Mann’s writing was interrupted by WWI, making this a much more complex book than he intended to write. Published in 1929, he started writing it in 1912. Heralded as one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature.
Quick plot summary: Hans Castorp goes for a three week visit to his cousin Joachim Ziemssen at a Swiss sanatarium, and ends up staying seven years. Along the way he encounters the Italian humanist Settembrini, who acts as intellectual mentor to Castorp. Through Settembrini he meets Naphta, a Jew converted to Catholicism and Jesuit. Naphta and Settembrini get into furious intellectual quarrels, ending the book with a duel, S refuses to kill N, so N shoots himself in the head. Castorp falls in love with Clavdia Chauchat, the Russian lady of mystery who leaves the sanatarium only to return several months later with Peeperkorn, a boisterous and wealthy Dutchman. Castorp has one eventful night during Marti Gras where all rules are lifted and thus speaks frankly to Clavdia. He borrows a pencil from her, as he borrowed one from the Kirghiz-eyed classmate of long ago, Pribislav Hippe.
Castorp’s stay is prolonged first by catching a cold, and then when he is examined, they find “spots” on his lung, thus he becomes a full time resident, buying the fur lined blanket with which to wrap himself as he takes in the rest cure on his balcony in the fresh mountain air. Life at the sanatarium is decadent- five huge meals a day, followed by resting on comfortable chaise lounges on their balconies, with brief walks in the valley. Time becomes meaningless, seasons not guideposts since May contains more snow than October. Ziemssen heads down to the flatlands, rejoins his regiment happily. A few months later, he is back, in worse shape than ever. In the interim, Castorp received a visit from his uncle Tienappel, who wanted to know why Ziemssen had left but Castorp had not. The uncle was freaked out by the antipathy surrounding him in the high alpine air (“we’re never cold”), and flees for the flatland after getting an answer to his question about what happens when bodies decay. “First of all, your guts burst… you stink yourself out.”
Ziemssen then dies at the sanatarium, leaving Castorp alone. Years pass. The institution receives a gramophone which Castorp takes responsibility for. There are seances which summon dead spirits (when asked how long the spirit had been there, “hastening while”). Castorp takes up skiing.
Recurring ideas: Castorp’s notion of “playing king” as he daydreams in the green meadow, the constant referring to bareheaded men or men without hats– what is the significance? — this is a purely alpine tradition, as the lowlands men all wore hats. The concept of time – Mann mentions the trimming of nails bringing a heightened sense of time passing, something I myself have also noticed.
What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony– uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death. When one day is like every other, then all days are like one, and perfect homogeneity would make the longest life seem very short, as if it had flown by in a twinkling.
…she exuded bleakness of spirit the way a cellar exudes damp.