Every now and then, WW writer John Minervini takes a break from breathlessly current book reviews, author Q&A's, and literary gossip to read something a little…older. Why not? After all, it's cheaper than TV. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.
Six-word Summary: Whatever Happens, Don't Mention the War
Are you interested in how people allow themselves to be duped by their governments into unnecessary and savage foreign wars?
Good news: they've got a book on that. No, I'm not talking about recent eye-openers from former Bush press secretary Scott McLellan
or Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ron Suskind
. Both What Happened
and The Way of the World
are great books, practically required reading for the American civically-minded. But whereas McLellan and Suskind chronicle the official lies we were told prior to the Iraq War, they can never explain why we so unquestioningly accepted those lies. It takes a novelist to do that.
Enter Thomas Mann.
Back in the day—1924 to be precise—Mann wrote a book about the first World War. But even three-quarters of the way through it, you'd never guess that's what it's about. The Magic Mountain
(Vintage, 706 pages, $17.00) begins as a young man, Hans Castorp, goes to visit his ailing cousin at a tuberculosis sanatorium (basically a spa) in the Swiss Alps. He intends to spend only three weeks up there, but—what do you know?—he likes it and ends up staying seven years. Then, in about the last ten pages of the book, World War I breaks out, and Herr Castorp descends to the plains to fight in the German army.
At first, the advent of WWI in the last chapter seems like a cheap way to give the book a little extra oomph
. Although The Magic Mountain
spans over 700 pages, it is surprisingly bereft of plot. People arrive at the spa; they leave the spa; they eat meals and take day trips; occasionally someone dies. That's it. Really. WWI at least adds a kind of Nobel-worthy
exclamation mark to the end of this somewhat tedious tome.
But consider that the best way to write about the lead-up to the Great War—as far as most contemporary Europeans were concerned—may have been not
to write about the Great War. Its origins lay in a chain reaction of diplomatic slaps beginning with the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. But frankly it caught most people off-guard. Illusions of a brief, valorous war (cf., for instance, this British recruiting poster
, which likens army service to rugby) were quickly dispelled by grisly photographs of anonymous carnage. Certainly no one was prepared for the 20 million military and civilian deaths
So when you think about it, seven years in a sanatorium might not be a bad metaphor for the self-absorbed delusion, the hypochondriac hysteria, or the perverse self-destructiveness that overtook the European bourgeois prior to the first World War. Lofty ideas are discussed over rhenish wine, daily thermometers are read, and all the while the world is gearing up for a geopolitical calamity.
Of course, there are tons of other reasons to read The Magic Mountain
. First of all, it's funny. I mean, like, sitting-in-a-cafe-all-by-yourself-and-shooting-coffee-out-your-nose funny. Like Charles Dickens before him, Mann believes in giving his characters a nametag idiosyncrasy—something they consistently do whenever they show up in the novel, just to let you know it's them. It's like a Homeric epithet
, only funnier. For instance, fellow patient Frau Stohr consistently makes malapropisms, referring to Beethoven's “Erotica” (Eroica) and accusing a fellow patient of trying to “reticule” (ridicule) her. Other perks include rampant homoeroticism—watch out for kinky X-rays, reader—and beautiful descriptions of the snowbound Alps.
So if you're interested in just how and why people allow themselves to be gulled by hawkish governments, why not give the Magic Mountain
a shot? Sure, it's not as topical as works like Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
or Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason
—both worthy books. But Mann's masterpiece is somehow more universal than those two, speaking to us deep-down in our Jungian pre-conscious
. And it's hands-down a better read, especially in this electric new translation from John E. Woods.