The Magic Mountain  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg) is a novel by Thomas Mann, first published in November 1924. It is widely considered to be one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature.

Mann started writing what was to become The Magic Mountain in 1912. It began as a much shorter narrative, which revisited in a comic manner aspects of Death in Venice, a novella that he was then preparing for publication. The newer work reflected his experiences and impressions during a period when his wife, who was suffering from a lung complaint, was confined to Dr Friedrich Jessen's 'Waldsanatorium' in Davos, Switzerland for several months. In May and June 1912 he paid her a visit and got to know the team of doctors who were treating her in this cosmopolitan institution. According to Mann, in the afterword that was later included in the English translation, this stay became the foundation of the opening chapter (Arrival) of the completed novel.

The outbreak of the First World War interrupted work on the book. The conflict and its aftermath led the author to undertake a major re-examination of European bourgeois society, including the sources of the wilful, perverse destructiveness displayed by much of civilised humanity. He was also drawn to speculate about more general questions surrounding personal attitudes to life, health, illness, sexuality and mortality. Given this, Mann felt compelled to radically revise and expand the pre-war text before completing it in 1924. Der Zauberberg was eventually published in two volumes by S. Fischer Verlag in Berlin.

His vast composition is erudite, subtle, ambitious, but, most of all, ambiguous; since its original publication it has been subject to a variety of critical assessments. For example, the book blends a scrupulous realism along with deeper symbolic undertones. Given this complexity, each reader is obliged to weigh up the artistic significance of the pattern of events set out within the narrative; a task made more difficult by the author's Olympian irony. Mann himself was well aware of his book's elusiveness, but offered few clues about approaches to the text. He later compared it to a symphonic work, orchestrated with a number of themes and, in a playful commentary on the problems of interpretation, recommended that those who wished to understand it should read it through twice.




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