Friday, 15 July 2011

Reviews Of Books I've Never Read

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann, just after he finished Death In Venice. It was difficult for Mann to make the transition from the waters of Venice to the alps of Switzerland and he was known to carry a life buoy around his neck for inspiration and also in case in fell into a glacial lake.
Whew! Thomas Mann. Whew! The Magic Mountain. What more can I say? Well, a lot really but let me begin this review with a quick note on this edition I own. Another freebie from the community centre bookshelf, it's a large print, easy-to-read copy, which means, although not as many pages as a regular edition book would dictate, the larger size gives the book a greater silverfish killing surface. Like I always say, if you can't bring the silverfish to the mountain, you can bring the mountain to the silverfish. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's get on to the review. As we know, Mann was a staunch romantic, but he hid it well under his severe mustache and prominent forehead. His old friend and debating partner once asked him, in a frivolous moment during an Oktoberfest in Gruenmuenster (home of the famed Gruenster cheese and brain pie), "are you a leg, breast or bottom man, Herr Mann?" whereupon Mann slapped him soundly across the face with a knockwurst. All the proof one needs to know that Mann didn't take affairs of the heart lightly. Any man willing to sacrifice a knockwurst in the name of love and the decency and respect that that love demands, well, that's a man who will probably kick the bucket in Venice one day, stretched out in a beach chair, boater hat pulled over his eyes and with his last dying breath pining for the buttocks of the cabana boy. Which is what that book is about, in encapsulated form, but I'll get to that another time. Now, get ready to strap on your mountain climbing shoes, prepare your pitons and rope and steady your nerves to ascend the literary heights of this magisterial novel. It'll pump the Venetian bilge-water right out of the Bildungsroman (a German literary term describing the growth of a character's body hair, the word having its roots in Saxon history when the Romans used large parts of Germany as dung heaps although the correlation between dung and body hair has been obscured over time) of your brain. The protagonist of the novel, Hans Hamengruel, is leading an idyllic life in the alps bordering Switzerland and Germany when one day, during a family trip to Italy, he witnesses both his parents falling off the Matterhorn, plummeting to their deaths spectacularly, his mother yodeling his name.
Mann's mother, Frau Froidlehooven Mann, a year before falling off the Matterhorn. She was a stern mother and dyed-in-the-wool yodeler and though she tried to teach young Thomas this art form, he was tone deaf and his few attempts sounded like a dying mountain goat trapped in a klapzugenstrassen (Swiss for "the place where the mountain goats go to get trapped in and die"). "Oh, Mama," he often told her, "I cannot be a great novelist and a yodeler at the same time. A little glockenspiel, maybe, but yodeling is simply out of the question." And by gosh if he wasn't right although sadly he never mastered the glockenspiel either. But he could put words together faster than a little Swiss girl assembling watches in a Zurich factory. It was also a known fact that before she shaved her mustache, the resemblance between her and Thomas was uncanny.
This experience so shakes him to the very foundations of his rather stiff, lichen-encrusted lederhosen, that he changes his name to Castor Pomenade, so as to erase his history and in effect, his memory of the tragic incident. But he is not to escape the mountain life that easily. Back in Germany, his cousin, Norton Haflinger, is confined to a sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps for tuberculosis and Castor makes the journey to visit the poor fellow whose fits of coughing were bad enough to have caused two avalanches and endangered the lives of the villagers of Struebenglotzenhoff. Arriving at the sanatorium via an ancient, creaking wooden gondola "swaying in the alpine breeze like the scrotum of an aging bull elephant foraging for banyan leaves" as Mann so evocatively describes it, Castor is pursued by a mysterious man in a black cloak and broad-brimmed fedora who carries a dwarf upon his back and a satchel filled with jars of rotting sauerkraut and a mildewed map showing the locations of all the Tyrolean hat-makers north of Burgdorf.
The entrance to the Zungplotzmeinverschten sanatorium upon which Mann based his novel. The welcoming monkey with a necktie motif is one that will replay itself throughout the book and continued to haunt Mann until his dying day.
