The Magic Mountain

Retirement brings many projects. Some prove futile, such as my grand ambition to grow my own vegetables. It would have been useful to start out with good soil, but my kitchen garden soil was destroyed with chemical weedkiller by the previous owner of this property. No amount of donkey manure will ever revive it; but I still water the annual little symbolic planting of tomato and pepper plants and wait to see them die in the sun before producing any crop.

Another project was to write a historical novel, a project which had been going very well until December, and then an upsetting incident with a family visitor wrecked my thought train so severely that 3-months enthusiastic work was suspended, and it remains suspended to this day, six months later. Both of these might be characterised as ‘active’ retirement projects, and both of them failures. ; but I daren’t even look at the plans for the novel, all around the walls of my study, because I am just upset by the enormous effort and the devastating loss of my thought-train.

A more ‘passive’ retirement project – and I am probably not alone in this – was to catch up with some of the great literature that I never had time for in my working life. I ordered from the English bookshop in Calpe, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) and drove over to Calpe to collect it on the last day of March.

There was a strange kind of coincidence in this (or ‘synchronicity’ as the great interpreter of symbols, Carl Jung, might describe it) because I stopped at the Russian Orthodox church in Altea Hills on the way home – with my new copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in the car – and found myself watching an infant baptism; later that same day I gave the funeral address at the cremation of a much-loved octogenarian mother and wife of local friends who had welcomed me here twelve years ago. Those two ends of life on the same day, when I began reading The Magic Mountain. I finished it yesterday, almost two months later. It has been hard work! I have forced myself to continue reading on occasions, especially during the interminable philosophical debates between the characters of Naphta and Settembrini (representatives of the two branches of post-enlightenment thought.) I hated philosophy in my first year in seminary in Rome, and now I remembered why: you are not allowed to continue a priestly vocation until you regard this kind of dullness as the foundation!

Exasperating at times, and the longest read since Middlemarch or Don Quixote, I sometimes felt I was losing the will to live during this reading. The characters themselves, in an Alpine sanatorium described over a seven year period prior to the First World War, are all in various stages of physical decay and death, and it is not exactly a happy story! But in the end, I can only say that it was a well-executed ‘retirement project’ and it would have been a missed opportunity not to have ‘soldiered on’ with reading it. (Prussian military reference to ‘duty’ there…)

I would not recommend the novel to anyone. In any case I don’t know who the readers of my blog are any longer. But if you reach your deathbed without having read The Magic Mountain, you may well have missed the entire point of life, western culture, the main currents of thought in the age you have lived in, and the reason why you shouldn’t have bothered finding out about it.

As King Lear put it, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” If I erred in that quote, sorry. I did not feel the need to look it up: it is engraved in my heart.