Notebook: Magic Mountain
Earlier this month I was taken on a trip to Davos in Switzerland. Davos may be home to The World Economic Forum, but that fact did not blind me to its considerable beauty. We stayed in a wonderfully atmospheric hotel – the Berghotel Schatzalp – a Jugendstil gem that supposedly inspired Thomas Mann to write his modernist classic, The Magic Mountain (1924). In fact, the opening pages of the novel still accurately describe the journey we took by train, climbing up into the Davos plateau through the pretty ski resort of Klosters:
“It was about eight o’clock and still daylight. A lake was visible in the distant landscape, its waters grey, its shores covered with black fir-forests that climbed the surrounding heights, thinned out, and gave place to bare, mist-wreathed rock. They stopped at a small station. Hans Castorp heard the name called out: ‘Davos-Dorf’. Soon he would be at his journey’s end.”1
Accessible only by a private funicular railway, the Schatzalp opened in 1900 as a tuberculosis sanatorium (and this is the form it appears in Mann’s novel), but in the years after the Great War it was converted into a luxury mountain ski resort. It was one of the first buildings to be made from concrete, and the deep wooden balconies still exist today, along with such genteel traditions as “Apreo hour”, when you can enjoy a drink on the terrace, breathing the clean air and enjoying surely one of the best views in Europe.
In the novel, which Mann sets in 1907, Hans Castorp, a young engineer, travels to the International Sanatorium Berghof to visit his sick cousin, Joachim Ziemssen – a trip that is only supposed to take three weeks, However, Castorp soon begins to feel unwell, is diagnosed as tubercular, and joins the other consumptives, lying on their lounge chairs, staring into the bewitching depths of the valley. He stays there for seven years. The novel is a reflection on illness and death, but also a satire on those who choose to remove themselves from reality – the characters, secluded on their magic mountain, are unaware that war is about to destroy their world forever.
“Hans Castorp went into his cousin’s room. The corridor floor , with its strip of narrow coco matting, billowed beneath his feet, but this, apart from its singularity, was not unpleasant. He sat down in Joachim’s great flowered arm-chair – there was one just like it in his own room – and lighted his Maria Mancini. It tasted like glue, like coal, like anything but what it should taste like. Still he smoked on, as he watched Joachim making ready for his cure, putting on his house jacket, then an old overcoat, then, armed with his night-lamp and Russian primer, going into the balcony.”
Just like Castorp and Mann himself (who is said to have been inspired to write his ‘epic of disease’ after he fell ill while visiting his wife at the Schatzalp), I turned up in Davos fighting fit, then went rapidly downhill – though only with a cold. Thankfully a German waiter from the Piano and X-ray bars (the latter used to be the x-ray department of the sanatorium) came to the rescue with a Jagertee. This mixture of black tea and overproof Austrian rum didn’t exactly cure my sore throat, but it made me merry enough not to care (it was perfectly acceptable to drink Jagertee for fun, too, explained the waiter shrugging). And what with the bracing mountain air and the presence of gloopy fondues and röstis as big as a wheel, I suppose there are worse places to be ill than halfway up a mountain in Switzerland.