Who is this mysterious man and why is he following Castor Pomenade? Wouldn't you like to know? Wouldn't I like to know? Wouldn't Thomas Mann like to know? You think he would know, having written the book but I got the distinct impression he hadn't a clue about this man and his dwarf. But unfortunately, while nourishing myself with a hot dog while reading, I dropped a sizable blob of ketchup on this page and the answer was hidden from me for days. Eventually the ketchup dried and began to flake but by then it was too late and I was already ten pages ahead of where the answer to the mysterious man may have lain. Luckily he turns up again (whew, I didn't really think he would and for a page or two was sure he'd fallen down a crevasse), but I'll get to him in a bit because now it's time to talk about Dr. Mitzi Zorbo and also get the old literary snowball rolling down the Magic Mountain on all that symbolism that Mann brandished like a sabre, albeit a blunt one from years of use decapitating chickens and slicing up aquarium tubing for his sideline business in mail order tropical fish supplies. 
Castor is greeted by Dr. Mitzi Zorbo, who is administering care to his cousin, Norbert.
The staff at the actual Zungplotzmeinverschten sanatorium upon which Mann based his book. Notice the three large horns that were used for tuberculosis patients to prove they were cured and could leave the premises. If your lungs were not strong enough to blow the horns that could be heard all the way to Stritzenblauploof, then you were good for another year long stay in the sanatorium.
The good doctor welcomes Castor and gives him a room so that he might stay and comfort his cousin. This is where the symbolism kicks in like a stubborn mule with a broken strap on his feedbag.
"Did you enjoy the view from our gondola?" the doctor asks. "We had it built last winter and our guests talk about in incessantly when they're not coughing their brains out."
"Yes, Herr Zorbo. It was very interesting," Castor replies cautiously, the shadow of the mysterious, black-cloaked, fedora-wearing, dwarf-carrying, rotten sauerkraut-bearing man clouding his mind momentarily. And then he says, all too tellingly, "I found the gondola a little shaky. I feared for my life at times over crevices that looked as if they could gobble up all of humanity and still have room left over for strudel cake."
Aha, Mann. Finally you pull the fatted rabbit out of your hat, the big guns from out of your backpack, the lariat from the saddle of your Shetland pony. For, you see, the gondola is the very unconsciousness of Castor himself, swinging and swaying over the void of his being, his undiscovered self lying in wait like the very weltschmerz (the German word born from a Bavarian obsession with Fred and Ethel Mertz and meaning to 'feign confusion as if you've lost your dry-cleaning ticket') of his indecision to commit himself to his cousin's recovery, and thus, in effect to come to terms with his family and more specifically, his parents and their unfortunate death on the Matterhorn, which was the catalyst for his name change, his identity crisis and his tendency to break out in a cold sweat when confronted by anyone playing a flugelhorn with cream puff pastry speckling their lips.   
Fred and Ethel Mertz in a moment of weltschmerz.
The warbling of a wood thrush startles Castor from this reverie and well, the next thing you know he has tuberculosis also, through some kind of transference process usually only associated with feral children raised by groundhogs, a trend that was common in Germany back then, and is given a bed next to his cousin. But the mountain hasn't finished working its magic yet. That very night Castor dreams of a troupe of dwarfs who perform Die Fledermaus (translation; die flying mouse), except they all turn to bats and using their sonar, help steer ships towards the right targets during the Crimean War, bombarding the Ottomans and freeing the Bulgars and their miraculous and highly versatile wheat from Russian and Turkish tyranny. Upon waking, Castor goes downstairs for breakfast and finds himself sitting at a table next to the famed Flying Gervertztrameenies, a theatrical dwarf troupe (based on the real-life Gervertztrameenies) at the sanatorium to perform that evening.
