Reader, I have a problem: I seem to be stuck on a novel that makes me feel bad about myself. The novel in question is The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. The affliction seems relatively common. I should know, since I have spent the past few years studying other readers who have experienced it.
Here is how Susan Sontag put it, reminiscing about her first encounter with Thomas Mann: “Everything that surrounds my meeting with him has the color of shame.” Sontag read The Magic Mountain as a teenager in the 1940s and was captivated, but also intimidated. She soon found out that Mann, exiled from Nazi Germany, was living very close to her, in Pacific Palisades, a secluded coastal neighborhood in Los Angeles. Sontag and a friend of hers managed to get themselves invited to pay a visit at his house—that was the meeting she described in the quote above.
Sontag’s memory of her meeting with Mann seems to have become its own micro-genre: a report of an acute case of intellectual imposter syndrome inflicted by an encounter with Mann’s writing. Carlos Fuentes recalls Sontag’s experience as he reflects on his encounter with Mann in Switzerland toward the end of Mann’s life:
I was curious, I was impertinent. Dare I approach Thomas Mann—I, a 21-year-old Mexican student with a lot of reading behind me, true, but with all the gaucherie of one still ignorant of social and intellectual sophistication? Susan Sontag, in a memorable piece, has recalled how she, even younger than I, entered the inner sanctum of Thomas Mann’s house in Los Angeles in the 1940s, and found precious little to say, but much to observe. I had nothing to say but, like Sontag, a lot to observe.
As for me, I first read The Magic Mountain the summer before starting university. I gobbled up its thousand pages in just a couple of days—greedily, in huge portions, the way the patients of Mann’s Swiss sanatorium devoured their five lavish daily meals.
Before I even picked up the book, though, I had already formed a half-conscious view of it. I knew it was one of those long novels in which not much happens: a young German engineer goes to visit his cousin in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and ends up staying there for seven years, right until the outbreak of the First World War—a long stretch of time taken up with much rest, a little romance and a whole lot of thinking lofty thoughts.
That, really, was the main thing I associated with The Magic Mountain: it was supposed to be a book for true intellectuals, the pinnacle of erudition, the summa of European culture. At its heart lay philosophical disputes over topics that had forever marked European intellectual history: the value of democracy, the Enlightenment, the dynamic development of science and technology, the allure of totalitarianism, medieval church states, twentieth-century communism, various kinds of secret knowledge promised by gnosticism or masonry.
Unsurprisingly, I felt unable to follow those discussions in much detail. But that was about to change, I thought: in just a few short weeks, I would move from Poland, where I grew up and where I was currently reading The Magic Mountain in the only available Polish translation from the 1930s in my childhood bedroom, to England, where I would begin a degree in German at Oxford.
Nobody in my family had ever done anything like this, but our social ascent over the past three generations brought me to the cusp of being able to make this jump. And I wanted to go all the way. Somehow, this made me fixate on Mann’s novel. But perhaps my fixation was not so fortuitous after all. The image of a mountain one has to climb must have come across to me, in some nebulous way, as an illustration of the project of upward social mobility. I must have felt that if I only managed to read this book—read it “properly,” i.e. became the kind of clever bourgeois reader I assumed it was intended for—it would somehow impact my social standing, too. (Back then, that seemed to me an unambiguously positive aspiration.)
And so my first reading of The Magic Mountain was all about dreaming of the reader I might become, if only I applied myself to my studies—a better reader than teenage Sontag, than young Fuentes! Reading Mann whetted my appetite for the kind of erudition that this novel seemed to call for—fluency in German, French and Latin (since the text was peppered with foreign phrases and even whole pieces of dialogue left untranslated), an effortless grasp of the dense web of allusions to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner, Novalis, Goethe and Freud, and an enjoyment of a book like this untarnished by flashes of boredom or confusion.
I bided my time by enjoying everything that was taking place in between the intellectual battles among the tubercular patients of the Berghof sanatorium. They were playing out against the backdrop of the unrequited love of Hans Castorp, the young German engineer, for an older Russian woman, the much-exoticized Clavdia Chauchat. I was not yet familiar with the methodology of postcolonial criticism, so I did not stop to wonder why Western European patients in Mann’s sanatorium tended to describe those hailing from lands to the east of Germany as idle and salacious Asians—or what it might mean for me, given that just beyond this imagined border of Western civilization lay Poland, in the early twentieth century still partitioned by Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia.
