castorp keeps almost remembering when he encounters Madame Chauchant?), and of course, the nature of time. What is happening, really, as Castorp slowly becomes “one of them,” settling into the life of an ill person in this sanatorium? The hints and movements of the transformation are fascinating; this transformation seems, so far anyway, to be the main “plot” of the book. Subtly, with this transformation, Mann seems to challenge us to ask about the very nature of illness and of time, and the way the two may relate to one another. 

Looking forward our first zoom meeting tomorrow, Sunday June 14, at 11 AM! Register at

For next week: Read to the section “Growing Anxieties/Two Grandfathers” in Chapter 4. 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: June 5, 2020

Dear NM Book Club members: This week, in solidarity with the ongoing protests around the country, we have decided to take a pause on our reading of The Magic Mountain in order to give space and time to those voices. We will resume next week (and will send next assignment then), and our zoom meeting previously scheduled for this Sunday at noon will be moved to next Sunday (June 14th) at 11 AM (if you already registered, the event has been updated and therefore there’s nothing you need to do, and for anyone not registered yet, the link can be found as always at In the meantime, we urge you to engage with and support the fight for racial justice in whatever way makes the most sense for you: donate, protest, call your elected officials, and, of course, read and talk with others. Here is an anti-racist reading list from Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Anti-Racist, as well as a list of black-owned bookstores to support:

Anti-Racist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi:

Black-owned bookstores: