Thomas Mann

Thalatta, thalatta*

And — what does it mean to say that the sea has been present in the novel from the very beginning?

Though Castorp comes form the sea (Hamburg — like Mann, who came from Luebeck), The Magic Mountain itself is set on a mountain top in a landlocked country — an epitome of estrangement from the sea.  The sea is mentioned only one other time in the novel and is otherwise notable only by its absence (given Castorp’s — unfulfilled — profession of naval engineer).

Perhaps it means that the sea was somehow present in Mann’s mind as he wrote the novel, then?

This would not be surprising:  the sea marks permanently those who have grown up — or long lived — in intimate proximity to it (as I, who have, should know).  And Mann was a boy form the sea-coast: perhaps the most moving fragment of The Death in Venice is the description of a teary, gray dawn over the Adriatic viewed from Aschenbach’s hotel room.  The novelist explains:

There were profound reasons for his [Achenbach’s] attachment to the sea: he loved it because as a hard-working artist he needed rest, needed to escape from the demanding complexity of phenomena and lie hidden on the bosom of the simple and tremendous; because of a forbidden longing deep within him that ran quite contrary to his life’s task and was for that very reason seductive, a longing for the unarticulated and immeasurable, for eternity, for nothingness. To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence; and is not nothingness a form of perfection?

All beach lovers everywhere perceive the sea as strangely restful, and so does — dully — Aschenbach (“he needed rest”).  But the sea’s effect goes deeper than mere physical rest:  the sea produces a  calming of the mind.  The regular crash of the waves, their swaying movement seem to hypnotize us and induce a kind of ecstasy, not the wildly breathless sort, but the content, knowing, peaceful:  the feeling that everything is right with the world.  Unsurprisingly, this experience, sometimes called Adamic, is also known as oceanic. The unperceptive Achenbach notices the effect but — how typical of the dullard — misdiagnoses its causes.

Whence does this sea-effect come?  No one knows, but the connection to the sea is universal and prehistoric; Melville puts it rather well, if too wordily to quote here at length (I mean especially the three paragraphs of Moby Dick‘s first chapter starting with “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon…” etc.**  See here).  It isn’t only the Greeks, you see.  It’s so ancient and so ingrained, it may well be hard-wired/evolved:  as a species we may have emerged, dolphin-like, from the sea (see the Acquatic Ape hypothesis).

Mesmerized, our mind becomes inchoate.  In Tonio Kroger Mann describes it:

While I am writing, the sea’s roar is coming up to me, and I close my eyes. I am looking into an unborn and shapeless world that longs to be called to life and order, I am looking into a throng of phantoms of human forms which beckon me to conjure them and set them free…


But what does it mean for the sea to be present in a work of art — when it is not even mentioned?

Ravel’s piano concerto in G is an interesting case of this.

It has an unusual place in my mental library of music:  while I have discovered all my favorite works thanks to someone’s superior interpretation — a musical composition seems always gray and indifferent until the right performance suddenly clears the cobwebs and makes its shiny details glow — in this one case, I have always had a strong suspicion that no one, not even Argerich/Abbado, have done it justice.  Listening to the middle movement especially gives me the strange sensation of, on the one hand, immense pleasure, and yet, on the other, insouciance:  I cannot shake off the impression that it can be played better, more movingly, that there is something the interpreter is missing, some deeper layer he has not penetrated.  It is as if, uniquely of all music, I could perceive something important in that one piece, without an interpreters’ assistance, yet something which I am too dull — Aschenbach-like — to name.

I have never realized it was the sea.

Jerome Robbins did:  his ballet En Sol (published as part of the Hommage a Jerome Robbins DVD) casts the whole concerto by the sea:  dancers wear beach costumes, move as if they were swimming, there are ball games, crabs, etc.  And in the middle movement — the pas de deux — Marie-Agnes Gillot moves like the sea, she sways from side to side like a water-born buoy, sways and keels over like a wave which then, bouncing off the shore, keels back upon itself.  (Her partner is technically good, but wooden: but ignore him, think of him as a rock on the shore, watch only her).  The pas-de-deux isn’t merely beautiful — which it is — it is also, to me, a revelation of what I have found so mesmerizing about the middle movement all these years, unawares: its ocean-like fluctuation.

I suppose there is some way in which The Magic Mountain is similar to the middle movement of Ravel’s concerto.  It too is slow, uneventful, and mesmerising.