A few years later I read Sontag’s story of her meeting with Mann and realized that it also described a more symbolic meeting between two cultural traditions—between the old German writer who seems to embody prewar European culture and a young American girl who reads his book and loves it but feels that she does not have a chance to ever measure up to him. I recognized something of that dynamic. What was left unspoken in my own first encounter with Mann’s writing that summer before I started at Oxford, I think, was my anxious hope that I would move across the border of what Western literature had taught me to see as an Eastern lack of polish and sophistication, right into the heart of Western elegance and education. The Magic Mountain was supposed to be my one-way ticket.
How important was this to understanding Mann’s novel? I wondered. What did readers like me, Sontag and Fuentes have in common? Was our experience as readers in fact more common than it might at first seem? And could other readers learn from it too?
Wondering about how readers react to books is not exactly encouraged in traditional literature programs. Students can sense their professors’ discomfort whenever somebody mentions a “personal experience” while discussing a text in class—like a time in their life the book reminded them of, or how it made them sad or angry. Those students are likely to be met with twitching eyes, furrowed brows, a telling “hmm.” Meanwhile, pointing out a cultural allusion—especially if it is biblical or classical—tends to elicit enthusiastic nodding, broad smiles. I think I can claim this with some authority, since I have now experienced it on both sides—first as a student, now as a teacher.
As a student I wanted nothing more than those nods and smiles, not the “ums” and “ahs.” And yet when we were reading our first set text at Oxford, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, I kept thinking that we should not talk around the fact that most of us found it boring. Yes, boring: a yawn-inducing plotlessness seemed to stretch out for pages at a time. Was this just because we were first-years who could not appreciate good literature?
Not necessarily. I remember how excited I was when I embarked on my first-ever JSTOR search and found an article titled “Performing Boredom in Effi Briest: On the Effects of Narrative Speed.” The first sentence read: “Effi Briest is a ‘boring’ book.” Perhaps boredom didn’t have to remain a shameful secret kept away from one’s tutors but could become a catalyst for the kind of academic reading that tutors were asking us to develop! Or could it? The article went on:
Effi Briest is a “boring” book. This is not the kind of critical judgment one normally makes, and for two reasons. First, “boring” comes across as negative and banal, and academic criticism’s task is generally not to disparage its object but rather to unfold that object’s complexity. Second, and more important, it is an emotionally laden appraisal that ventures away from the work itself and into the realm of affective response. For both these reasons, declaring a work boring is bad critical form.
The article then proceeds to analyze boredom as a cultural and narrative trope used to capture and communicate the plight of the novel’s young female protagonist—and to quote a lot of Kant and Heidegger. I found it interesting, but it provided an unsatisfying answer to my question about how to work with my feelings as a reader. Granted, it did not ask me to disregard them, which was the implicit or explicit strategy of much other criticism I encountered. Rather, the article modeled how to legitimize our feelings with jargon-heavy citations of authoritative philosophers and theorists. This still seemed like a cop-out, so I kept searching.
Finding a better answer was not easy. Literary scholars have a tendency to discuss so-called “implied” or “ideal” readers rather than to consider accounts of real-life readers, including their own reading experiences. Both these terms are used to denote a “hypothetical” reader: in Andrew Bennett’s words, the person at “whom the text is directed” and who can “get the most out of a particular text”—“equipped in terms of knowledge, sympathies and prejudices, strategies of reading, previous experience of reading.” But this normative conception of an abstract reader implied by the text can be extremely limiting when one considers its actual, real-life readers.
This is the name of the game among Mannologists too. Hermann Kurzke begins his authoritative monograph Thomas Mann: Epoche – Werk – Wirkung by describing the “best reader of Thomas Mann”—a blend of an “ideal” reader and Mann’s real-life readership. Kurzke’s description, however, makes him reach rather shortsighted conclusions about who can productively read Mann in the 21st century. “The best reader of Thomas Mann is still a traditionally educated middle-class man gone astray, one who no longer identifies with the interests of his class but has not found any other spiritual home either,” he writes. “If nothing else, traditional middle-class ‘Bildung’ is a nearly indispensable prerequisite for a fruitful reading of Thomas Mann because one … needs to be familiar with the conventions which are being ironically subverted to properly appreciate the subversion.” Yet even among these readers, Kurzke worries that “great losses have been sustained, losses that can hardly be offset by the surrogate of instruction in schools and at universities.”
