A Stroll By The Shore

[William Blake: Job Confessing his Presumption to God who Answers from the Whirlwind
(from Web Gallery of Art)]



This book has truly cast a spell on me. The words keep fluttering through my mind, bombarding me with images and sounds and the deepest, most intricate, most tantalizing half-grasped questions. There's just SO MUCH to be interested in and to want to untangle. I am speaking, of course, of The Magic Mountain, which is simply one of the greatest novels ever written.

But it is a frightening experience to read this book. When I studied it for the first time, with a group of memorable, wonderful people, we spoke of the strange ability of the book to effect one's sense of time. Even though the narrator speaks to the reader directly and explicitly about time-- about its slipperiness, its vague, spellbinding quality-- even though the reader is fully conscious that some trickery of time is afoot, the spell is still amazingly powerful. A 40-page chapter will fly by and make an hour disappear into nothingness, or 10 pages of dialogue may be the most bewildering, painstaking read of the entire book. I will read through the dialogues of Naphta and Settembrini twice, three times, trying to glean some meaning from the dichotomies they present and with each reading, tangle myself into a mess of minutes and even hours

[There is little to be gleaned. I am convinced that these two "windbags," as Hans calls them, are merely increasing the noise in my head, making me look sideways at every idea I am presented with, and turning any conviction into a misbegotten fancy].

The spell of this book works in many ways. The story is so large and mythic, so personal, so tragic and exciting and mesmerizing. But it is the words which hold a special magic. I am reading a translation, the John E. Woods version, supplemented and occasionally corrected by notes supplied by the tutor who first lead a group of us up to the summit of this mountain. And because of this, I know that there will have been valuable nuances, inflections, and idiosyncrasies lost. Nevertheless, the words echo in my head all day long. I find myself with "Man Alive!" on the tip of my tongue, or wanting to call someone "my handsome bourgeois with the little moist spot." I use the descriptors "dusky," " higgeldy-piggeldy," and "half-dreamy, half-scary." I find myself feeling confused and excited at the same time, or wanting to describe basic things in complicated medical terms.

In short, the many voices of this book have cluttered up my brain. Behrens, the "polyglot of the idiomatic phrase," Settembrini with his words that remind Hans of "fresh hot buns," so "round and appetizing." Naphta with his malicious, starry-eyed erudition, or Peeperkorn with his lance-like fingernails forever tracing the points of his never-ending, blurry statements. Even Hans, good, ordinary Hans, with his prosaic soul, his love for experimentation, for dreamy music, for pedagogues, for the Homo Dei, for anonymous and communal dreaming, and for a certain slant-eyed, slinking woman.

I read this narrative of time, death, life, illness, love, education, and language, and I become one of the "seven-years-sleepers." I am under the mountain with the rest of them, my heart beating dizzyingly quick at times, my lungs a little moist, my head a bit fogged. Perhaps I have a fever, perhaps I am dreaming, bearing a song in my heart, giving myself up to "dissolute sweetness."

This book also makes me regret that a) there is no snow, and b) that I am not obliged to take rest cures throughout the day