My paternal grandfather and I have been arguing about Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain recently. Neither of us reads German, so it’s the 1995 John E. Woods translation for us. As you may know, the book follows a young, highborn engineer, Hans Castrop, who visits a health spa in the Swiss mountains and finds himself stuck in time. It is not a fairytale. Louis has pointed out that The Mystic Mountain would be a better translation of the German title. Set on the eve of World War I, the novel might be fruitfully compared to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which also presents one relatively small social milieu as a microcosm for pre-war Europe.
My grandfather — whom I call Louis, and never grandpa — would not take issue with anything I have said so far, and I can assure you he would approve of the Musil comparison. Our argument concerns one of Hans’s fellow patients, an Italian humanist named Settembrini. He is determined to educate Hans, and expounds passionately on the imperative of progress or the pratfalls of moral torpidity. Louis and I have both enjoyed these scenes: the two men walking through the brisk mountain air examining ideas. Our argument is over Settembrini’s infatuation with progress. Settembrini declares that Western man is progressing toward his own perfection. What he calls progress, I see as a descent into genocide. Louis is silent. Out of his silence I have coaxed his argument, established the perimeters of our disagreement. I sense that I stand alone in my analysis.
My grandfather is silent because he is dead, for quite a few years now. The forum for our dialogue is his old copy of The Magic Mountain, which is peppered with his marginalia. In his marks — notes, underlines, brackets — I seek him out, I argue with him. This book, my inheritance, is where I come to speak with Louis.
As far back as I can remember I walked with Louis up and down a long wall of books, his library. We would talk about what I was reading, and what I would read next. I had spent the last two months reading Beckett? Well, I might enjoy Pinter. A book comes off the shelf. It is mine now. Had I been able to make sense of Lucky’s speech? Would I like to see a very good critical distillation? Another books comes off the shelf — Martin Esslin’s Theater of the Absurd.
These books, like all of Louis’s books, contain his marginalia. Louis was not employed in what has been called the intellectual vocation; he ran his own business, and accepted that his primary duty was to support his family. But his duty to himself was to understand, as best he could, what it means to be a human in the world. He read widely and studiously. Near the beginning of his dying, he turned to my father and with eyes alive as I have loved them said, “You know, I much prefer ontology to oncology.”
We wrote letters to each other. One of the letters I wrote to him has recently made its way back to me: a beloved aunt found it in a drawer of the writing desk she inherited. I was sixteen, and had written from summer camp to request help with a problem. As if out of a Rilke epistolary, I asked Louis for guidance. I am having trouble, I wrote, identifying the margin for free will in the structuralist approach to literature. Where is the possibility for the individual creative mind in a system that understands everything in terms of universal themes? Does free will exist in how we ‘color in,’ so to speak, those universals?
I remember writing this letter, asking these questions. I remember that there was no anxiety in it; I had no doubt that he would write back, that he would guide me. His response took no more than a week to reach me. I must have the letter tucked away somewhere, but I can’t find it. Perhaps my heirs will unlock it in some desk drawer. What I recall is a brief, sincere note that said my questions were important, that he did not have answers but he had some books that might help me. I would return from camp to find a small pile of books waiting, and to tide me over he included several pages from his copy of the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. He had, in fact, torn out the entry on free will and mailed it to me. Louis was not a man without access to a photocopier. He could have taken an extra day and sent me photocopies rather than tearing apart his book. But he did not. Nothing I own, he told me again and again each time he departed his library to me, nothing I own is as precious as your mind.
Any book he has read contains Louis’s notes and markings, and so I began to learn the language of these signs from a young age. He wrote almost without exception in a soft pencil. His handwriting is to me like a human voice. I recognize it in all its varieties: here he was rushed, here adamant, here his hand shook. The letters tend to be capitals. His Es and Ys are especially distinct — often the line segments will not touch. An E, then, may be four floating lines. For a while, I attempted to imitate this writing style. His writing is deliberate but there is a sense of movement, of animation. His notes are succinct, making connections to other works or schools of thought. He also employs a system of brackets and underlines, used to highlight notable ideas and word choices.
I could provide a sample page, but I will not. I am too jealous, too insecure. If another reader were to see Louis’s page and understand a reference I had failed to grasp, or sense better than I the point he wished to emphasize in his underlining, that reader would have found my grandfather. This is our last vestige of intimacy. I would not allow you to read his book any more than I would let you smell a sweater that still had his scent, if such a sweater still existed.