On this account, the only readers who can truly appreciate and enjoy Mann these days are German academics who specialize in his work. All readers outside Germany are doomed from the start, since they will not have had a chance to experience firsthand the characteristically German model of Bildung, cultural education imbued with moral ideas about the formation of the character and the integration of the individual into society. But even among German readers, only those of a certain class stand a chance, namely those from good bourgeois families whose forefathers resembled Mann’s own protoplasts. With every generation, however, the traditions of early-twentieth-century Bildungsbürgertum are fading away, making it nearly impossible to educate young Germans on such matters. The only men left standing, then, are those belonging to an older generation of German literature professors whose research is devoted to Thomas Mann (for it is “der beste Thomas-Mann-Leser,” not “Leserin,” that Kurzke considers here).
Let me dwell on the term Bildung—a key term, not least because The Magic Mountain draws on the tradition of the bildungsroman—a little longer to challenge this argument about Mann’s ideal readers. In the novel, the words “Bildung” and “gebildet,” which indicate the possession of cultural education and refinement, appear far less often than their opposites. “Unbildung,” “ungebildet” and “Bildungsschnitzer” (“uneducated blunders”) are used in reference to one minor character, Frau Stöhr, more than twenty times (seven, twelve and three, respectively). These uneducated blunders are usually mistakes in words of Latin origin used in an attempt to appear cultured: Frau Stöhr says she has “Tempus” when she means “Temperatur,” calls Beethoven’s famous symphony “Erotika” instead of “Eroica,” and so on.
But at the same time, she herself takes pleasure in describing another sanatorium patient as a man lacking in “Bildung.” As much as the novel is about the pursuit of “Bildung,” it is also about the anxiety that one might in fact be “ungebildet.” The reader is invited to make fun of Frau Stöhr, but they might also feel anxious about being like her. Especially if, like me, one happens to share her name: Karoline.
I am comforted by the fact that even Mann himself was not immune from being compared to Stöhr, the object of his own parodistic efforts. Franz Josef Scheuren analyzed marginal notes left in Ernst Bertram’s copy of The Magic Mountain. Bertram, whom Mann counted among his close friends in the 1920s, was a writer, university professor and later a Nazi sympathizer. Scheuren lists numerous snide comments made by Bertram about Mann’s spelling mistakes in foreign-language phrases, especially in French. Bertram goes so far as to compare what he perceived as Mann’s attempts to appear more cultured than he really was with Frau Stöhr’s frequent “Bildungsschnitzer.” Bertram takes malicious pleasure in pointing out Mann’s linguistic slips in the same way that Mann’s narrator fixates on mocking Stöhr’s mistakes. At one point Bertram explicitly notes in the margin: “Who made fun of Frau Stöhr?”
Arguably, all this tells us rather more about Bertram than Mann. But it also shows how sensitive at least some readers have been to Mann’s intimations of erudition and how fraught the cultural performance of erudition can be. As Sara Danius puts it, The Magic Mountain is “a novel about knowledge—its conditions, its processes, its consequences”; but it is also about its anxieties, myths, fantasies and phantoms. The Magic Mountain creates the phantom of an impossibly erudite “ideal reader” so it can make its actual readers feel inferior to the task of reading it. This is, in essence, how the novel works: it forces the reader to confront her anxieties about not being a good enough reader.
This realization allowed me to clarify my own relationship to Mann’s novel—to see my first reading as not necessarily deficient, not just a placeholder for some putative more mature and sophisticated future reading. I understood that as a teenage Polish girl laser-focused on the idea of social mobility through education, I had been attuned to a crucial aspect of the novel that is easy to miss if you are a middle-class scholar securely ensconced at a prestigious Western university.
