The Making of "The Magic Mountain"

The genesis of a great work of fiction is always a matter of curiosity, and it was only natural that early in his residence in this country THOMAS MANN would be pressed to explain how he got started on the writing of The Magic Mountain, which some regard as his greatest work. The questions were actually put to him at Princeton, and there he began the self-examination which culminated in the essay which follows. It is our hope that in a sequel Mr. Mann will explain the origin of the Joseph novels.



SINCE it is certainly not customary for an author to discuss his own work, perhaps a word of apology, or at least of explanation, should occupy first place. For, the thought of acting as my own historian I find a little confusing; and, you know, there are few impartial historians anyway. Furthermore, since my work is still in the making and, I venture to hope, still reflects the present and its problems, it would be rather difficult, if not impossible, to criticize it with scholarly detachment — even if the critic were not, at the same time, the author.

In selecting my Magic Mountain for discussion, I base the choice on the sympathetic interest which this one of all my books received in America. Likewise, when I tell you freely of the book’s genesis and my experiences with it, I am relying on the healthy and sympathetic attitude of the American mind toward the personal, the anecdotal, and the intimately human.

Oddly enough, it is not a difficulty for me, but rather the reverse, that I have to discuss The Magic Mountain in English. I am reminded of the hero of my novel, the young engineer Hans Castorp. At the end of the first volume, he makes an extraordinary declaration of love to Mine. Chauchat, the Kirghis-eyed heroine, veiling its strangeness in the garment of a foreign tongue. It eases his embarrassment. and helps him to say things he could never have dared say in his own language. “Parler français,” he says, “e’est parler sans parler, en quelque manière.” In short, it helps him over his inhibitions — and an author who feels embarrassed at having to talk about his own works is in the same way relieved at being able to talk about them in another language.

There are authors whose names are associated with a single great work, because they have been able to give themselves complete expression in it. Dante is the Divina Cammedia, Cervantes is Don Quixote. But there are others — and I must count myself among them — whose single works do not possess this complete significance, being only parts of the whole which makes up the author’s lifework. And not only his lifework, but actually his life itself, his personality. He strives, that is, to overcome the laws of time and continuity. He tries to produce himself completely in each thing he writes, but only actually does so in the way The Magic Mountain does it; I mean by the use of the leitmotif, the magic formula which works both ways, and links the past with the future, the future with the past. The leitmotif is the technique employed to preserve the inward unity and abiding presentness of the whole at each moment.

In a broader sense, the whole lifework of the author has its leading motifs, which serve to preserve its unity, to make that unity perceptible to the reader, and to keep the whole picture present in each single work. But just for that reason, it may be unfair to the single work to look at it. by itself, disregarding its connection with the others, and not taking into account the frame of reference to which it belongs. For instance, it is almost impossible to discuss The Magic Mountain without thinking of the links which connect it with other works; backwards in time to Buddenbrooks and to Death in Venice; forwards to the Joseph novels. Let me first of all tell you something of the origin and conception of the novel, just as events in my life brought them about.

In the year 1912 — over a generation ago now — my wife was suffering from a lung complaint, fortunately not a very serious one; yet it was necessary for her to spend six months at a high altitude, in a sanatorium at Davos, Switzerland. I stayed with the children either in Munich or at our country home in Tölz, in the valley of the Isar. But in May and June I visited my wife for some weeks at Davos. There is a chapter in The Magic Moantain, entitled “Arrival,” where Hans Castorp dines with his cousin Joachim in the sanatorium restaurant, and tastes not only the excellent Berghof cuisine but also the atmosphere of the place and the life “bei uns hier oben.” If you read that chapter, you will have a fairly accurate picture of our meeting in this sphere and my own strange impressions of it.

The impressions grew stronger and stronger during the three weeks I spent at Davos visiting my wife while she was a patient. They are the same three weeks Hans Castorp originally meant to spend at Davos — though for him they turned into the seven fairy-tale years of his enchanted stay. I may even say that they threatened to do the same for me. At least one of his experiences is a pretty exact transference to my hero of things that happened to me; I mean the examination of the carefree visitor from the flatland, and the resulting discovery that he himself is to become a patient too!