There is a scene we both love, near the beginning of the book. Hans is on a train towards the sanitarium; he does not yet know how this short visit to his cousin will stretch out over years. In describing the movement of the train, Mann notes that “Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness.” Louis has left a note in the margin:
SPACE LIKE TIME ENGENDERS FORGETFULLNESS
I don’t bother to check the original 1927 English edition for the alternate translation — I like taking Louis’s word for it. It is recognition that wounds me. Forgetfulness, misspelled with two Ls: neither of us is much for spelling. I recognize, too, that this is part of Louis’s prevailing interest in the passage of time and the state of forgetting, present in so much of his noting.
I am uniquely qualified to read Louis, and can tell you that this note on “forgetfullness” corresponds to a note he left in an essay by Joseph Brodsky from the On Grief and Reason collection. Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for his poetry, but it is as an essayist that he exceeds himself. (This is an assessment I have repeated several times, each time weighing the words as if I were choosing them afresh when in fact I am repeating something Louis once said to me.) In the essay in question, Brodsky writes on travel in Europe, describing how all European cities become indistinguishable composites of one another. It is here Louis writes:
TRAVEL ENGENDERS FORGETFULLNESS
When I first saw it, the correlation to his note in Magic Mountain hit me immediately. Truly hit me. A blow from the page, a sweet sharp pain. And forgetfulness misspelled, once again, with two Ls. Had I ever felt so alone before? I must have but I can’t remember when. How long I have labored to make this moment meaningful to a reader, establishing the tenderness of my relationship with Louis and my grief at his passing, my love for him bound in the books we shared. Building and building so that, perhaps, when I told this moment I would be less alone in the retelling. It did not work. It is today just as it was on that day: a state of without.
In some ways, Magic Mountain is a particularly well-suited venue for a conversation with a dead man. It’s an enormous, grand book, one of those Teutonic total works that is a kind of living organism with a mind and a heart, a warm-blooded creature, which is fitting because sickly characters in the Magic Mountain sanitarium obsessively take their temperatures, noting fluctuations and discussing them endlessly. The writing style of the book is not immune: some passages are flushed, fitful prose, such as when Hans rhapsodizes over a love object; others are cool and withdrawn, when Hans contemplates a mountainscape.
The more fevered passages tend to be among the most entertaining. In one scene, Hans views a painting by his doctor — an amateur artist. It is a portrait of Hans’s sanatorium crush. The painting is mediocre save for the skin, which has been painted masterfully. Hans becomes so lovedrunk at the sight of the woman’s well-rendered skin that he babbles for pages on topics ranging from oxygen bonds to philology. To the quiet alarm of his comrades, he takes the painting off the wall and then drags it behind him to the tea table, where he props it up on his knee as you would a child. All the while he is talking in disjointed, flushed exclamations, half to himself and half to the good doctor.
I have giggled while reading these pages, more than once — there is more than a bit of slapstick here. One gets the sense of a text overflowing, like Ovid at his most ebullient; and though I may well be mistaken, I get the sense of the author having a bit of fun. The state of sickness then, in this case of fever, is a state in which we may locate pleasure, in this case Mann’s own pleasure in writing. This is in keeping with certain erotic qualities attributed to the sickly body in Magic Mountain; Hans find that illness enhances the appeal of his love object. Sickness is an expression of corporeality, of life and death (which our bodies host simultaneously). The Italian humanist would protest this idea adamantly. “Plotinus is recorded to have said that he was ashamed to have a body,” he reminds Hans at one point. I note that Louis has left this unmarked. Perhaps he was familiar with the Neo-Platonist enough to know this was in fact an utterance of his; perhaps he was not moved to confirm.
That the book might be a body as fevered as its characters — a new body for Louis to inhabit — was precisely the sort of insight I would love to run by Louis. Sometimes when I was younger, I became so excited to share an idea that I felt an itching under my tongue until it was my turn to speak. After my fever-thought about the book as body, that itch stayed in my mouth for weeks until one night, in a bar, I unloaded the concept on a nice grad-student couple as one would confess an infidelity to a stranger: darkly, drunkenly, and with relief.