Like me, many readers find themselves caught up in an anxious struggle to become worthy of Mann’s book, a process for which the very title of the novel provides the perfect metaphor: the metaphor of a mountain ascent. It is such an apt metaphor because it reflects both the effort that this book requires of its reader and its self-stylization as the pinnacle of high culture. The title captures perfectly what Fredric Jameson called the “mid-cult pride in getting through long and difficult books.” When the novel was first published in English, its American advertising tagline was short and pithy: “It still towers”—presumably meaning that it towers intellectually over you, American reader. No wonder that Sontag’s predominant response upon encountering Mann was shame!
It is striking how many successful female writers recall their early encounters with The Magic Mountain in terms similar to Sontag. In the story “Amundsen,” Alice Munro lent this experience to one of her first-person narrators, Vivien Hyde, a young woman who takes up a job at a tuberculosis sanatorium in rural Canada during World War II. In an attempt to make her new environment more hospitable and connect with the (male and more senior) head doctor, she compares the sanatorium to the setting of The Magic Mountain. Dr. Fox initially mocks her for it, but she ends up navigating their strained relationship through competing readings of The Magic Mountain:
I said, “Who do you agree with, Naphta or Settembrini?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“In The Magic Mountain. Do you like Naphta best or Settembrini?”
“To be honest, I’ve always thought they were a pair of windbags. You?”
“Settembrini is more humane but Naphta is more interesting.”
“They tell you that in school?”
“I never read it in school,” I said coolly.
He gave me a quick look, the eyebrow raised.
“Pardon me. If there’s anything in there that interests you, feel free. Feel free to come down here and read in your time off.”
In this way Vivien carves out some intellectual independence for herself—not unlike young Munro herself, as we find out from “Dear Life,” an autobiographical essay published in the same collection as “Amundsen” just months before Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Three years later, Jenny Erpenbeck would begin her acceptance speech for the Thomas Mann Prize with the following anecdote:
When I was a teenager, I would ask my father every year if I could finally read The Magic Mountain, but every year my father would give me something else to read instead, something by Adalbert Stifter or Laurence Sterne, because The Magic Mountain still seemed to him like it might be “too difficult.” Eventually I got the impression that it must be a real magic mountain of some kind, too strenuous for a mere teenager to climb, or perhaps some sort of “open sesame” that would reveal its secrets only to a grown woman. When I finally did open the book, setting foot for the first time in the world of that reputedly serious, difficult magic mountain, I was initially taken aback.
In many ways, Erpenbeck’s memories resonate with my first experience reading The Magic Mountain. It also validates the experience many other readers—especially, though not exclusively, young female readers—have had. Perhaps these readers have formed strong attachments to this novel precisely because of the complex psychological machinery of desire and aspiration that it sets in motion, something that more traditional scholarly accounts of the novel have so far entirely ignored or overlooked. All this is so relevant to the study of The Magic Mountain because it is in some ways counterintuitive: this reading of Mann’s novel has the potential to really change how we think about cultural uses and abuses of the idea of erudition. We might begin by examining the erudition of the novel’s author, Thomas Mann.
The Magic Mountain is often described—by both its academic and nonacademic readers—as an intellectual novel, a philosophical novel, a novel of ideas or an encyclopedic panorama of European culture. Disciplines that Hans comes into contact with in the course of the novel include philosophy, sociology, economics, history, politics, classics, linguistics, rhetoric, literature, music, painting, sculpture, photography, cinema, psychology, psychoanalysis, theology, anatomy, biology, botany, astrology, astronomy, engineering, ecology, physics, mathematics, meteorology, medicine, pathology, geography, alchemy, pharmacology, chemistry, even the making of encyclopedias themselves, since one of the patients at the sanatorium is working on one. This “informational overload” has led Geoffrey Winthrop-Young to call The Magic Mountain “the first epic of modern information.”
It may therefore come as a surprise to some readers that the author of this extraordinarily erudite novel had no formal university education, did not read the primary sources on most of the intellectual matters that the novel discusses, knew philosophy almost exclusively from reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, did not systematically read Goethe until years after he had published The Magic Mountain and unscrupulously paraphrased whole paragraphs from popular books on science, medicine, politics, music and other topics, in some cases so closely that it could be considered plagiarism. “I did read quite a lot for The Magic Mountain, but I forget such aids, indeed the things I learn themselves, remarkably quickly,” Mann admitted in a letter in 1937. Against all appearances, Mann’s philosophical knowledge was scant, claims Helmut Koopmann, one of the leading scholars of his work.