And speaking of The Magic Mountain — whose Mynher Pepperkorn chapters I reread last night (with burning cheeks — my life’s become pretty much one great project of never-ending rereading of four authors:  Parnicki, Mann, Kawabata and Proust) an idea for a different prequel occurred to me, one which I am qualified to write:  a prequel taking as its hero not Hans Castorp and Gdansk, but the Indonesian Dutchman of regal expression and incoherent speech and — Java.  Why, it could be narrated by Marlow and feature a cameo appearance by Korzeniowski.  And it could feature many of my loves:  Penang, the Pearl in the Crown; Solo batiks; Jogjya shadow-puppet theater; Dutch Indonesian literature, beautiful and no longer read by anyone.  The plot, of course, must center about the diabolical invention which in the end takes Mynheer’s life, the ultra-Victorian bit of engineering and craftsmanship, the silver-and-ivory mechanical viper.

“Pieter Pepperkorn shall now take unto himself a glass of schnapps.”

*Not Thalassa, Thalassa, which is koine, but Thalatta, Thalatta, which is Attic

**Especially this paragraph:

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand — miles of them — leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues, — north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

O Sea

In The Magic Mountain, the chapter immediately following Joachim’s death starts with a long meditation on the nature of time.  It’s a little silly, like all the reflections on time in the novel, perhaps because they are meant to be read as Castorp’s reflections, and Hans is intended to be no Kant (and give Poor Old Hans a break:  after all, even Kant isn’t Kant); or perhaps because Mann wasn’t quite The Brain, either, as his Journals make amply plain.   For all that, something magical happens in the way-overlong section:  suddenly, it is interrupted with a not so much aside as an irruption, a totally new thought intruding, like a tear in the cloth of the night, on the mild, softly rolling, soporific remarks on time.  Nearly asleep, one is suddenly jolted into wakefulness, with confusion (have I fallen asleep?  have I missed something?) and with delight.  The remarks are on the sea, and the sea, well, the sea is a little bit like time, is it not, and it is always worth remembering.

The passage goes something like this (translation’s mine).  The first bit is still part of the mediation on time, before it mutates, Pindar-like, into a hymn to the sea, and then back to time again.

You walk and walk… and from this walk you will not return home in time, because you have lost the time, and time has lost you…  O Sea, I am far from you as I tell this tale, but I bend my thoughts towards you now, my thoughts, my love, — be present in my novel, be loud, at my call, as in fact you have been from the beginning, and still are, and still will be…  O murmuring emptiness, swathed in pale, shining greyness, saturated with sharp humidity, which leaves a taste of salt on the lips!  I am walking, walking on the slightly springy ground, covered with sea grass and small shells, and the wind plays in my ears, great, broad yet gentle wind; free, unimpeded, uncunning he blows through space and causes a slight confusion of the head. I am walking, walking and seeing how from the now approaching, now departing sea there come towards me tongues of foam to lick my feet.  Boiling broth of the sea, wave after wave strikes and rolls silkily over the flat shore — now here, now there, then again far off, on the shoals, and the murky murmur, general and gentle, makes the ears insensitive to every other sound of the world.  The fullness of satisfaction, the conscious forgetting…  Let us close our eyes, lost in eternity!  No — look!  There, in the foaming distance, disappearing near the horizon in gigantic shortcuts, a sail has appeared.  There?  Where is that there?  How far?  How near?  I am walking, walking — how long already?  How far?  No one knows.  Nothing changes, though I ever walk ahead, though the far is so alike the near, and that which is present so alike that which is yet to come; in the immeasurable monotony of space time drowns, in ever-sameness all motion ceases to be motion, and where motion has ceased to be motion, there time has also ceased to exist.


It’s longer than it really needs to be to create the desired effect; and begins to drown in vague wordiness in the second half — the narrator sliding back into dullish meandering on his original theme of time; but its first appearance — “O Sea!” — is like a clarion call — and a delight. This is an instance of a dramatic method often employed in Asian dance drama wherein slow, soporific longueurs prepare the viewers’ mind to receive the sudden dramatic impact of what is coming.  Properly calmed — why, hypnotized — by the slow murmur of the introductory section we do not require a frightening jolt to spring us into the aesthetic reaction.  Indeed, the subtler the eventual impulse is, the more precious it seems.  If you’re not willing to suffer the introductory longueur, though, you will miss the jolt, too:  you won’t have been properly sensitized.

Hans Castorp in Gdansk

If positioning be marketing’s equivalent of location, then Pawel Huelle is right in front of Harrod’s: a Polish writer from Gdansk, with a German-sounding last name, and writing about his city’s prewar past, he is Paul to Günter Grass’s Peter, his left-hand path, his mirror image, his Other without which the German Nobelist is nothing but the one-sided voice of the displaced, irrelevant, powerless ethnic German Danzingers. It is perhaps in recognition of this – and not merely Huelle’s superb writing (what am I saying?! Merely superb-writing?!) – that Günter Grass has been promoting him.

Thankfully, the man’s ambition knows no bounds: having so easily done Grass, Huelle nonchallantly reached for the utlimate prize and – did Mann:  his Castorp is a prequel to Magic Mountain. It is a short, clever, delightful novel about Mann’s unlikely hero’s halcyon days in Gdansk. (“[Castorp] had spent four semesters at the Danzig Polytechnic” Mann tells us in a small detail which you have probably missed).

