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review 2017-01-09 21:36
Books of 1916: Part Three
Light and Darkness - Soseki Natsume
Kusamakura and Kokoro by Soseki NATSUME (Japanese Edition) - kisaragishogo
Grass on the Wayside (Michikusa) - Soseki Natsume,Translated and with an Introduction by Edwin McClellan
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann,John E. Woods
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - Seamus Deane,James Joyce
Stephen Hero - James Joyce
Ulysses - James Joyce
Exiles - James Joyce

Books of 1916: Part Three: Natsume Soseki and James Joyce


Light and Darkness by Natsume Soseki


This unfinished novel, which was serialized in a newspaper, was Natsume Soseki’s last work, as he died of an ulcer in 1916. As the story begins, the main character Tsuda is going to have an operation on his intestines that sounds incredibly unsound and unclean. Think of the horrible and bizarre medical care we get today and then imagine it 100 times worse! So I was really worried about what was going to happen to Tsuda and felt that he was putting his head in the sand by worrying about his money troubles and his relationship with his wife, etc. But it turned out that the book really was about those things. Tsuda’s illness and operation ended up seeming more metaphorical than an important plot point.


I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to get from one end of this book to the other. I adored Natsume Soseki’s other books Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside. They were so lovely and brilliant. But he didn’t get a chance to edit this book and get it into shape, plus it sounds like he was sick and worried the whole time he was writing it. The afterword said that some critics consider this novel a “postmodern masterpiece” precisely because it is unfinished. But it wasn’t the lack of ending that did me in, it was the whole middle of the book, which dragged and was hard for me to focus on. I liked hearing from the point of view of Tsuda’s wife, O-Nobu, except that it went on and on without resolution. I also liked seeing all the period details of Japanese life, especially now that I’ve actually been to Japan.


Tsuda was a little bit like the main character in Grass on the Wayside in that he didn’t have very good social skills and tended to say things that made people feel bad without meaning to. The story really picked up at the end, when we finally learn Tsuda’s secret, that he has never gotten over the woman he used to love, and he goes to see her in a sanatorium, sort of like the one in The Magic Mountain except Japanese of course. His pretext is that he’s recovering from the surgery and he wants to take the waters, but naturally I was wondering if his pretext would turn out to be the truth and he would never leave. This was the section that I enjoyed the most but of course it came to an abrupt end.


Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce


When I think of James Joyce, I always think of three people in my life who felt very strongly about him. First was my mother, who was a big James Joyce fan and talked to me a lot about him. Second, a boyfriend I had who was also a big Joyce fan, and we used to read bits of Stephen Hero and Ulysses out loud to each other. Third, my wife Aine, who had been forced to read some Joyce in secondary school in County Clare and absolutely hated him, and all other Irish writers she read in school (except Oscar Wilde.) She said they were all pretentious wankers. Early on, I had to work hard to convince her that James Joyce was not a Protestant, as she had lumped him together in her mind with Synge, Yeats, Shaw etc. In fact, just now when I read her this paragraph to see if she endorsed my characterization of her views, I had to persuade her once again that Joyce was not Anglo-Irish.


I read Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man in 2002, sure that I was going to love it as much as I loved everything else I’d read by Joyce. And indeed I was hooked by the opening page (“When you wet the bed, first it is warm and then it gets cold.”) I loved reading about the childhood of this sensitive boy Stephen Dedalus, and how his family argued at the dinner table about Parnell, and all about the scary priests who ran everything. But then I got to the part where Stephen starts going to prostitutes at around the age of fifteen, and I was completely bewildered and grossed out. Then he catches religion and becomes devout. Then he starts rabbiting on about art and aestheticism.


I had utterly lost sympathy with the protagonist and the author. Not only that, this Stephen Dedalus character began to remind me incredibly strongly of the Joyce-worshipping boyfriend, whom I had just broken up with weeks earlier. They were both totally pretentious and couldn’t keep it in their pants! (This is the same boyfriend who would get me so angry, the one I mentioned earlier in my review of These Twain. He’s certainly getting a harsh edit in these book reviews. Who knew he was so inextricably linked to 1916? He did have many good qualities, which were not at the forefront of my mind when read Portrait of the Artist.)


I ended up despising this novel. I bet if I re-read it now having had more life experience, I would have a more gentle and forgiving eye, but I probably never will. (Also, what kind of person likes Stephen Hero but not this one, when Stephen Hero is just an earlier draft of the same book? I think it’s pretty clear that the problem was mainly me, or mainly the ex-boyfriend.) I do get another chance to give James Joyce a fair shake in 1918 with his play Exiles.


I inherited my mom’s copy of this novel. It’s all marked up with notes, including D.H. Lawrence’s assessment of Joyce—“too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life”—to which I say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Much more magically, this copy contains photographs of me and my mom and Aine. Look at how happy we all were back then! These were from my birthday, in 2010 or even earlier.



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review 2016-01-22 00:00
The Magic Mountain
The Magic Mountain - H.T. Lowe-Porter,Thomas Mann A Bildungsroman, or novel of initiation, as noted by Thomas Mann himself, concisely written and challenging. Mann spends the first book setting the backdrop and then focuses gradually more and more on his characters; on the way that each of them thinks and acts, thus creating fleshed out personalities.

Our main protagonist is Hans Castorp, whose psychological and intellectual growth we follow during his 7 year stay in the sanatorium. His representation of the mediocre German bourgeois is confronted with a plethora of conflicting ideologies, Settembrini’s humanism and positive outlook on life, Naphta’s radicalism, Claudia Chauchat’s erotic temptation, Peeperkorn’s Dionysian principle, and, lastly, the ideal of duty and loyalty, which is reflected by his cousin Joachim.