I had been at the so-called Berghof ten days, sitting out on the balcony in cold, damp weather, when I got a troublesome bronchial cold. Two specialists were in the house, the head physician and his assistant, so I took the obvious course of consulting them. I accompanied my wife to the office, she having been summoned to one of her regular examinations. The head doctor, who of course looked rather like Hofrat Behrens, thumped me about and straightway discovered a so-called moist spot in my lung.

If I had been Hans Castorp, the discovery might have changed the whole course of my life. The physician assured me that I should be acting wisely to remain there for six months and take the cure. If I had followed his advice, who knows, I might still be there! I wrote The Magic Mountain instead. In it I made use of the impressions gathered during my three weeks’ stay. They were enough to convince me of the dangers of such a milieu for young people — and tuberculosis is a disease of the young. You will have got from my book an idea of the narrowness of this charmed circle of isolation and invalidism. It is a sort of substitute existence, and it can, in a relatively short time, wholly wean a young person from actual and active life. Everything there, including the conception of time, is thought of on a luxurious scale. The cure is always a matter of several months, often of several years. But after the first six months the young person has not a single idea left save flirtation and the thermometer under his tongue. After the second six months, in many cases he has even lost the capacity for any other ideas. He will become completely incapable of life in the “flatland.”

Such institutions as the Berghof were a typical pre-war phenomenon. They were only possible in a capitalistic economy which was still functioning well and normally. Only under such a system was it possible for patients to remain there year after year at the family’s expense. The Magic Mountain became the swan song of that form of existence. Perhaps it is a general rule that epics descriptive of some particular phase of life tend to appear as it nears its end. The treatment of tuberculosis has entered upon a different phase today; and most of the Swiss sanatoria have become sports hotels.


THE idea of making a story out of my Davos impressions and experiences occurred to me very soon. After finishing the novel Royal Highness I wrote the long short story Death in Venice. This I had nearly finished when I went to Davos; and I now conceived the idea of The Magic Mountain (from the very first the tale bore that title). It was meant as a humorous companion-piece to Death in Venice and was to be about the same length: a sort of satire on the tragedy just finished. The atmosphere was to be that strange mixture of death and lightheadedness I had found at Davos. Death in Venice portrays the fascination of the death idea, the triumph of drunken disorder over the forces of a life consecrated to rule and discipline. In The Magic Mountain the same theme was to be humorously treated. There was to be a simple-minded hero, in conflict between bourgeois decorum and macabre adventure. The end of the story was not decided, but it would come as I wrote. It seemed an easy and amusing thing to do, and would not take much time. When I got back to Tölz and Munich I set to work on the first chapters.

A private intuition soon began to steal over me that this subject matter tended to spread itself out and lose itself in shoreless realms of thought. I could not conceal from myself the fact that the theme afforded a dangerously rich complex of ideas. Perhaps I am not the only author who tends to underestimate the extent of an enterprise he has embarked on. When I conceive a piece of work, it comes to me in such innocent, practicable guise, I feel sure I shall have no great difficulty in carrying it out. My first novel, Buddlenbrooks, was meant to be a book of some 250 pages, after the pattern of Scandinavian novels of family and merchant life. It became two fat volumes. Death in Venice was to be a short story for a magazine. The same thing is true of the Joseph novels; they were to be something in the form of a story, about, the length of Death in Venice. The Magic Mountain proved no exception to the rule. Perhaps this self-deception is necessary and fruitful. If a writer had before him from the start all the possibilities and all the drawbacks of a projected work, and knew what the book itself wanted to be, he might never have the courage to begin. It is possible for a work to have its own will and purpose, perhaps a far more ambitious one than the author’s — and it is good that this should be so. For the ambition should not be a personal one; it must not come before the work itself. The work must bring it forth and compel the task to completion. Thus, I feel, all great works were written, and not out of an ambition to write something great which set itself from the beginning.

In short, I soon saw that this Davos story had its own ideas and that it thought about itself quite otherwise than I thought about it. This was even outwardly true. The humorous and expansive English style, itself a relief from the austerity of Death in Venice, took up space and time. Then the First World War broke out. It did two things: put an immediate stop to my work on the book, and incalculably enriched its content at the same time. I did not work on it again for years.

