December reading: Mann, Arendt, Bataille, Chandler, and Ken Worpole and Jason Orton

You know those people who reread Ulysses every year? I hate those people. Those with long memories may remember that the book I was reading as 2013 began was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

Well, I can now reveal that the book I’m reading as the new year turns is… again, The Magic Mountain. Or, rather, still The Magic Mountain.

This wasn’t a reread, oh no. This was the same, first read. I just hadn’t finished it yet. Other books had been read in the meantime, of course, and for most of the year I wasn’t reading it at all. But I picked it back up, in November, turned back 50 or so pages, and pressed on.

It’s a slow, hard read, this book, a slow, hard climb. But the views, when you pause and turn and take stock, are jaw-dropping, the flora underfoot often charming, and the intellectual air bracing to say the least.

Set in the years before the First World War, Mann’s novel opens with young, healthy (in body and mind) engineer Hans Castorp visiting his soldier cousin Joachim in a Swiss sanatorium, where the latter is being treated for tuberculosis. The three week visit turns into a temporary and then indefinite stay when he develops first a temperature, and then is found to have “a moist spot” in his chest.

The narration of these three weeks, I feel it must be said – and the author feels it needs pointing out too – takes up over 200 pages, during which there is a lot of talk, a lot of ideas tossed artfully around, much of which is intriguing enough when it occurs, but little of which I could safely summarise for you now. Does this matter? I’m not sure that it does. There has been no point in this book at which I have not wanted to read on; as Mann puts it in his foreword, “only thoroughness can be truly entertaining.”

Foremost among the brilliancies of the book is that Mann is especially alert to the fact and activity of reading; he is constantly concerned with how the novel will appear from the far side of the textual abyss. In the foreword he warns that the story is going to take more than a moment or two to tell. “The seven days in one week will not suffice, nor will seven months […] For God’s sake, surely it cannot be as long as seven years!”

After those three weeks, easily demarcated in the text, time starts to act weirdly, and how long the events of the rest of the narrative are supposed take is never quite clear. Which in fact makes it perfect for this kind of uncertain and extended reading that I have been giving it: reading, in fact, that becomes as cyclical and seasonal as Hans Castorp’s stay in the sanatorium. Up there in the Swiss Alps, in that strange pre-war time (when Weimar Berlin, for instance, was being highly temporally specific) time expands and contracts; it exists in a very different to way to the time in Proust. There, the past is something gone, that must be sought out to be retrieved. Here, the past is never truly past, it floods up and engulfs the present. Time (and illness) is something to be escaped, not found again.

At two points in the narrative Mann specifically treats time as a theme: in a four-page ‘Excursus on the Sense of Time’, and later, in the section ‘A Stroll by the Shore’, that opens the last, and longest, chapter, Chapter Seven. (A note in passing: the architecture of the novel is the reverse of that Eleanor Catton used in The Luminaries – there, twelve subdivided ‘parts’ of shortening length; here, seven subdivided chapters, each longer than the last; and that lengthening very much adds to the sense of time slowing down.)

In the second, Mann, or his narrator, quotes some remarks of Joachim’s about a story’s ability to fill up time nice and properly, and then points out that, while the reader probably wouldn’t be able to remember when it was that he said them, well, neither would Hans be able to.

Or rather, when Hans Castorp sat there and chatted away with the fawning barber deflty doing his work, after time had done its, or when he stood at his balcony door and cut his nails with the shears and file he had taken from a pretty velvet etui, he was suddenly overcome with the old dizziness that was mixed with a scary sense of curious delight, an ambiguous dizziness that made him feel not only unsteady, but also beguiled by his whirling inability to differentiate between “still” and “again,” out of whose blurred jumble emerge the timeless “always” and “ever.”

Or, again:

And if we look around for Hans Castorp in this setting, we will find him in the reading room, the same room where once (though this “once” is vague, since neither narrator, reader, nor hero is quite clear anymore as to the degree of pastness involved) he had been party to important disclosures concerning the organization of human progress.

This is Mann at his drollest, shrugging his shoulders at the reader’s hesitant query as to when all this happened, though the author never quite admits that he doesn’t know – it’s just the reader, character and narrator that don’t know. And where is Castorp? In the reading room of course! And what was he party to? Important discussions.

I haven’t finished The Magic Mountain yet, which is to say I am still reading it, still knee deep in those important discussions, which is to say perhaps I shall always be reading it.

Still, and again.

All this thinking about time rather goes against, or muddies, something else I read in December, standing on a station platform, in the Portable Hannah Arendt I bought, from what felt like urgent need. I first read ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, but then started on ‘The Concept of History’, and read this, detailing ancient Greek ideas of history:

This individual life is distinguished from all other things by the rectilinear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movements of biological life. This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.