With frequent use of the leitmotiv and exceptional passages on ideological (metaphysical, political, philosophical, pedagogical and religious) reflections, Mann manages to create a feverish atmosphere, intensified by the vivid descriptions of the landscape surrounding the sanatorium.

A purely modernist novel, with futuristic residues, in the sense that the scientific discoveries of the time are exalted (e.g. the X-ray machine).

Goethe had described Faust as a very serious jest and this expression fits perfectly both the writing style of Thomas Mann and the structure of the Magic Mountain.
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review 2015-09-10 15:58
Mann's Magic Mountain
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann,John E. Woods

The book is very long and at times a bit of a slog.  It needs to be because that is part of the point.  The main character a completely ordinary man comes up to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps for a three week visit and ends up staying for seven years.

The book is an allegory of a diseased Europe immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I.  The characters come from the major countries of Europe and represent the major philosophical trends and political trends of the time.  The book also explores the nature of time.  It does this very well, in my opinion and this was my favorite part of the book.  In a way not much happens in the book, although it is not slow, but time and events become more muddled.

The author apparently said that it wasn't possible to understand the book, unless you read it twice, something that I am unlikely to do.

Its a well written thoughtful complex book, but it does not grab me in the way, say Dostoevsky does who is perhaps the best comparison.  In the end I found it admirable, but lacking that certain indefinable magic that the best books have.

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review 2015-04-08 00:00
The Magic Mountain
The Magic Mountain - H.T. Lowe-Porter,Thomas Mann Introduction
Translator's Note

--The Magic Mountain

The Making of 'The Magic Mountain'
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text 2015-01-02 16:53
A Year in Davos
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann,John E. Woods

I finally finished the Magic Mountain on 29th December 2014, having started it some time in January of that year, expecting it to take a month or two at most. In fact, towards the last few chapters I looked again at the piece of card I was using as a bookmark, that had become such a constant fixture of my life through the course of the year, but which I had stopped seeing. It was a Happy New Year postcard from the bank with which I had a three-year loan, taken out to buy a new roof for my house and which was causing a certain amount of financial strain. During the course of 2014 I re-mortgaged for a better rate and in doing so wrapped the remains of the roof loan in, effectively wiping out the extra monthly cost, which had another two years to run, but tying the debt to myself for a full 35 years.


What this has to do with Hans Castorp's stay at the Berghof is maybe overly stretched. Hans Castorp, who meant to stay for three conflicted, difficult weeks but stays instead for seven effortless years. Hans Castorp who is always in service to someone, or some cause, other than himself despite the certain selfishness of his position.


I think it is good, possibly it could have only happened this way, that I read The Magic Mountain in my thirties. I spent the majority of my twenties making boring but essential decisions; chasing promotions (and an exit) at minimum wage jobs, studying for professional qualifications to secure the job I escaped to, scaling back writing to have time to sleep to keep those jobs I had. All the kind of boring stuff that Hans Castorp eschews throughout his twenties in the service of the cure. I think that, even had I had the time to read a book such as this in those years I would have hated its subject rather than just looked upon him and his youth (which is hardly yet very distant from my own age now) fondly or understood him in his role as part of Mann's satire.


I do think it must be nice to be able to decide to dedicate yourself to your passions, even, especially, as you can ascribe that decision to forces beyond your control.


I read The Magic Mountain, as I do most of the classics that I read, because it was referenced in something else that I loved and enjoyed. In this case, the referencing work was Michael Crumey's Möbius Dick, a wonderful, strange science fiction novel that is one of my favourite books I've ever read. Möbius Dick also went some way toward convincing me to finally read Moby Dick, which I had had on my reading list for a while as it was. Reading Moby Dick was important for me, reconciling and centring my love and fascination with a sea that I know will eventually kill me. I have since, after many years, even been able to swim in the sea. I am at peace with it and it is at peace with me and the two of us regard each other in the sure knowledge that our time to be together forever is not yet due.


The sea is the opposite of a magical space. It does not release you, changed, once it has its hold of you. Reading The Magic Mountain I have finally understood and processed a number of ideas that I have been working with for a number of years; about asylums, sanitaria and hotels as magical spaces, but also about youth, and games and art as magical spaces. It was also in 2014 that the blogger who had really delineated the concept of magical spaces in occult and literary theory and history revealed himself to be, via the profoundly prosaic space of Tumblr, rather a nasty piece of work. (In an interesting side note, the best ever rejection letter I got was from the short lived, and at the time recently defunct, horror magazine Nasty Piece of Work.) Tumblr is a place that brings out the truth of people, profoundly unable to change them and uninterested in confinement and gestation of ideas where there can instead be a spread of degrading information spurred on by showboating and playing to the crowd.


I didn't only read The Magic Mountain this year. I paused occasionally, rereading amongst other things Murakami's Dance Dance Dance, a novel about the hotel as a magical space. I also read some trashy sci-fi and a bit of Goffman and Foucault talking about institutions. Because I wasn't thinking about institutions enough. I also recorded a podcast about asylums and wrote a few articles about asylums and edited an ezine about religion in games where I pushed an agenda (or 'wrote an editorial linking all the pieces together as if they had been planned that way', if you want to know the trade secret/official line of these things) of games as magical spaces. The Magic Mountain has been a huge part of me this year. It is not maybe for me, as the cover quote proclaims, 'a new way of seeing', but it has certainly, as with the best of magical spaces, provided a space within which sight and thought have been able to alchemically transform and to emerge stronger, richer and of greater value.

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