Thomas Mann’s three great works, ‘Buddenbrooks’ (1901), ‘The Death in Venice’ (1912) and ‘The Magic Mountain’ (1924) need no recommendation from me. And they can hardly bear much more analysis from a literary point of view, though of course one of the distinctive qualities of truly classic examples of fiction is their ability to call forth new insights from generation to generation among those who delve into their treasures. But there is one question I have not so far found asked, at least not in a way which strikes a chord of recognition within me: why do these books appeal so strongly to readers as the decades roll by? Is it merely the importance of the subjects they deal with, or the sterling literary quality of Mann’s writing and powers of composition? I think there’s much more to it than that. I think it’s because all three explore, and on various fascinating levels, the concept of decline, something nearly all of us can relate to whether we’d care to admit it or not, and because they allow us to luxuriate in our contemplation of societal and personal dissolution during the entire course of our reading of these books. And because–and this is really another but not unrelated matter–all three give us a refuge, a place to spend time as we consider what decline might mean. And not unpleasant refuges at that. This fact is part of Mann’s genius.
I first took refuge in ‘Buddenbrooks’, if I may express myself that way, during a long rainy winter when I was devoting most of my evenings to reading. And I found myself totally taken in by the Buddenbrooks family–not just into their story, which I began gradually to consider in some ways my own, but into their home itself, as a not unwelcome if to them unsuspected guest. A friend of mine had recommended ‘Buddenbrooks’ because he had become completely captivated by it, convinced that the Buddenbrooks’ family history mirrored that of his own. He felt, in other words, that his own family had long since gone into decline: over the course of centuries, though there had been periods of real promise and achievement, nearly every branch had died out, died young, died really financially and socially and in terms of any real contribution it might continue to make to the world. He saw himself as the last of the line, so to speak, and thus considered himself an honorary Buddenbrooks. And he wondered if I might feel the same. Which, having read the novel three or four times that winter, I had to admit to myself that I in some ways did. Because which of us cannot identify with the Buddenbrooks family failures and problems? As I think about the novel now, I am reminded, of all persons, of Eleanor Roosevelt. When once confronted by a reporter with the latest exploit of one of her teenage sons, she simply sighed and smiled, responding, “Oh, dear. Well, families have their own unique, often inexplicable course of nature.” I believe that the decline of the Buddenbrooks family is in many ways a universal one, and that that fact is one of the book’s great draws. The other one is that you get to spend time with the Buddenbrooks in their own home as you contemplate that decline. They give you a very fine refuge indeed. There are worse places to live than a patrician city mansion in Lübeck during the decades when the 19th century was drawing to a close. The accomodations are superb.
‘The Death in Venice’ has always seemed to me to go, in subject matter and atmosphere, so far beyond mere decline as to venture most boldly into the realm of positive decrepitude and even decay. The very air of the grand hotels and cafés and beaches which form its backdrop practically reeks with pathogens, as Mann uses the story to describe the phenomenon of societal and individual decline. Yet all this–along with writing so exquisite as to be almost painful to read–is precisely what draws the reader in and keeps that reader bound. We may or may not be able to identify with Gustav von Aschenbach’s particular idiosyncracies and fascinations, but we can all find within us a kind of visceral and inevitable sympathy for the plight of a brilliant and successful individual who has quite alarmingly begun to fall violently apart before his own very eyes. And his tragedy, if that’s what it indeed is, also gives us the opportunity–which we really ardently want, don’t we?–of daring to ask ourselves if we might at some point so decline too. Meanwhile, as in our comfortable sojourn with the Buddenbrooks family, we get to stay in a five-star hotel on the Lido in Venice and have everything we might need at our fingertips for the asking, and with no bill waiting for us at home at the end of the month. Despite the presence of the plague, it seems a glorious place to be. I’d go there just about any time at all.
Of the three novels in question, ‘The Magic Mountain’ offers the most direct and, in some ways, uncomplicated experience of both decline and refuge. Here we are not dealing with several generations of a family whose actions have collectively led to dissolution and collapse. Nor are we contemplating an elderly man undergoing inner torments and the external processes of aging and decay. Hans Castorp is young: he seems enthusiastic and optimistic when he arrives at the sanatorium to visit his ailing cousin, and he can hardly wait to head back to his home in the north to begin his career. Yet he quickly ends up considering himself an invalid and allows himself to be condemned to seven years at what is actually a hospital for terminal patients (for such most of them think themselves to be) in the Alps. But for him it is no condemnation: he rapidly comes to love the life, the regular meals, the agreeable companionship, the time for reading and thought, the freedom from having to worry about a career and the practicalities of life. And I believe it is, in fact, this principal character’s delight at finding himself in such an agreeable refuge, liberated by a supposed illness from having to cope with the cares of the world, which has attracted so many countless readers to ‘The Magic Mountain’ and kept them spellbound there over the years. Because the magic of both mountain and novel is very real. The reader wants to go there too. He or she wants to stay there for a very long time indeed. That is why the novel eventually comes to seem not long, but short. While within its pages we get to consider our own possible decline, and to do that in a glorious setting. Giving us this opportunity as readers is all part of Mann’s great genius. And we can go back to The Magic Mountain whenever we choose. Even if it does makes us contemplate the uneasy possibility of our own decline, or perhaps precisely because of this, it’s a fine place to be.