Which puts it clearly enough – not that this is Arendt’s view – but it’s clear that what Mann is about is not so much bending or altering the rectilinearity of human life, as messing with the pretty cycles of ‘nature’. The seasons at the sanatorium come, go, come again, weren’t actually there and, while Castorp is definitely getting ‘older’, and closer to death, the world is not really revolving around him. The novel is a negation of the old cliché about stepping into the same river twice… the river ain’t a river, it’s a swamp, and the moment you step into it, you never leave it.

Over the last few years my favourite cyclical moment in my life has been passing the estuary at Manningtree on my way to and from Norwich from London. My blissful absence from nature means that I never have any idea beforehand what the state of the tide is going to be, and I always look forward to it greatly, that 60 seconds or so that the water and mudflats, in whatever configuration, slide through and past my vision, giving up their flat slices of light. The luxuriousness of the mud; the wading birds stuck into the expanse of it like pins in a pinboard; the ineffable beauty of the lines taken by the miniature streams that curl and wend their way through the flats, all the more beautiful for being, half the time, hidden under water.

The landscape, too, some of it, is beautiful on that journey, though largely for its unknowness. What lifts my heart about it is the idea that so much of it is entirely remote fromhuman interaction… not that it is undiscovered, a ‘wild place’ that exists beyond the reach of human interference, but that it has been part of the human world, and forgotten.

A fantasy of mine, sitting on the train, is that someone (not me) should tell the full history of a single square metre of marginal Essex grassland.

The joke, of course, being that there are probably dozens of people doing just that. The Essex countryside that I grew up despising and despairing of is now among the most desirable addresses, in literary terms, in these beautiful islands. East Anglia, over the last decade or so, has been having its own Cumbrian moment. (I touched on this in a recent post, I’ve been thinking recently about a pond.)

So it was with utter delight that I read Ken Worpole’s The New English Landscape (with photos by Jason Orton), a big, square, rather beautiful book in the colours of The Wedding Present’s Bizarro album, that contains four essays discussing East Anglian and Essex landscape in British literary culture since the Second World War. (It seems to be a bit misnamed, as if he was worried that Essex or East Anglia would put people off…) The book touches on many familiar names – WG Sebald, JA Baker, Richard Mabey – and goes into some of the same discussions of the utopian communities that sprung up in the county in the 20th Century that were discussed by Jonathan Meades in The Joy of Essex, but there was plenty here that was new to me, including the ‘great tide’ of 1953 that killed over 300 people. Most importantly, this is a restrained, tonally distant work, that never strays into that modern nature writing mode which makes writing about a place seem like a latterday landgrab. (Robert Macfarlane, I’m talking about you, you who turned a night spent sleeping on Bardsey Island into a whole chapter of your book, The Wild Places.)

The coast of Essex, where I happily/unhappily spent so many weekends birdwatching, and walking sea walls, and yomping across mudflats, is something I feel ready to honour again, but woe betide me if I wrote about as if I owned it.

I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / who could appreciate Georges Bataille

So sings the singer from Of Montreal.

In fact I’d never read The Story of the Eye until recently, when I picked it up secondhand, in its lovely Penguin Modern Classics cover (photo by Marc Atkins). I was charmed to discover that its previous owner had marked it in pencil – a dirty book so much dirtier when you read it through someone else’s eyes – though this was largely limited to short, economical underlinings and marginal lines, with the odd comment in a small, scarcely legible hand, sometimes redundant (“vivid”), sometimes wrong (“necrophilia”, at the point when the narrator fucks Simone for the first time, beside the corpse of Marcelle), sometimes snooty (“rubbish”, when Bataille compares the change in Simone’s orgasms, after Marcelle’s death, to the difference between the mirth of “savage Africans” and “Occidentals”).

Best of all though was the little sketch of “the scaffold’s eye”, as described by Bataille in his post hoc ‘preface’: “solitary, solar, bristling with lashes, it gazed from the lunette of a guillotine.”


I enjoyed reading the book, especially together with Roland Barthes accompanying essay on the eye as metaphor. Yes, it’s very sexual, occasionally erotic, in its frenzy and extremity, in the way that Burroughs can be erotic, but The Story of O or de Sade, by contrast, rarely is.

I also read The Lady in the Lake, not the best Raymond Chandler but I was ill in bed, and it was about all I was able to read. You take the incident, the logic of the investigation, on faith, and just enjoy the dialogue, the description, the deceptive casualness taken with regards to emotion, that is raised absolutely to the level of camp.



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