In those years I wrote The Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, a work of painful introspection, in which I sought light upon my own views of European problems and conflicts. Actually, it became a preparation for the work of art itself; a preparation which grew to mammoth proportions and consumed vast amounts of time. Goethe once called his Faust “this very serious jest.” Well, my preparation was for a work of art which could only become a jest — a very serious jest — by dint of my unburdening myself of a quantity of material in the polemical and analytical piece of writing. “This very serious jest.” It is a good definition of art, of all art, of The Magic Mountain as well. I could not have jested and played without first living through my problem in deadly, human reality. Only then could I rise, as an artist, above it.

In 1924, at last, appeared the two volumes that had grown out of my proposed short story. Including the long interruptions, they had taken me not seven but actually twelve years of my life. Its reception might have been much less friendly than it was, and still would have surpassed my expectations. It is my way, when I have finished a book, to let it drop with a resigned shrug and not the faintest confidence in its chances in the world. The charm it once possessed for me, its sponsor, has long since vanished; that I have finished it at all is a feat due to my convictions regarding the ethics of craftmanship — due indeed, at bottom, to obstinacy; and altogether, obstinacy seems to me to have played such a part in these crabbed years-long preoccupations. I regard them so much as a highly dubious private enjoyment that I question the likelihood of anyone caring to follow on the track of my idiosyncrasies.

My surprise is the greater when, as has happened to me repeatedly, they are welcomed by an almost turbulent following; and in the case of The Magic Mountain my astonishment was particularly profound. Would anyone expect that a harassed public, economically oppressed, would take it on itself to pursue through 1200 pages the dreamlike ramifications of this figment, of thought? Would, under the circumstances then prevailing, more than a few hundred people be found, willing to spend money and time on such odd entertainment, which had realty little or nothing in common with a novel in the usual sense of the word? Certain it is that ten years earlier the book would not have found readers — nor could it even have been written. It needed the experiences which the author had in common with his countrymen; these he had betimes to let ripen within him, and then, at the favorable moment, as once before, to come forward with his bold production. The subject matter of The Magic Mountain was not by its nature suitable for the masses. But with the bulk of the educated classes, these were burning questions, and the national crisis had produced in the general public precisely that alchemical “keying up” in which had consisted the actual adventure of young Hans Castorp. Yes, certainly the German reader recognized himself in the simple-minded but shrewd young hero of the novel. He could and would be guided by him.

The Magic Mountain is a very German book, and that might be the reason foreign critics very much underestimated its universal appeal. A Swedish critic, member of the Swedish Academy, with a decisive voice in the Nobel Prize awards, told me in public, and very decidedly, that nobody would dare to venture a translation of this book in a foreign language, as it was absolutely unsuited to such a purpose. That was a false prophecy. The Magic Mountain has been translated into all the European languages, and, so far as I can judge, no other of my books has had an equal success — I may say with pride that this is especially the case in America.


Now what is there that I can say about the book itself, and the best way to read it? I shall begin with a very arrogant request that it be read not once but twice. A request not to be heeded, of course, if one has been bored at the first reading. A work of art must not be a task or an effort; it. must not be undertaken against one’s will. It is meant to give pleasure, to entertain and enliven. If it does not have this effect on a reader, he must put it down and turn to something else. But if you have read The Magic Mountain once, I recommend that you read it, twice. The way in which the book is composed results in the reader’s getting a deeper enjoyment from the second reading. Just as in music, one needs to know a piece to enjoy it properly, I intentionally used the word “composed” in referring to the writing of a book. I mean it in the sense we more commonly apply to the writing of music. For music has always had a strong formative influence upon the style of my writing. Writers are very often “really” something else; they are transplanted painters or sculptors or architects or what not. To me the novel was always like a symphony, a work in counterpoint, a thematic fabric; the idea of the musical motif plays a great role in it.

People have pointed out the influence of Wagner’s music on my work. Certainly I do not disclaim this influence. In particular, I followed Wagner in the use of the leitmotif, which I carried over into the work of language. Not as Tolstoy and Zola use it, or as I used it myself in Buddenbrooks, naturalistically and as a means of characterization— so to speak, mechanically. I sought to employ it in its musical sense. My first attempts were in Tonio Kröger. But the technique I there employed is in The Magic Mountain greatly expanded; it is used in a very much more complicated and all-pervasive way. That is why I make my presumptuous plea to my readers to read the book twice. Only so can one really penetrate and enjoy its musical association of ideas. The first time, the reader learns the thematic material; he is then in a position to read the symbolic and allusive formulas both forwards and backwards.

