Saturday, February 27, 2010

Swiss irony and New York satire (Books - The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann & Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem)

I'm currently reading two books critically observant of the times in which they were written, one ironic and one outright satiric. In Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp arrives at a sanatorium near Davos, Switzerland (interestingly now the home of the World Economic Forum) ostensibly to visit his cousin, there for a TB cure. Castorp is a slave to habit and creature comforts that insulate him with a false sense of the predictability of life and that, in fact, make him critical of anything or anyone who would dare to upset his sense of propriety and that blind him utterly to his own mediocrity:
As is apparent, we are attempted to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp's favor, and we offer our judgments without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was. Hans Castorp was neither a genius nor an idiot, and if we refrain from applying the word "mediocre" to him, we do so for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with his intelligence and little or nothing to do with his prosaic personality, but rather out of deference to his fate, to which we are inclined to attribute a more general significance...

A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or subconscioiusly, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries; and although he may regard the general and impersonal foundations of his existence as unequivocal givens and take them for granted, having as little intention of ever subjecting them to critique as our good Hans Castorp himself had, it is nevertheless quite possible that he senses his own moral well-being to be somehow impaired by the lack of critique. All sorts of personal goals, purposes, hopes, prospects may float before the eyes of a given individual, from which he may then glean the impulse for exerting himself for great deeds; if the impersonal world around him, however, if the times themselves, despite all their hustle and bustle, provide him with neither hopes nor prospects, if they secretly supply him with evidence that things are in fact hopeless, without prospect or remedy, if the times respond with hollow silence to every conscious or subconscious question, however it may be posed, about the ultimate, unequivocal meaning of all exertions and deeds that are more than exclusively personal - then it is almost inevitable, particularly if the person involved is a more honest sort, that the situation will have a crippling effect, which, following moral and spiritual paths, may ever spread to that individual's physical and organic life. For a person to be disposed to more significant deeds that go beyond what is simply required of him - even when his own times may provide no satisfactory answer to the questions of why - he needs either a rare, heroic personality that exists in a kind of moral isolation and immediacy, or one characterized by exceptionally robust vitality. Neither the former nor the latter was the case with Hans Castorp, and so he probably was mediocre after all, though in a very honorable sense of that word.
Ouch. Such is the affectionate contempt with which Mann introduces us to his protagonist! One can see him glancing over his pince-nez with arched eyebrow. Much of the first 100 pages of The Magic Mountain is devoted to regaling us, in similarly full-throated detail, to the many residents of the sanitorium. There is a magnitude of detail that reminds me of Dickens treatment of character, although less baldly hilarioius. His tongue is planted more firmly in his cheek. Dickens makes a bold pen and ink sketch but it feels rather as if Mann has gone through his characters' dossiers.

Whereas with Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City full-out, well-crafted hilarity seems to constantly be the whole point. Lethem dishes it out equally for character, situation, or dialogue:
He was, that first time, lapsed into what I would soon learn to call one of his "ellipsistic" moods. Perkus Tooth himself later supplied that descriptive word: ellipsistic, derived from ellipsis. A species of blank interval, a nod or fugue in which he was neither depressed nor undepressed, not struggling to finish a thought nor to begin one. Merely between. Pause button pushed. I certainly stared. With Tooth's turtle posture and the utter slackness of his being, his receding hairline and antique manner of dress - trim-tapered suit, ferociously wrinkled silk with the shine worn off, moldering tennis shoes - I could have taken him for elderly. When he stirred, his hand brushing the open notebook page as if taking dictation with an invisible pen, and I read his pale, adolescent features, I guessed he was in his fifties - still a decade wrong, though Perkus Tooth had been out of the sunlight for a while. He was in his early forties, barely older than me. I'd mistaken him for old because I'd taken him for important. He now looked up and I saw one undisciplined hazel eye wander, under its calf lid, toward his nose. That eye wanted to cross, to discredit Perkus Tooth's whole sober aura with a comic jape. His other eye ignored th gambit, trained on me.

"You're the actor."
And so Chase Insteadman, retired child actor living on residuals, and our protagonist, meets Perkus Tooth in a vaguely fantasized New York City. I'm about 50 pages into Lethem's new novel, so I've made half the progress I have in the Mann (although percentage-wise I'm much further along), but I have no good feeling as yet what Lethem is up to. The characters are quirky, his social satire is viciously fun:
No male arriving in the Woodrows' circle was ever spared preemptive marking with Thatcher's scent. When spirited off to another duty, Harriet retailed a few facts about Richard, who she called her "secular date."

"You mean 'platonic,' I think"

"Platonic, secular, old friends. Anything between us is unimaginable."
It's hilarious and intelligent writing, but so far seems to just careen from beautifully described joke to beautifully described joke without indicating why I might care. I'm entertained enough, but what's it all about, Alfie? I suppose that with Mann's book I have the advantage of hindsight. World War I has become part of history, as has Mann's book, whereas I must discover Lethem's world as I go. I'm looking forward to catching the thread of this narrative and, given Lethem's other strong writing, I imagine that I will.


Isabella K said...

I'm reading The Magic Mountain for the first time and am pleasantly surprised that it really is quite funny, in that tongue-in-cheek kind of way. I had to set is aside for a while, so I'm a bit cautious when I see you posting on it -- I hope to avoid spoilers, and I really have no idea where the story is going. But it has a delightful easy-yet-provocative tone!

Ted said...

Hi Isabella
Are you reading the Woods translation? Yes, it's more entertaining than its reputation would let on. I don't know if that reputation is because it is German, or long, or if it is from people who have really read it. I remember thinking it was long the first time round, yet I enjoyed it. Obviously, since I'm back for more! So I guess we'll read it together.

Isabella K said...

Yes, I'm reading Woods. I don't how the reputation came about but I'm ready to do everything I can to change it! I left off at about page 400 over a month ago — I should be getting back into it next week...