Indeed, much of the pleasure of reading Castrop is Mannisch: the description of the hero’s sailing from Hamburg to Gdansk is reminiscent of Castorp’s train trip in the Magic Mountain, the meals on board of the meals at the Berghof, and the scene in which the first mate shows the young hero the engine room of the steamship, of the x-ray scene in Mann. Huelle does this well: he maintains the same tempo, the same delectation of facts, the same economy of words mastering the same power of symbolism.

Un-Mann-like, the story is wonderfully whimsical – Inspector Cluzoe-like, Castrop rubs shoulders against crime and political intrigue without noticing.   Also un-Mann-like, it is peppered with small, carefully disguised details which will escape you, Castorp-like, unless you pay attention: the psycho-analyst (1905!) is a student of Doctor Charcot, not Freud; the hero travels to Zoppot in search of Maria Mancinis; the ship Castorp passes at sea, the ABPOPA, is in fact AVRORA (its guns will start the October revolution – and thus announce the beginning of the end of Castorp’s world). Etc.

Castorp himself is perhaps more adult and more self-confident than we know him from Magic Mountain; but his philosophical reveries are the same:

As he focused on descriptive geometry, the basics of machine building, applied mathematics or technical drawing exercises, Castorp sometimes liked to free his attention from the lesson, prop his chin on his fist, and stare out of a large window, as outside, against the pure blue sky, dazzling white cumulus clouds, slowly and majestically went sailing by.

One day the mathematics professor, Herr von Mangoldt, noticed this dreamy attitude and inquired: “And just what mathematical root might you extract from those clouds, sir?”

“Excuse me”, replied the disconcerted student, “but if I were to refer to what you have just said about the sequence of primary numbers resulting from Fermat’s equation, I would think of… infinity.”

And then there are absolute gems of style, like this, when hearing a girl sing a song on a beach made him recall the melody of a Schubert piano sonata, which his father played the night his mother died:

Only once he was in the tram did Castorp free himself from these memories. Their place was taken by pure music. He had never had such a strange experience before: the tune his father had played on the piano and the fisher-girl’s song were both ringing inside him simultaneously, purely and faultlessly, without causing any confusion, just as if Schubert, who wrote the first, also had the perfect knowledge of the second, or maybe even – what an absurd idea – composed his song about three phantom suns not so much under the influence of his local folk song, but as its reflection – not a symmetrical mirror image, not something immobile, but captured in a mirror of water, and thus a live and vibrant reflection. Castorp’s thoroughly analytical turn of mind allowed him to internalize both tunes like mathematical functions, which, while running in total void, as if in a sphere of complete silence, diverged abruptly, then, after a set period of time crossed paths at a predetermined point, only for each of them to seek its way again. And as the window he was sitting at quickly steamed up, Castorp drew these two lines on the whitish surface and inspected them with an emotion similar to the one he had felt not long ago while watching the depths of the sea churned up by the ship’s propeller.

Of course no reference to Magic Mountain could be complete without the famous dream.  We have it here, too:

The tram had long since passed the stop at the Kastanienweg, but Castorp was in his own separate time, on the slope of snowy mountain. Through the thick fog one could only guess at the nearby peaks, but that was not the focus of his attention right now. He could hear a strange, low rumble, as if not far off kegs or boxes were being sent across an ice-rink. After a while the fog subsided a little, and there in the snow he saw a narrow track, probably for sleds, down which over and over, at regular intervals came strange, narrow maybe hospital beds. In fact, they were bobsleighs, which Hans Castorp had never seen before, but his first, medical association proved not entirely mistaken, because as soon as he came closer to the track, he noticed that in these vehicles, wrapped to their necks in camelhair blankets, dead people were rushing down the icy path. He recognized this by the snow-flakes: they did not melt on the skin, but formed either a thick coating, or a transparent veil on the travelers’ faces. Under this sort of delicate film he glimpsed the face of his grandfather, Senator Castorp. Then, among very many others, his mother flashed by past him, while at the end of the strange procession he saw the face of the clerk at the Polytechnic who had bored him with his absurd theories. As soon as the cloud of snow had settled behind him, Castorp saw the panorama of mountains unveiled before him. The sun was reflecting off snowy peaks with such force that he had to squint. Far below in the valley, Danzig lay stretched our before his feet. He could see the church towers, the ribbon of the Motlau with its granaries and the entire labyrinth of the back streets of the Altstadt. “Are you ready?” he heard a woman say. “Do you have the courage?”

The novel is a marvel, the translation is excellent, and the book itself is well made: it is small, light, beautifully bound, with nice typeface on delicate paper. Five stars.