Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Magic Mountain is an extremely long book, so much so that the 1928 English version was produced in two volumes. Mann’s wife developed an illness of the lungs and was admitted to a Swiss sanatorium. He stayed there for three weeks in 1912 and draws on this experience. The chief character, Hans, visits his cousin. Hans is a ship-building engineer which, he is told, is a splendid calling. This may have struck a chord with Hugh.
Hans convinces himself that he is also ill so stays much longer than the intended three weeks. Mann describes the residents in great detail with an insight into the minds of both the unstable and the dying. As the book proceeds, we meet more and more characters. There is an Italian with whom Hans has had discussions about philosophical matters such as death and war.
Hans relates his dreams and we realise that he has never got over becoming an orphan at a young age and losing his grandfather who had looked after him. A lady patient becomes an obsession and he goes to great lengths to get to know her. As it becomes obvious that he is not in fact ill, he spends his extended stay going down to the village and educating himself in biology, astronomy, botany and many other topics.
As time goes on, Hans copes with the death of his fellow-patients, including his cousin. He no longer feels the need for physical measures of time and stops reading newspapers. Cut off from the outside world, or ‘flatland’, the residents take up all kinds of pastimes from stamp-collecting to card-playing. The gramophone player later surpasses them. The nature of time is a recurring subject. Mann talks about the sense of it passing quickly during periods of repeated routine.
…it is thought that interestingness and novelty of the time-content…shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness restrain its flow…But they are capable of contracting…the…large time-units…a full and interesting content can put wings to the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those…empty ones…when one day is like all the others, then they are all like one.
Perhaps Hugh could identify with this after spending days and weeks at sea. He may have known that Thomas Mann, a German with anti-Nazi feelings, was living in America. Having been stripped of the nationality of his birth, he took USA nationality in 1940. Hugh first mentioned this book to Jim when he wrote on October, 6, 1941 and it had obviously made quite an impression on him. Mann started Magic Mountain in 1913 and completed it in 1924 so the First World War had a huge influence on this work. As Hugh suggests, Mann went as far as to try to warn of another global conflict.
At the end of this letter, Hugh talks about the film Forty-ninth Parallel. There is a link here with Magic Mountain. The film was blatant propaganda to encourage the United States to join the Allies. The title is the route taken by crew members of a Nazi U-boat stranded in Canada. They make for the States, still a neutral country, in order to return to Germany. When an American character praises the work of Thomas Mann, the Commander burns the American’s copy of Magic Mountain.
Bridge of San Louis Rey by Thornton Wilder
The Bridge, as it is often called, tells the life stories of five victims of the bridge’s collapse. It asks if there is some power that controls one’s fate in life. Were the fatalities because of some sin they committed? A monk who witnesses the ‘accident’ decides to prove that divine intervention was a factor in the deaths. His research into their lives provides a surprise for him – that the victims were good people and therefore received the reward of entering heaven. The monk finds that some victims had aspects in common but the central question remains unanswered. However, the book he produces is declared blasphemous and the monk himself receives a death sentence.
Vera Brittain quotes Thornton Wilder. In her Testament of a Peace Lover she recounts how he came to London from America to speak at a writers’ conference. It was the summer of 1941 and the results of bombing shocked him. He declared ‘Forgive us our immunity’. In a section dated September 1941, Brittain goes on to criticise British writers who had escaped to America. She also describes the guilt felt by some American citizens.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
We can guess Hugh’s missing words – Yes, some years ago. At the time I enjoyed it very much though at the time it seems rather complicated with too many characters. Hugh’s opinion that the book had too many characters would be a popular one. The sheer length of the book means that few finish it. Even the twenty-first century television adaptation was difficult to follow! Although I have turned every page, I cannot admit to reading every word so have summarised the synopsis from a well-known internet site.
Published in 1869, ‘War and Peace’ describes the invasion of Russia by Napoleon through characters of five aristocratic families. Drawing on interviews with people who experienced the war, lives of historical characters and also on his own service in the Crimea, Tolstoy not only writes a story but also cleverly intermingles, through the mouths of the characters, his views on a variety of topics including power, war and religion.
It is interesting to note that Jim wrote about how she perceived practicalities for another European conflict from her temporary home across the Atlantic. She was a great-great-great-niece of Bellerophon’s Commander who was apparently so kind to Napoleon.