An adaptation of Thomas Mann's enormous novel. Credit: Lieberenz/ullstein bild via Getty Images

August 12, 2021   5 mins

I left New York with two bags loaded with pasta and canned chickpeas and — more importantly — a crate of books. If we were going to be at my wife’s parents for several weeks, waiting for things to get less scary in the city, I was going to hide away and read. Read not just anything. I had ambitions. I would read the kind of books that — the clock constantly ticking, reminding me of all the things I hadn’t done — I’d never had time for, or never made time for. Books that intimidated me. One of them was The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, published in 1924. That was how my pandemic began.

Even paying for it at a second-hand bookstore near Columbia gave me pause. It’s huge, I thought, as the cashier frantically wiped it down (we didn’t wear masks at this point.) I’m never going to read this. I’m not one of those bores who reads colossal, painful tomes just to feel educated. Why would I do that to myself, just as everything I really enjoyed — bars, friends, flights — had suddenly been taken away from me? On the drive out of the city it kept nagging me. As the world was ending and there were a million new things to process, why did I rush out to buy a Weimar novelist?

For the first weeks in Massachusetts, I sat in the spare room and read tweets and The Magic Mountain. I took screenshots of the death toll: 100 Americans dead from the novel coronavirus, 1,000 Americans, 10,000 Americans. Around 100,000, I gave up. Never quite letting go of my phone, I drifted in and out of the 796-page novel. Der Zauberberg, in German, is about a man called Hans Castorp who spends seven years in a sanatorium, without really doing very much, on the eve of the First World War. It is a strange thing — a Zeitroman or “time-novel” — about the dissolution of time both in the passing of an age and in the loss of one man’s ability to experience its flow in the way he’s used to.

I didn’t enjoy it. I was consumed by it. I was so used to doing the consuming, quickly and easily — Netflix, Sally Rooney — that being consumed was an uncomfortable, odd, experience. I almost couldn’t read it: I’d become so used to skim-reading feeds — and so used to the kind of extractive get-to-the-point reading of novels with nut graph-like points about what they are supposed to represent — that I’d forgotten the experience of a totalising work of art.

For weeks, I felt like I, too, was locked in the sanatorium where people carried little pulmonary x-ray cards around in their pockets and met for splendid dinners in the hall. It was almost too much: the endless arguments between Naphtha and Settembrini — the Polish Jew-turned-Jesuit-turned-Marxist totalitarian and the blinkered Italian libertarian rationalist — seemed to echo too loudly the argument going on around me. “Zero Covid” or let it rip? The whole world had turned into a hospital, in which we were all dwarfed by a figure like Mann’s gargantuan Dutch colonialist, Mynheer Peeperkorn: Donald Trump.

But as I read The Magic Mountain, there was something I didn’t quite understand: how can three weeks have turned into seven years up there — just like that? Why doesn’t Hans Castorp want to come down from the sickbay? In the meantime, I was still panic-scrolling. There was still drama in the air. Things weren’t as slow as they were going to get.

Then we went back to New York. It was around then that I lost my sense of time. For weeks on end, my routine was so simple it seemed to go on forever and then disappear in seconds. I’m looking at the blank weeks of my iCalendar and I remember what I was doing: working in the morning, running in the afternoon, binging The Bureau in the evening — but I can’t remember any of those days distinctly. They’ve become one totalising moment — like Mann’s routine in the sanatorium.

At first Hans Castorp stops carrying his pocket watch. Finally he forgets his own age. “Where uniformity reigns, movement from point to point is no longer movement; and where movement is no longer movement, there is no time,” warns the narrator.

Looking back now, I can only sort my memories into my obsessions: 5Ks, wine, Mastering Spice by Lior Sercazz, the Peloton app, online diplomacy. My notes from that time are completely circular: without time my head, like Castorp’s, looped in on itself in increasingly futile fancies. I seem hardly to have realised, like everyone on the mountain, that this period of paralysis was not a blip. It was a glimpse of a future in which we live online.

It was a year without markers, in which I felt like just another of the sanatorium’s patients lying half-frozen in their camel-hair blankets on the same balconies day after day. The regular patter of holidays, birthdays, office get-togethers, occasional synagogue services and trips back to England for the Christmas holidays was wiped clean. Can any of us really remember the things we did on Zoom?

I do remember walking in Greenwich Village with everything shut, thinking: this isn’t New York, this is a place that used to be New York. But try as I might, I can’t place the date. I know I was crossing Sixth Avenue in the rain when I suddenly froze: there are no cars, there are no people, there’s nobody here — I stood in the middle of the road and for five seconds I closed my eyes. Those crowds, that thundering traffic, those people yelling — “Get outta da way buddy!” They felt as distant, then, as a dream.

That was the mountain. But which is harder: being on it, or coming down from it? Because when — exactly, again, I can’t really tell you — I found myself on the Subway to the mass vaccination centre somewhere out in the Bronx, I suddenly found myself full of regret. I can’t believe it’s over so soon. I’ll never be able to read or write so peacefully again. You were outside time — inhabiting Eliot’s heavenly “still point of the turning world” — and you squandered it roleplaying as Gran Colombia in a 22-player board game run through Slack instead of writing the novel you always fantasised was there inside you. It lasted only a few seconds: I was scared to come down. I wanted to stay safe in the sanatorium forever. It turns out I was not the only one.

Flights, parties, distinct memories of different days. By the summer they had crept back. And it was then that I got another nagging feeling about The Magic Mountain. That I had to re-read it. But, my normal sense of time restored — constant inputs, activities, lots of different situations coming and going very quickly requiring very different bits of my brain — I couldn’t.

It’s almost a hundred years since The Magic Mountain first appeared. This isn’t the kind of book that, I think, can be written anymore. It is slow and enormous because it wants to teach you something you can only learn in something slow and enormous. Internet people like you and me don’t think and consume like that anymore. I’m not sure it’s possible for people who primarily communicate on WhatsApp or argue on Twitter to sink into something that is more like a gigantic symphony (you have to listen carefully) than a straight book. Trying and failing to re-read Thomas Mann, taught me that the reason we are so frustrated with these kinds of novels is we don’t experience time in the way their original readers once did. Our minds can’t stay still, in one place, for an hour — let alone a week. The Magic Mountain, in ordinary times, could only ever be a struggle.

But lockdown allowed me — allowed many of us — to feel time the way it felt a hundred years ago. It allowed me to read slowly, scene by scene, through the sanatorium, some of which I didn’t understand; some of which — the snow, the seance, the young women that takes him smiling into the cemetery — left me tingling with that feeling that made me fall in love with books in the first place. This is it — that magic thing you can do with them, that no other art form can replicate, and that, perhaps for only a brief time, I was able to summon the ability to truly sense again.

Ben Judah is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and the author of ‘This is London’.