I return to something I spoke of before: the mystery of the time element, dealt with in various ways in the book. It is in a double sense a time-romance. First in a historical sense, in that it seeks to present the inner significance of an epoch, the pre-war period of European history. And secondly, because time is one of its themes: time, dealt with not only as a part of the hero’s experience, but also in and through itself. The book itself is the substance of that which it relates: it depicts the hermetic enchantment of its young hero within the timeless, and thus seeks to abrogate time itself by means of the technical device which attempts to give complete presentness at any given moment to the entire world of ideas which it comprises. It tries, in other words, to establish a magical nunc stans, to use a formula of the scholastics. It pretends to give perfect consistency to content and form, to the apparent and the essential; its aim is always and consistently to be that of which it speaks.

But its pretensions are even more far-reaching, for the book deals with yet another fundamental theme, that of “heightening,” enhancement (Steigeruny). This Steigerung is ahvays referred to as alchemistic. You will remember that my Hans is really a simple-minded hero, the young scion of good Hamburg society, and an indifferent engineer. But in the hermetic, feverish atmosphere of the enchanted mountain, the ordinary stuff of which he is made undergoes a heightening process that makes him capable of adventures in sensual, moral, intellectual spheres, he would never have dreamed of in the “flatland.” His story is the story of a heightening process, but also as a narrative it is the heightening process itself. It employs the methods of the realistic novel, but actually it is not one. It passes beyond realism by means of symbolism, and makes realism a vehicle for intellectual and ideal elements.

All the characters suffer this same process; they appear to the reader as something more than themselves — in effect they are nothing but exponents, representatives, emissaries from worlds, principalities, domains of the spirit. I hope this does not mean that they are mere shadow figures and walking parables. And I have been reassured on this score; for many readers have told me that they have found Joachim, Claudia Chauchat, Peeperkorn, Settembrini, very real people indeed.


THE book, then, both spatially and intellectually, outgrew the limits its author had set. The short story became a thumping two-volume novel — a misfortune which would not have happened if The Magic Mountain had remained, as many people even today still see it, a satire on life in a sanatorium for tubercular patients. When it appeared it made a stir in professional circles, partly of approval, partly of the opposite, and there was a little tempest in the medical journals. But the critique of sanatorium therapeutic methods is only the foreground of the novel. Its actuality lies in the quality of its backgrounds. Settembrini, the rhetorical rationalist and humanist, remains the protagonist of the protest against the moral perils of the Liegckur and the entire unwholesome milieu. However, he is but one figure among many — a sympathetic figure indeed, with a humorous side; sometimes a mouthpiece for the author, but by no means the author himself. For the author, sickness and death, and all the macabre adventures his hero passes through, are just the pedagogic instrument used to accomplish the enormous heightening and enhancement of the simple hero to a point far beyond his original competence. And precisely as a pedagogic method, they are extensively justified; for even Hans Castorp, in the course of his experiences, overcomes his inborn attraction to death and arrives at an understanding of a humanity which does not, indeed, rationalistically ignore death, nor scorn the dark, mysterious side of life, but takes account of it, without letting it get control over his mind.

What he comes to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health; in just the same way that one must have a knowledge of sin in order to find redemption. “There are,” Hans Castorp once says, “two ways to life: one is the regular, direct and good way; the other is bad, it leads through death, and that is the way of genius.” It is this notion of disease and death as a necessary route to knowledge, health, and life that makes The Magic Mountain a novel of initiation.