Koopmann’s assessment that Mann’s knowledge of philosophy was “scant” sounds like an absolute judgment. But surely what is implied here is a judgment that is deeply relative. In a culture extremely anxious about intellectual standards, Mann both exceeded these standards and yet did not quite live up to them. He read widely and assimilated what he read with ease, but his knowledge tended to be secondhand and rather patchy; he would often read up on whatever material he needed in any given moment before swiftly moving on. For example, in 1930, Mann was asked about the source of a quotation from Virgil that he had used in The Magic Mountain, but he could not remember it at all. He famously confessed to not having read any of Freud’s works at the time of writing The Magic Mountain. “Presumably one would assume that I must have studied these things,” he explained in a letter. “I did study some of it. But most of it was just ‘in the air.’”
But his carefully cultivated public persona was rather different. Tobias Boes recently reconstructed how at the time of his lectures at Princeton in the late 1930s, Mann was often portrayed as “somebody able to summon at a moment’s notice centuries’ worth of interdisciplinary humanistic knowledge.” In the early 1940s Brecht commented on his occasional meetings with Mann in Los Angeles: “3,000 years look down on me.” Around the same time, Mann’s daughter Erika advised him jokingly to “remain as godlike … as possible” in his BBC broadcasts in occupied Germany. Meanwhile, Mann would pick up and sometimes misquote bits from magazines, would often work with widespread ideas about texts rather than the texts themselves and was being actively stylized as a cultural symbol through carefully orchestrated book tours and advertisement campaigns run by savvy German and American marketers.
My point here is not that Mann was a fraud; rather, it is that looking more closely at how he acquired, constructed and performed his erudition, and how it was received by his readers, brings out the contrast between what erudition actually consists in and how we usually imagine and portray it. In other words, real-life Thomas Mann was not erudite in the same way as the implied author of The Magic Mountain, who tends to strike his readers as “almost intimidatingly cultivated” (W. H. Bruford) or “ostentatiously knowledgeable” (Erich Heller). Yet a misleading understanding of Mann’s erudition, together with the kind of reader that his writing demands, has persisted and dominated his perception in Germany and beyond, resulting in a relative loss of popularity with readers put off by his formidable reputation. (When I tell German friends that I study Mann, they almost invariably go “uff!”)
To understand these widespread assumptions about what kind of reader, or what kind of reading, is required by this text, it is particularly useful to consider fierce philosophical discussions between two patients of the Berghof sanatorium, often seen as the core of the novel (which we have just witnessed in the conversation from Munro’s story). On the one side we have Settembrini, the self-appointed mouthpiece of the Enlightenment from an Italian family with long democratic traditions; on the other, Naphta, a Galician Jew turned Jesuit and communist. It is these dense intellectual debates between Settembrini and Naphta that make The Magic Mountain appear so intimidatingly difficult. Academic scholarship usually responds to them in one of two ways.
The first is the so-called Quellenforschung: the study of the sources of, or influences upon, a literary work. Large passages in Settembrini’s and Naphta’s speeches are made up of approximate quotations of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and various popular historians and thinkers of the turn of the century, including Mann himself—in the novel he recycled some of his own earlier essays. The ambition of the Quellenforschung is to uncover as many such sources as possible. Another popular approach is to try and decide who wins these debates by scrutinizing the author’s intentions. Did Mann ultimately support Settembrini’s views? Or Naphta’s views? Or neither? A similar question is to ask whether the novel is ultimately more dependent on Schopenhauer or on Nietzsche.
But novels are not philosophical treatises, and it is only bad ones that prove or disprove a thesis by way of logical argumentation. The question that interests me instead is this: Why did Mann choose to write a novel about philosophy rather than a philosophical treatise? Both the Quellenforschung and the scholarship that reads The Magic Mountain as committed to specific philosophical arguments leave this important question unanswered. They neither offer a persuasive account of Mann’s strategies in shaping the philosophical debates in the novel nor acknowledge the difficulty that encountering such dense passages might pose to readers. They take this difficulty as something to be decoded and solved, not as an experience in its own right. If we want to gain a better purchase on this experience, it might be more instructive to take a broader view of readers’ encounters with philosophy in The Magic Mountain.
