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. Continue reading
Not really a gig review (it was a great gig), but three things that occurred to me as I sat in the Union Chapel, enjoying the songs of James Yorkston.
Note One: Union Chapel as sacred grove
A book I’ve been blown away by these last few days is The New English Landscape, by Ken Worpole (Field Station Press), a set of essays on the post-war landscape of East Anglia, showing how much culturally-embedded ideas of an ‘ideal’ England upstream from London have damaged our relationship with the much more lived- and worked-in landscape ‘downriver’: a landscape – of mudflats and sea walls – that I love. I’ll write more about it, but Worpole makes one off-hand comment that struck me as so obvious that I was shocked never to have come across it before.
Using it as a comparison to the dangerous, ‘liminal’ locus of the seashore, Worpole talks of the sacred grove, which is, he says:
a secret, enclosed space known only to the gods and their self-elected worshippers. It is a powerful spatial configuration which starts with the clearing in the forest, or the woodland glade, and over time is transmuted into the interior of the Gothic cathedral.
I’ve no idea if this insight is Worpole’s, or is common anthropological knowledge (from Frazer, perhaps?) but it struck me as wonderfully, obviously true, in the way that mythic/pscyhological correspondences often do. (eg the expulsion from the garden of Eden as a metaphor for puberty, or the 1970 doubling of Hippolyta/Theseus and Titania/Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Peter Brook.)
It struck me doubly true, sat in the beautiful Union Chapel, my first visit there, under its beautiful dome, columns as trees. Those inside the initiated, having chosen to be there, gathering.
(The person I had arranged to meet at the gig couldn’t make it, but we sat down in the pew behind a woman by wife knows through work, whom she’d been trying to arrange to meet outside work for months. I had a tweet from someone else I know afterwards saying they’d seen me from across the room. Sacred grove…)
Note two: The singer takes nothing home
Yorkston said he would play two songs from his new, very-nearly-finished-being recorded record (produced by Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip). The first, an immediate belter, began with the lines I dreamed I was a red fox/Spiraling over the rooftops