Reading with Louis, when he was alive, had its restrictions. It often meant adhering to certain limitations, meant operating within a set of boundaries that I felt out as I went. The line could be tricky. Sartre yes, Ginet no. Ulysses yes, Finnegan’s Wake no. Upon hearing I might attempt Finnegan’s Wake, Louis told me this story to illustrate its incomprehensibility. In his latter years, Joyce was ailing and required assistance in reading and writing. Sometimes, he was aided by a young Samuel Beckett. The story is that one day, Beckett and Joyce were plugging along when their session was interrupted by a knock at the door. The visitor entered, some small matter was dealt with, and the visitor left. In order to resume, Joyce had Beckett read back to him the page thus far. You can picture him if you’d like, nodding slightly in those tinted glasses, ear cocked to hear better. Something is not right. There are words that Joyce insists he did not say, but Beckett assures him he did. The words are “Come in.” The matter is cleared up with the realization that Beckett had transcribed Joyce’s reply to the knock at the door: “Come in!” The words are to be scratched, but Joyce pauses. “No, on second thought, let’s leave it in.”
There are many joys that come with the ambiguity that I eventually embraced, rejecting, for example, the taxonomic pathology that desiccated Esslin’s work in my eyes. Many joys that come from the challenges that invigorate my own creative powers. But I do not think any associated joy will ever feel as whole or full as the warmth of Louis’s approval. What I have not been able to fully grasp, ever, was exactly how Louis read. I remember again and again the same incidents, the same stories, looking for hints. Louis once told me about the phrase “It’s all Greek to me,” originally found in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as “But for my part, it was Greek to me,” uttered by Servilius Casca. You must trust me when I tell you that I can see Louis now, grinning slightly with such animated eyes, wearing the thin-worn short-sleeved oxford shirts he favored. He told me that we know from Plutarch that Casca was the first to stab Caesar. That Plutarch records he shouted, “Brothers, help!” And that he shouted this in Greek. So, the man to whom it was all Greek may have in fact spoken Greek.
There are four options that I can think of: Shakespeare had not read Plutarch, or had but forgot this detail; Shakespeare was not concerned with accuracy; Shakespeare used this detail for literary effect, perhaps a private joke to be shared by well-read audience members; we have misunderstood the expression to be an expression of misunderstanding. I have tried again and again and again, but I can’t remember which one Louis believed. I do not care if Casca spoke Greek, nor do I care if Shakespeare knew about Casca’s possible Greek abilities. What I care about is Louis’s reading. I want to find him there, waiting for me, behind the text. This is my necromantic hermeneutic. It brings me again and again to a place that I cannot traverse, the pit of his death. I enter what you might call an “analytic pit,” which are the words Mann uses to describe the image of an X-ray Hans receives at the sanatorium. In the adjacent margin, Louis writes, “MOMENTO MORI,” spelled exactly like that, exactly the way I have misspelled it so many times.
Sometimes I wonder how he would interpret my experience of his death, were he to encounter it in a novel: a grieving woman reading her beloved mentor’s most beloved book, her analysis deviating from his, for she’s reading not to uncover the book’s meaning, but to uncover his trace. In his foreword, Mann explains that because Magic Mountain was published after what he calls the Great War, but took place before it, the book must be written in verbs of the “deepest” past in order to refer to the once-upon-a-time before the “rift” of that war cut through everything. I wonder if Louis would approve of the literary significance of that woman having a tense problem of her own, often slipping into the present when she talks about the dead. Would that concept earn a bracket, or maybe even an underline, from Louis?
I never did read Finnegan’s Wake, but I do think of that phrase sometimes, “Come in.” Words uttered to disappear, but suspended, forever, on the page. Without realizing it, the reader is catching a glimpse of a world outside of the book — an old man and his promising young scribe — allowing us to enter into that rift where time and tense blur, so that suddenly, and all at once, you are there, propped up in bed, with your glasses on your nose, holding this book, using a pencil to mark in something I cannot see; in that same bed where you are lying now, dying, and I am walked in by my grandmother who instructs me to say goodbye.
It is the last time I will see you. You will die in this room. And I am quietly telling you that I love you and that you have given me a good life and I am happy, but in my head I am pleading what I do not say aloud, what I am whispering now, here alone with your book, with our book, pressing my nose into the spine. It is this. It is, “Please, please, please don’t leave me.” There is no answer. Only unmoving words on the page that pull me in, every time, to look again. “Come in,” they say.
Rebecca Sacks is currently writing from Israel, where she studies religion and literature at the graduate level.