The actual Flying Gervertztrameenies, who toured all the Swiss and German sanatoriums performing everything from Wagner to Goethe. They eventually relocated to the Catskills where they worked with all the big names like Pinky Lee and Itsy Buttons and were equally as adept at cleaning out the buffet as they were at hitting operatic heights and performing acrobatic tricks.
What does this all mean? Is Mann throwing out a bit of foreshadowing  and sending his plot spinning into realms of intrigue not in sync with his usual, highly metaphorical writing? Well, yes and no, maybe. He still hammers metaphors home like pitons into a rock face but he can drive a plot like an old Bentley barreling through a Tunisian marketplace. For as soon as Castor sees the table full of breakfasting dwarfs, the black-cloaked, fedora wearing, rotten sauerkraut-bearing man shows up, in the company of Dr. Mitzi Zorbo no less, and the two of them appear to be old friends. The dwarf upon the man's back turns out to be a monkey in a loud necktie and as he leaps off the man's back to join the table of dwarfs, Castor faints. When he comes to, he is wearing the exact same necktie as the monkey and then things get really crazy. Is the monkey Castor's doppleganger? Why does the black-cloaked man hunt out Castor's cousin, Norbert Haflinger, and threaten him with death should he return to Bulgaria? And who is the beautiful and enigmatic Frau Lippenschvitz, that Castor spies from the window of his sanatorium room? Castor soon becomes obsessed with her and even more so when he peeks into one of the rooms and takes in this scene (pictured below in an artist's rendition that was the cover of the novel's first edition) of an extreme and unorthodox therapy that Frau Lippenschvitz is undergoing with Dr. Greta Schmutzlinger, the ottoman described by Mann as a "cube of curative to bear the brunt of the soul's punishment," bringing the cycle of something or another full circle from the dwarfs turned to bats and their sonar and the Ottoman Empire to the ottoman as metaphor for disease of not just the body, but of the soul also and its banishment only possible through the most perverse and exacting scientific protocols whilst confronting those fears with gags, paddles and brassieres.
Anyway, as Castor mopes about trying to gain the attention of Frau Lippenschvitz, his cousin turns out to be a Bulgarian spy, on the run for selling secret documents to an envoy from Iceland where, in those uninhabitable barrens and hidden fjords, diabolical experiments have been taking place to cover the Western Hemisphere in ice. The sauerkraut turns out to be radioactive and the Tyrolean hats are a decoy, to be worn by marauding bands of Icelanders carrying wheels of cheese and heavy brass instruments so as to blend in to the European lifestyle.
What happens next I won't say but if you enjoy the activity engaged in by Frau Lippenschvitz and Dr. Greta Schmutzlinger, even if tuberculosis is not your cup of tea, well then steady yourself for a most shocking finale that would make a Bacchanalian blush and turn a knockwurst to mush and ice to slush (hint; think radioactive sauerkraut) but Mann isn't finished yet. Bulgarian spies race against time, Norbert Halflinger turns out to be not only a spy but the king of a tribe of hairy, one-eyed gypsies (this is where Mann really puts the pedal to the metal with the whole Bildungsroman body hair thing), Castor realizes too late that his cousin is not his cousin, his parents not his parents and well, just let me say, don't take your eye off the monkey with the necktie, not even for one minute. In conclusion is Mann's Magic Mountain really a place you want to go? I mean Disneyland has a Magic Mountain or maybe it's a Space Mountain or maybe it's a Magic Kingdom but either way I'm sure it's far more pleasurable with less dying people and dwarfs that are much nicer and that don't eat all your food and steal your wallet, but then you wouldn't have learned anything or experienced the weltzschmerz of Fred and Ethel Mertz or gained a healthy respect for radioactive sauerkraut. If that isn't magic mountain enough for you then fine, go ahead and cavort with imposter dwarfs and eat some knock-off knockwursts that no tubercular Bavarian would touch with a ten-foot splopslauhauten (Bavarian for ten-foot pole). Be my guest but as for me, I'd rather be a guest at the Zungplotzmeinverschten Sanatorium any day.

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