Friday, April 15, 2022

Scaling the mountain anew

I grew up reading, as they say, “voraciously,” but my diet consisted largely of trash. OK, science fiction, which was as a rule trashy in those days, and very little else. Looking back, I think the first “serious” novel I ever read outside of school assignments was All the King’s Men, which I took in when I was around fifteen or sixteen. Before I was out of high school I went on a Joseph Conrad tear and, at the instigation of my future ex-wife, began reading Hermann Hesse, few of whose books really stood up to subsequent visits. Another high school friend, learning of this, sniffed “Well, the German novelist you should be reading is Thomas Mann.” I later learned that she personally, with adolescent audacity, had not actually read any Mann, but she was the child of a family far better-read than my own, and had picked up the name and reputation by, so to speak, osmosis (a couple of years later I was talking up Mann to my friend’s mother who, amused, asked me if I’d read Proust. This was, I think, the first time that name had been spoken in my presence. “Whost?” I asked, weakly).

Still, I took my friend’s recommendation seriously and, beginning with The Magic Mountain, commenced early in 1971 to chew through the author’s entire œuvre over the course of the next eighteen months. I have come back to Der Zauberberg at approximately seven-year intervals since that time, and earlier this month completed my ninth go-around, just four years since my last.

I can’t really pin down what it is that delights me so about this book, what has kept me coming back to it since the first time I read it at eighteen. Many readers have been bored: one, in an online discussion thread I look in on, recently called it a “snoozefest.” Not for me. The novel has been a different experience each time I have taken it up. This time out was the third or fourth go-around I’ve taken with translator John E. Woods as my cicerone. My first several sessions were with the 1927 H.T. Lowe-Porter translation, to which I had become so accustomed that the first time I looked over the Woods version I was put off: I missed some of Lowe-Porter’s stately cadences. There came a point, though, early in the century, at which, having taken up her rendition anew, I found it somehow heavy sledding. At this point I purchased the Woods translation and have never looked back.

It has been said of Lowe-Porter that she contrived the unlikely feat of translating Thomas Mann into German. He was always puzzled that his English-language audiences saw him as “ponderous,” because his German readership regarded him as a deft prose stylist. He was content, however, to retain Lowe-Porter as his authorized translator, and kept cashing the checks from Alfred Knopf.

Anyway, I have loved the book anew. The set pieces are glorious, of course, but even the passages that have put some readers off—the debates between Settembrini and Naphta, for example—are so much catnip to me. I took it in at about seventy-five pages to a hundred each day, and enjoyed every session. Oddly, I don’t think I have ever persuaded my high school friend to read it, but I remain grateful to her for putting the novel in my way.

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