There were times when I wondered whether I’d ever finish this book. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but reading a novel driven by ideas rather by plot or character has its challenges. Particularly if, like me, you do most of your reading at night, in between getting into the bed and switching off the light. This is not the kind of novel which can be read, digested and disposed of quickly. It demands concentration, patience and perseverance – qualities in which I am frequently lacking at the end of a day at work.
But persevere I did, alongside the novel’s central protagonist Hans Castorp, as he lived seven long years in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Alps, exploring love, history, philosophy, music, religion and the meaning of life and death in an environment symbolic of pre-World War I Europe. I say seven long years because that’s usually how they appeared to me as I worked my way through a chapter every few nights for almost two months, but to Hans Castorp those years appeared much shorter: the passage of time and how it varies according to circumstances is a central theme of the work.
This is a novel in which little happens in terms of conventional (or even unconventional) plot and character development. What in most other novels would be digressions are its point. Whether that appeals will depend in large part on what you want to get from reading fiction. If it’s relaxation and entertainment, then chances are this is not the novel for you. If you want an intellectual challenge and don’t mind feeling some level of frustration (in my case the frustration was at least in part knowing that I’d be getting more out of the work if I knew more to start with), then it may well be worthwhile.
I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain and then descended into the valleys. It wasn’t always magic, but it has given me a sense of achievement. And as I read the last few pages, in awe of Mann’s brilliance, I offered up a prayer of thanks to the literary gods that I hadn’t abandoned the climb. The view from the end made the difficult bits of the climb and the descent worthwhile.