Joachim searched for an answer. “My God,” he said, “they’re so free. I mean, they’re young and time plays no role in their lives, and they may very well die. Why should they go around with long faces? I sometimes think that illness and death aren’t really serious matters, that it’s all more like loafing around, and that, strictly speaking, things are serious only down below in real life. I think maybe you’ll come to understand that in due time, after you’ve been up here with us a little longer.”
–from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (translated by John E. Woods)
I’ve had The Magic Mountain on my shelf for a couple of years, and it was only when I was trying to get through the recent holidays that I finally broke the spine. What a bizarre and wonderful book! It tells the story of a young man named Hans Castorp who goes to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps right before the First World War. Like Castorp, the reader sets off on a journey to a dream world made real by lovely detailed descriptions such as that of the dining hall (“The room glistened with white from all the milk–a large glass at every place, a good pint of it at least.”) or of the exact sound of a young woman whistling with her pneumothorax (“it reminded him of the music you get from those inflatable rubber pigs you buy at a carnival, the way they wail mournfully when you squeeze the air out.”).
It’s one of those works–such as Dante’s Comedy–that seems to have sprung out of nowhere, whole and rich and strange.
What is “real life”? Do sickness and death belong to another dimension? And when will we wake up and realize that nothing is real?