Books & arts
Illness in literature
Climb every mountain
A classic German saga of high-altitude sickness is oddly uplifting
When Hans Castorp makes a midsummer visit to Davos, where his tubercular cousin, Joachim, is being treated, he expects to be there for three weeks. A job at a shipbuilding firm awaits Hans, the unassuming son of a merchant family from Hamburg. But he develops a fever, and ends up staying in the Swiss Alps for seven years. In the mountains, time moves elastically— days lengthen and years hurry past—as it can in a lockdown.
The action of “The Magic Mountain”, wrote Thomas Mann in a foreword, takes place “a very long time ago”— and even though his novel, published in 1924, is set in the preceding decade, it evoked a vanished world. It refers to a Germany not yet crushed by the first world war and the subsequent reparations, a country that still has an empire, as well as strict hierarchies and conventions. These are scrupulously observed by the pan-European characters in the story, a Bildungsroman and dark comedy of manners in which even the dining tables are classified by social status.
Mann’s fictional sanatorium, the Berghof, is probably modelled on the Schatzalp, a mansion reachable only by foot or funicular, which today is a hotel. Practically the whole cast of his novel have tuberculosis, which at the turn of the 20th century killed one in seven people in Europe and America. He presents the symptoms unflinchingly, including “a coughing that had no conviction and gave no relief, that did not even come out in paroxysms, but was just a feeble, dreadful welling-up of the juices of organic dissolution”.