A scholar with the nerve to venture into the world of readers of The Magic Mountain whose experiences routinely go unreported and unaccounted for in the academic scholarship on the novel is in for a treat. Here is one example, taken from a recent online review of the The Magic Mountain: “As a reader … you don’t have to penetrate these conversations; it’s enough to sit back and nod, turning the pages, letting the thoughts of Thomas Mann as expressed through Herr Settembrini or Herr Naphta wash over you.”
The effect this reader describes is similar to Roland Barthes’s concept of l’effet de réel, or “the reality effect.” Referring to realist novels, Barthes pointed out that literary descriptions not only tell readers about the specific details of what a given object looks like; they also give them the general impression that it is a real object. Similarly, we can talk about “the erudition effect”: a philosophical discussion represented in a literary text does not matter just because of its content but because of the impression readers get that they are witnessing an erudite exchange. Rendering this phrase in French—as l’effet de l’érudition—might be even more effective: it is closer to Barthes’s original term, and French terms often carry a whiff of intellectuality in the English-speaking world.
It is also interesting that the verb this reviewer used—“to wash over”—is very much within the figurative realm of the immersion metaphor, suggesting that varieties of immersive reading are possible not just with texts that are simple and accessible, like detective novels, but also with texts that are more difficult and less accessible.
Other readers, however, are more unsettled by this inaccessibility. On a Goodreads forum from 2013, discussing the section “The City of God,” one reader confessed:
I will be perfectly honest, this was my least favorite chapter because of the endless debates between Naphta and Settembrini. I quote Hans, who I agree with here:
“Hans Castorp stood with bent head and burrowed with his stick in the snow, pondering the vasty confusion of it all”
Can someone help me find their discussions interesting?
This last plea should make every scholar of literature stop in their tracks. Does this reader’s question not sum up one of the most important functions of literary scholarship? Should critics not be helping readers find Thomas Mann interesting and enjoyable? But there were no literary scholars on hand on the online forum. Fortunately, other nonacademic readers came to the rescue.
One of them responded by arguing that Mann must have anticipated that reader’s reaction to the endless philosophical debates and had put in ironical meta-comments to acknowledge it, just like the one about Hans Castorp’s great confusion. And indeed, Mann was much preoccupied with readers’ ability to enter his story-world while working on The Magic Mountain. In 1923 he described the novel to a friend as “this beast of a novel, much delayed, certainly with many boring stretches.” A few months before the publication of The Magic Mountain, Mann wrote to his editor about his worries that “the work has serious weaknesses and at times drags.”
So what if it drags? The reader on the Goodreads forum who recognized themself in the passage about Hans Castorp’s went on: “I’m sure that we would’ve enjoyed the Settembrini-Naphta exchanges a lot more had we been in on all the details—it’s our limitations as readers that we are not able to enjoy the text.” The text makes the readers feel inadequate: not sufficiently erudite to follow it.
But being able or unable to follow a text is not a binary opposition; it is a spectrum. These readers were not able to concentrate on the details of the philosophical discussions, but they picked up on other aspects of the text. The first reader started noticing the emotional tensions in the chapter, as well as an interesting facet of the theme of time and its passage in the novel: Settembrini and Naphta “have a life sentence—they are dying—this is it for them. This adds a real poignance to their debates because of the way they conduct themselves with this full knowledge of their impending doom as if they have all the time in the world.” Then another reader chimed in: “I found [the Settembrini-Naphta debates] fascinating, from an intellectual Ping-Pong PoV. I like this kind of debate in the same way that other people like watching a game of tennis.”
