Except for that special, intense longing a child of the tropics experiences whenever he is exiled to a colder climate

September 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

I have reread the Mynheer chapters of The Magic Mountain three times in the last week and have concluded that I can’t make the prequel work:  I detect nothing remotely Indo about the man.

The Indonesian Dutch, known as Indos, were a creole population, descendants of (mostly) Dutch men and generations of local women.  At home they spoke Indonesian more often than they spoke Dutch (some spoke a version of Portuguese-derived patua) — indeed, Indonesian was their official language and they are responsible for having spread it across the archipelago.

Whether they married upper-class Javanese women, or washerwomen (probably both, though I can’t say which was more common), they would have been familiar, both through marriage and through their mothers, of things Javanese:  the concept of refinement, the ideal of emotional reserve, the cult of the high brow.  I see nothing of this in Mynheer Pepperkorn.

True, I see nothing of this in Max Havelaar; or in Country of Origin; but that’s why those novels have failed to interest me (except for that special, intense longing a child of the tropics experiences whenever he is exiled to a colder climate, and which was so well described in Country of Origin).

What I wanted to write about were some of the intense experiences of discovery which entering Indonesia more deeply affords:  the gamelan, and the puppet theater, and the royal ballet, and the more general sense of rubbing one’s shoulders at all times of day and night against powerful magical forces, living in the midst of an invisible kingdom of spirits.  But to ascribe such experiences to Pepperkorn who then goes on to be an ordinary fool, the way he appears in The Magic Mountain, promoting a kind of Hemingweyan romanticism (“you must make love to a woman as hard as you can, with all your heart and all your strength”, etc.), would be to deprecate these experiences; to say that they are not life-changing.

Yes, I suppose one can experience the Javanese royal ballet and go on being a fool.  No doubt, many people do, perhaps even most, but how does one become interested in such people?


How from such a stupid man such a marvelous work of art could spring

September 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

Your comments on Thomas Mann struck a chord — like you, I have always thought the man divine, largely like you — on the strength of The Magic Mountain, but also of Dr Faustus (the third chapter!  the third chapter!).  But then, also like you, when I came to read his diaries, I suffered a shock:  they were empty and stupid.  This has not stopped me from re-reading The Magic Mountain (as I constantly do), but it has made me wonder how from such a stupid man such a marvelous work of art could spring.

Do you suppose one could argue that it isn’t really a great work and only seems to us that way because of the cunning way in which the author has jumbled up certain topoi and themes?  Is it possible, do you reckon, that The Magic Mountain is, to use a metaphor, no more than a spread of tarot cards:  the motifs of the cards (the hanging man, death, sun, glass mountain, bottomless pit) juxtaposed will strike anyone looking at the spread as full of all sorts of hidden meanings while the person who lays them out can be any common fool?

And while I am at it, many thanks for your wonderful Castorp.  I read him with such intense, such unalloyed delight, that, having finished, I just flipped right back to the beginning and began all over again.  Somehow, I believe it will read even better on the Sopot quay:  I will make that my project next spring.

I myself am contemplating another Magic Mountain prequel, one taking as its hero Mynherr Pepperkorn, to be set in Indonesia and narrated by — who else? — Old Marlowe.  A cameo appearance by young Joseph Conrad would be de rigeur.

Indonesia is full of tarot topoi:  smoking volcanos and shady groves of ancient trees, shadow puppet theater (we are to gods like the puppets’ shadows are to them), the royal ballet (in which the only unmasked dancer, Rama, strives to achieve the wooden expression of a mask), spices and opium, Bugis pirates and Chinese triads, ancient stone temples in the jungle, sharks, and snow-white Indian bullocks.  Juxtaposed in any old way, they should make a great novel?

The problem, is, of course, that by the time he appears in Davos, Old Pepperkorn is a fool, not unlike perhaps Thomas Mann of the diaries himself; so it is hard to imagine him a hero of a thinking book; but he could be:  perhaps in his youth he was uncommonly intelligent, driven, and blessed by an acquiring mind; and only in time, drink, malaria, disappointment in love, and perhaps a stroke made him into a mere shadow of himself?

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