As someone who teaches college-level literature classes for a living, once or twice a year I find myself giving my students some version of this speech:
It’s no surprise to me that I only see a few of you here today when we are discussing a long novel.
I get it.
I went to a state school, and as an undergrad I worked three jobs, and had many demands on my time. On top of that, the fact is that we in the 21st century United States are not a culture that as a whole is very into reading long novels. We know from surveys that most Americans read few if any books in a given year — long, complex novels least of all.
Part of the reason is circumstantial. We live in a very different era from the one where the modern novel emerged, the late 18th century, when primarily the wealthy, literate, and those possessed of copious leisure time consumed them. Today, too, novels have ceded ground to flashier, more nimble media. They’re not like movies or TikTok clips (not that those media aren’t also complex in their own ways, or that one can’t consume them critically too).
So, reading a novel today poses numerous challenges. Novels, especially long ones, demand a sustained level of engagement and attention that many of our overscheduled selves have trouble mustering these days. This is not to say that the novel as a medium is dead. It isn’t, not by a long shot. But the novel, I would say, has transmigrated to other platforms. How else can we describe sprawling, multilayered, binge-able streaming series except as novelistic, even Dickensian, Dostoevskian?
In short, today most people watch novels rather than read them.
So, yeah, it doesn’t surprise me when on the days I teach long novels that my students (1) don’t show up as much and (2) don’t talk as much as they otherwise might. But to the degree that you guys will invest time in this novel, even if you can’t finish it, even if you drop it halfway through, it is time well spent, blah blah blah.
Did you get through all that? Practically a novel right there. And, yes, I know: It’s a sort of an apology — though neither I in this regard nor the novel, in general, have anything to apologize for.
Case in point: Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain” (Der Zauberberg).
I recalled my little canned exhortation more than once as I spent over three years traversing the German author’s monumental 1924 opus, which in my Vintage International edition clocks in at 729 pages. I had wanted to read the novel for ages since I often write and teach about illness, disability, and death and dying. “The Magic Mountain” is about all those things and so much more.
The story is about a young hero, Hans Castorp — Mann only ever refers to him by both first and surname — who visits his ill cousin Joachim at Berghof, a chic tuberculosis sanatorium very high up in the Swiss Alps. Hans Castorp ends up staying far beyond his planned three-week jaunt. And staying. And staying. For seven years.
What HC discovers there is a microcosm of the European bourgeoisie immediately before World War I, a lost society displaced by cataclysm. And what people! The irrepressible Italian humanist Herr Settembrini, the Dutch bon vivant Herr Peepercorn, the beautiful and forthright Russian Frau Chauchat (what a lovely name, I thought, for a rock band: “Clavdia Chauchat”), the fearful Catholic Barbara Hujus, the severe Jesuit Leo Naphta. All tubercular, some of them dying before our eyes, under the rather tyrannical watch of head doctor Hofrat Behrens. Innumerable philosophical and historical discussions ensue, from every possible point of view, over endlessly repetitive meals — a character in themselves — the same door slamming every day like clockwork, the lavish courses, the bizarre frozen timelessness of such a regimented setting. The girth of a novel allows Mann to build on that theme in a deliberate, accruing, poignant fashion.
But Mann’s achievement is not confined to character interactions. He’s a master of the telling detail on the shifting border of symbol and materiality, as when he describes a christening bowl HC recalls from childhood, a priceless family heirloom with its “smooth, faintly golden inside, which caught the light from the window in the ceiling” (in H.T. Lowe-Porter’s translation). We later get an echo of this language in a description of patients’ X-rays.
Like I said, though, this mountain climb took me years.
I read about Hans Castorp getting lost in a snowstorm and almost dying while I was visiting the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. Right there, at the memorial. Then the pandemic hit. I was reading it on the day I went to a café in Tacoma with no one there. The barista told me I had to wear a mask. That was the first time I experienced this particular piece of what would become COVID-19 business-as-usual. Suddenly we were all Berghofians, in a sense. The planet was sick.
So, yes, the novel is still very much alive. In Mann’s capable hands, this way of telling a story reaches astonishing heights. This is what the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called the novel’s supreme advantage over other media: its enormous accumulation of detail by piling on the words, the diversity of voices, and clashing perspectives for a multifarious kaleidoscopic view of reality. That’s “The Magic Mountain” in a nutshell.
All the while over those three years, I felt the sensation of climbing a tall, craggy, complicated massif, with many digressions, to arrive at last at the Berghof: a sort of high-altitude purgatory from which to gaze upon the whole world.
And you know what? I look forward to someday scaling Mann’s elusive mountain all over again.
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