That description is not original with me. I got it recently from a critic and make use of it in discussing The Magic Mountain because I have been much helped by foreign criticism and I consider it a mistake to think that the author himself is the best judge of his work. He may be that while he is still at work on it and living in it. But once done, it tends to be something he has got rid of, something foreign to him; others, as time goes on, will know more and better about it than he. They can often remind him of things in it he has forgotten or indeed never quite knew. One always needs to be reminded; one is by no means always in possession of one’s whole self. Our consciousness is feeble; only in moments of unusual clarity and vision do we really know about ourselves. As for me, I am glad to be instructed by critics about myself, to learn from them about my past works and go back to them in my mind. My regular formula of thanks for such refreshment of my consciousness is: “I am most grateful to you for having so kindly recalled me to myself.” I am sure I wrote that to Professor Hermann Weigand of Yale University when he sent me his book on The Magic Mountain, the most fundamental and comprehensive critical treatment the work has received.

I read a manuscript by a young scholar of Harvard University, Howard Nemcrov, called “The Quester Hero. Myth as Universal Symbol in the Works of Thomas Mann,” and it considerably refreshed my memory and my consciousness of myself. The author places The Magic Mountain and its simple hero in the line of a great tradition which is not only German but universal. He classifies it as an art that he calls “The Quester Legend,” which reaches very far back in tradition and folklore. Faust is of course the most famous German representative of the form, but behind Faust, the eternal seeker, is a group of compositions generally known as the Sangraal or Holy Grail romances. Their hero, be it Gawain or Galahad or Perceval, is the seeker, the quester, who ranges heaven and hell, makes terms with them and strikes a pact with the unknown, with sickness and evil, with death and the other world, with the supernatural, the world that in The Magic Mountain, is called “questionable.” He is forever searching for the Grail — that is to say, the Highest: knowledge, wisdom, consecration, the philosophers’ stone, the aurum potabile, the elixir of life.

The writer declares that Hans Castorp is one of these seekers. Perhaps he is right. The Quester of the Grail legend, at the beginning of his wanderings, is often called a fool, a great fool, a guileless fool. That corresponds to the naïveté and simplicity of my hero. It is as though a dim awareness of the traditional had made me insist on this quality of his. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister — is he too not a guileless fool? To a great extent he is identified with his creator; but even, so, he is always the object of his irony. Here we see Goethe’s great novel, too, falling within the Quester category. And after all, what else is the German Bildungsroman (educational novel) — a classification to which both The Magic Mountain and Wilhelm Meister belong — than the sublimation and spiritualization of the novel of adventure? The seeker of the Grail, before he arrives at the Sacred Castle, has to undergo various frightful and mysterious ordeals in a wayside chapel called the Atre Perilleux. Probably these ordeals were originally rites of initiation, conditions of the permission to approach the esoteric mystery; the idea of knowledge, wisdom, is always bound up with the “other world,” with night and death.

In The Magic Mountain there is a great deal said of an alchemistic, hermetic pedagogy, of transubstantiation. And I, myself a guileless fool, was guided by a mysterious tradition, for it is those very words that are always used in connection with the mysteries of the Grail. Not for nothing do freemasonry and its rites play a role in The Magic Mountain, for freemasonry is the direct descendant of initiatory rites. In a word, the magic mountain is a variant of the shrine of the initiatory rites, a place of adventurous investigation into the mystery of life. And my Hans Castorp, the Bildungsreisende, has a very distinguished knightly and mystical ancestry: he is the typical curious neophyte — curious in a high sense of the word — who voluntarily, all too voluntarily, embraces disease and death, because his very first contact with them gives promise of extraordinary enlightenment and adventurous advancement, bound up, of course, with correspondingly great risks.

Young Nemerov’s is a most able and charming commentary. I have used it to help me instruct you — and myself—about my novel, this late, complicated, conscious and yet unconscious link in a great tradition. Hans Castorp is a searcher after the Holy Grail. You would never have thought it. when you read his story — if I did myself, it was both more and less than thinking. Perhaps you will read the book again from this point of view. And perhaps you will find out what the Grail is: the knowledge and the wisdom, the consecration, the highest reward, for which not only the foolish hero but the book itself is seeking. You will find it in the chapter called “Snow,” where Hans Castorp, lost on the perilous heights, dreams his dream of humanity. If he does not find the Grail, yet he divines it, in his deathly dream, before he is snatched downwards from his heights into the European catastrophe. It is the idea of the human being, the conception of a future humanity that has passed through and survived the profoundost knowledge of disease and death. The Grail is a mystery, but humanity is a mystery too. For man himself is a mystery, and all humanity rests upon reverence before the mystery that is man.