I’ve been reading the Magic Mountain for much longer than the seven years it took Hans Castorp to climb it and climb down from it. Way back in high school I even finished it – in the now discredited Lowe-Porter translation. I picked it up because I read a high recommendation in a book by the wonderful Will and Ariel Durant, blessed be their names. They were members of the socialist humanism generation of American intellectuals, and their middle brow guides to Western culture were and still are excellent things for high school students, to be supplemented of course by the vast trove of lit and art that we know now was produced by the oppressed – the Atlantic culture of the African diaspora, women, gays, all those edged aside. Although I no longer remember what the couple wrote about Mann, I do remember the experience of reading it. I was sitting in a pew in the Clarkston Baptist church. No doubt it was another Sunday of Reverend Vincent’s endless non-sequitor sermons – the man lacked the charisma of an old piece of gun, so his revivalism had a tendency to fall stillborn on our dead ears. I owe him, though – my first reviews were of his sermons, which I would feistily attack coming home from church in the car with Mom. Ah, the budding critic!
Although at the time I thought I was much more than a budding thumbs up thumbs down man – I felt that I was Clarkston’s sole modernist. In fact, the single person in the damn suburb who knew what the word meant!
Under the Durants tutelage, then, I cracked the book. What I remember is feeling that there was something about the book that made me feel sickly. Then I went on with my reading list, and as the years passed, I learned to look down on T.M. I learned he was hooffooted, pendantic, full of hot air, pseudo-profound. That in fact he was an anti-modernist. I don’t exactly remember how I received this news, but I do know that Nabokov, for instance, always had it in for Mann. And in college I thought Nabokov should know, since he could do anything with prose. Now I have a different view of Nabokov – that his problem with Mann, or Balzac, or Dostoevsky, arose from the fact that Nabokov made up a canon for himself and became its prisoner. In this way, he operated, much like his social realist or psychoanalytic enemies, to squeeze the juice and joy out of literature. In his best works, I think, Nabokov knows this – hence his paragons of good taste, his King of Zembla, his Humbert Humbert, are criminals – in a sense, driven to crime by the same discriminating instinct that they have cultivated in their souls until it hypertrophied and took over the plant. One knows, for instance, in Lolita, that when H.H. enters the Haze household and spots the “banal darling of the arty middle class, van Gogh’s Arlesienne”, he is not only showing his lethal sophistication but, in general, his lethality – his lack of perspective on his superiorities, such as they are. The radical lack of kindness, without which good taste becomes a very cruel game.
To return to my own banal arty middle classness – for a while I swallowed this idea of Mann. There’s an essay by Michael Wood whichelegantly pinpoints the moment Mann fell from grace to become a modernistembarrassment. To understand this, understand that Harry Levin, in the 40s and50s, was an influential apostle of modernism in academia. He used to teach acourse at Harvard entitled Proust, Joyce and Mann. Then, in 1949, Mann’s DoctorFaustus was published. Levin gave it a very hostile review. I think that wasthe year that Time magazine put Mann on its cover, which is like the apotheosisof middle class artiness. And shortly thereafter, Levin renamed his class:Proust, Joyce, and Kafka.
Well, for myself, I am still a Clarkston modernist. I’ve gone as far away from that little suburban burg (and it has gone away from the burg I knew in highschool, becoming one of the centers of the Bosnian refugee influx in America, and now hosting a good number of Somalis, too). But I still kick around in the precinct of the ideas I had and the artists I admired then. Age has made me think of myself less as a Joycean exile and more as a sample of a certain history I don’t understand. In short, a relic puzzled by his own relicness. In that respect, I am in a Hans Castorp condition – which, pace Levin, is what modernism was all about.