The image of an intellectual game of table tennis captures well l’effet de l’érudition, which depends less on the details of argumentation and more on the performative display of knowingness. To participate in Settembrini’s and Naphta’s discussions, one needs to learn to imitate their rhetorical strategies, tone of voice and body language. Mann might have got the idea for staging l’effet de l’érudition in this way from listening to Georg Lukács, whom he first met during the last phase of work on The Magic Mountain: “In Vienna I once heard Lukács hold forth about his theories for a solid hour. As long as he was speaking, he was right. All that remained afterwards was an impression of almost uncanny abstractness.” What a great way to describe the intellectual habitus of many a philosopher! It suggests the kind of impression that Mann was hoping to recreate for his readers: the impression of witnessing a performance of erudition that one cannot hope to penetrate.
It is easy to succumb to this impression. A. S. Byatt wrote in her introduction to John E. Woods’s translation of the novel that her “early readings of The Magic Mountain, impeded by scholarly earnestness, trying to get [her] bearings in an ocean of unfamiliar words … quite failed to see how funny, as well as ironic and subtle, much of the argumentation and debate is.” Here we have another young female reader with literary aspirations who feels unequal to the task of reading Mann. For a reader attuned to the language of immersion, Byatt’s dilemma was that she denied herself the pleasure of immersion in this “ocean,” trained to only value the “scholarly earnestness” of critical reflection in encounters with books like The Magic Mountain. If you cannot swim, in other words, you can only sink.
Byatt’s sense of inadequacy certainly corresponds to how many readers on the Goodreads forum felt. The reader who first wrote about readers’ limitations in enjoying The Magic Mountain went on to reach a more nuanced view: “I think the problem is that Mann has given us ‘too much’ & most readers end up feeling that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, in other words, they feel out of their depth & blame the writer for that unsavoury feeling. Me? I feel humbled by this book.” The vocabulary that this reader uses to describe their encounter with The Magic Mountain—“feeling out of one’s depth,” “feeling humbled,” “an unsavoury feeling”—suggests a full-on emotional response to a perceived lack of cultural capital.
But clearly for this reader, the feeling of humility inspired by the book is something they value, perhaps in a similar way to my own aspirational reading of Mann before starting university. A full account of readers’ encounters with difficulty of the kind that The Magic Mountain is famous for needs to acknowledge both the positive and negative feelings it can inspire. Or a more complex mixture: I now find it difficult to reinhabit that warm, fuzzy feeling of wanting to better myself through or with Mann. When I think back to my first experience reading him, I remember skipping or skimming whole passages and feeling like I was reading it wrong, thinking that my reading needed to be urgently fixed through explicit instruction and education. It did not occur to me then that instruction and education—valuable and mind-expanding as they are—could also take something away from me. And I do not mean joy: learning about the more obscure references in Mann’s work, penetrating dense scholarship on his writing, noticing and tracking down allusions that others had missed have their own peculiar joys. What I mean is knowledge generated outside of protocols of academic reading.
Literature is not written for academic readers and is not read exclusively by them, yet most academic accounts of literary texts seem to tacitly assume as much. This is puzzling given that one of the most powerful justifications for the academic study of literature is that the entire human species cares enormously about telling and being told stories. But what would it mean for literary scholarship to speak to the experiences of nonacademic readers? The first step needs to be to notice, listen and learn from them. Alongside “traditionally educated middle-class men gone astray,” who Kurzke sees as the “best readers” of The Magic Mountain, I would like to place many others—not least of all self-conscious young women with budding academic aspirations who are made to feel that they are living in a culturally marginal place. The point, really, is that there are no best readers; there are just readers attuned to different aspects of the text, though some are listened to more than others.
Like many modernist novels, The Magic Mountain is a book about difficulty, and the anxiety that this difficulty generates in us. While academics are trained to respond to difficulty by explaining it, we also need to ask what purpose difficulty serves. Is it constructed to alienate? Promote feelings of superiority? Induce anxiety? Perhaps there is something to learn from this anxiety, especially if it tends to run along certain lines, like gender or class. After all, Mann’s novel reflects the modern fear of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of complex information coming at us, and nevertheless remaining perennially uninformed about everything. But we can only reach this insight if we actually stay with this anxiety before jumping to fill in the gaps—even if it might at first seem, well, difficult to approach difficult books in this way.
Art credit: Eva Koťátková, Meyer-Riegger Gallery. Head No. 5: Curios Head (Overwork); metal, various objects; 220 × 120 × 130 cm; 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Monika Schnetkamp Collection © Agostino Osio