Saturday, March 24, 2007

Crashing into The Magic Mountain

Well folks, it's been a long time. I'm aware of that. As I explained before, circumstances in my "real life" (the one outside of this virtual one, with deadlines and payments and responsibilities and heartaches and obligations and all that) have been so hectic that it's been hard to get a chance to post anything. My job has been busy basically since 2007 began (with no end in sight), and my wife took on a part-time job in February, which means I've been hanging out with our three sons on my own several nights a week, which certainly cuts into both my time and my energy (but it's been great "bonding" with them -- sorry, but I'll take the bonding any day of the week over this!).

Anyway, blah blah blah... who really cares, right? It's not like I'm singing a unique tune or anything here. I can hear the violins crying in the background even now.

There's another reason, though, why I haven't been posting lately. It's because I've been bogged down, reading-wise, in one of the most difficult (admittedly self-imposed) reading challenges I've had in years -- slogging through Thomas Mann's lumbering behemoth of a novel The Magic Mountain. As my subject line indicates, I almost feel like I haven't been reading it, I actually crashed into it, and I'm the sole survivor of the wreck, and I'm marooned at the top and no one seems to realize I'm there, and I haven't seen a soul for months... well, obviously I'm exaggerating, but I am really struggling to get through this novel, and it got me thinking, "Have I ever had this much trouble getting through a work of fiction?" And I'm being quite serious when I say that next to the experience of reading this, reading Moby Dick felt like reading a Jack Higgins thriller or something. I'm not kidding. Melville's magnum opus is a long read requiring diligence and concentration, to be sure -- but it fascinated me on almost every page, the language is almost Shakespearean, and it raises all kinds of heavy and important theological and philosphical questions. And while Mann is a Nobel Prize winner and viewed as one of the most important novelists in modern times, I can't quite understand what it is about this novel that gave it its high reputation.

I've never read Marcel Proust before (I know Mutt has, but I am no Mutt Ploughman), but I suspect that reading In Search of Lost Time feels a bit like reading this -- except, perhaps, Proust's language may be more poetic and flowery than Mann's is. That's just a guess, I obviously don't know for sure. But in both cases, the "action," if you want to call it that, seems to take place all internally, that is, in the rambling thoughts and inner experiences of their protagonists. Mann is not (at least in this work) so much a surveyor of the mind and its meanderings as, say, Virginia Woolf is, but this novel is certainly about a specific young man's experiences in a specific milieu, and not much else. Not that I require a lot of adventure and intrigue to enjoy a novel, but it is, I am finding, pretty difficult to get through a 715-page novel consisting entirely of philsophical (and sometimes political/theological) conversations between people in one setting. Hilariously, there is only one "event" to speak of in the entire book, that Mann builds up to for hundreds of pages -- all we're talking about is the young protagonist's getting up the courage to declare his feelings for a young woman and fellow patient there -- and when you finally get to it, midway through the book, the entire conversation, which goes on for pages, is conducted in French, without translation, so I had absolutely no idea what transpired in the entire critical scene. How's that for a literary letdown? Then, of course, Mann keeps referring back throughout the rest of the book to those shared moments -- and unless you know French, these references sail over your head and get lost forever into the great wide open, like John Rickman's "Aerobie" frisbee.

Anyway, I'm certainly not going to go on and on about the plot, themes, and ideas of this novel, because a.) there is no plot to speak of; b.) the themes essentially boil down to human mortality and our experience of time; c.) and as for ideas, they are all over the map in this novel and would be impossible to sum up. As I've been telling Mutt, there are indeed many things that are impressive about Mann and this novel -- his erudition, his way of expressing things verbally, his poetic descriptions of the Swiss mountains, his talent for creating a huge cast of different personalities and philosophies. But in the end, it's been very difficult for me to filter this reading experience into much that is meaningful for me. And that's what I tend to look for, mostly unconsciously, when reading novels -- what life lessons and insights can I take away from this experience, along with the obvious pleasure of a good story that's been well-told (that's a given)?

I understand that this a very highly-regarded novel that includes among its many, many admirers some of the world's greatest writers -- that is, of course, part of the reason I was interested in reading it in the first place. (For example, one of my personal favorite writers, Walker Percy, was a huge fan of the book.) And the funny thing is, unlike many readers, I tend to enjoy and even search out "philosophical" fiction. And this is all part of why I am coming away from the experience of The Magic Mountain perplexed (as well as exhausted!). I can appreciate, to butcher Hopkins, "the achieve of" the thing... but as for its "mastery," I can only leave that to the literary pundits. It's hard to admit it, but -- it's beyond me.

Mann's talents certainly aren't lost on me, but perhaps his insights are. More than likely I am missing much about the book that I should be catching and appreciating. But it's hard to fully appreciate a novel when it keeps falling face-down into your lap, due to the loosening of your sleep-softened grip.

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