Time’s Changing Tempo

A great European novel says much about its age of crisis – and ours. 

Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain, 1930 © Ullstein Bild/Getty Images.

There has probably never been a better time to read long novels, or even a cycle of them, than the last 12 months – at least if you’re working from home, with a bit of space and free of such challenges as home schooling. 

Perceptions of time have changed a great deal over the year and many of the novels I’ve read recently, more than for many years, have been concerned with its passing. For example, Anthony Powell’s cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time. It takes its title from Poussin’s painting of the same name, which suggests to the narrator an inability, common to all of us, to control the melody of life as it unfolds (and it includes a pen portrait of my predecessor at History Today, Peter Quennell). 

But the novel that sheds most light on our times – indeed, on time itself – is one I returned to this year after at least a decade: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a work born of a particular moment in history, one, like today, of crisis and doubt. The novel was published in 1924, between two European catastrophes and in the wake of a pandemic. By then, the very notion of a fixed time had changed with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity of 1905 adding hard science to the meditations of philosophers such as Bergson, Nietzsche and Heidegger.

It tells the story of Hans Castorp, a marine engineer with a private income, who visits a tubercular cousin receiving treatment at the International Sanatorium Berghof above the Swiss resort of Davos. ‘Can one tell’, asks Castorp, ‘ that is to say, narrate – time, time itself, as such, for its own sake?’ He intends to stay three weeks – but remains there for seven years. His circumstances change time’s tempo. Why bother with the office, he thinks, when one can walk the mountains in the company of cosmopolitans, pursue love affairs and indulge one’s interests in the arts and the occult and the natural world? The clinicians at the sanatorium are only too happy to give him a medical reason for his retreat from the world – and to part him from his money. But reality cannot be put off forever. Which prompts the question of how we will deal with life’s return when this is all over?