Der Zauberberg, self-quarantine and time

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been reading Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), the (in)famous novel by German writer Thomas Mann, published in 1924. In Der Zauberberg protagonist Hans Castorp travels by train to a sanatorium in Davos in the Swiss Alps to visit his nephew Joachim Ziemßen, who is suffering from tuberculosis. During his stay of three weeks, Hans Castorp develops bronchial issues and decides to stay until he recovers. He starts a treatment which consists mostly of long sessions of resting on a comfy lounger, breathing in the pure Alpine air. In this idyllic situation, time quickly becomes a very different experience. In the end, it takes seven years and the outbreak of a major war to pull him back to the ‘real’ world.

Berhotel Schatzal, an old hotel in the snow, the place that inspired Thomas Mann to write Der Zauberberg
Berghotel Schatzal, the place that inspired Thomas Mann to write Der Zauberberg

Coincidentally, my process of reading the approximately nine hundred pages (in the Dutch translation by Hans Driessen) of this Zeitroman started during a train ride to the Alps as well. Fortunately, I did not get stuck there for seven years. Still, when I had travelled through the seven years of book-time, I had to make the less fortunate conclusion that the experience of time in this world had also changed. To break this experience of time through a major historical event is not an option in this case, because this situation is the result of such an event. It took less than two weeks of self-quarantine for the phrase ‘Thursday, what a concept!’ uttered by Nadia in the Netflix-series Russian Doll to become more relatable than ever.

Cover of Der Zauberberg in German
Cover of a German edition of Der Zauberberg

“Ideas about time were different up here […]. The smallest unit of time, so to speak, was the month, and a single month was almost no time at all” concludes Hans Castorp when he writes his family about the extension of his stay at the sanatorium. After a first wave of chaos and reorganization and a second wave of boredom, when the sea of life becomes calm, days become monotonous. Thesis writing in the morning, other tasks in the afternoon. Breakfast on the couch, lunch in the sun. In the evening a book or a movie. For how long have I been working from home already? I have to check the calendar to know for sure. Almost three weeks. It feels like time slows down but speeds up at the same time.

New possibilities also arise. Hans Castorp learns a lot in his seven years in the mountains. Just like him, you have more time than ever now. You could for example finally read Der Zauberberg (which I wholeheartedly recommend). It is more urgent than ever. Take this passage where Hans Castorp talks about holidays:

“I think it’s quite proper to celebrate the feasts up here as they come, and mark off the time in the usual way. Just a dead level of monotony, without any breaks at all, would be too awful for words. We have had Christmas already, we took notice of the beginning of the New Year; and now comes Shrove Tuesday; after that, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter; then six weeks after that, Whitsunday; then it is almost midsummer, the solstice, and we begin to go toward autumn.”

Of course, we cannot celebrate like we would normally do. Yet, meaningful experiences can make these trying times just that little bit more bearable.