On Thomas Mann’s Sense of Humor

Jeffrey Meyers at The New Criterion:

Thomas Mann’s reputation as a difficult, ponderous, heavyweight novelist, and the erudite allusions, serious subject matter, and philosophical themes of The Magic Mountain (1924) have led readers to ignore the comic and satiric tone that enlivens his morbid novel. His method is very different from the somber and solemn way most authors—like Tolstoy, Gide, and Solzhenitsyn—write about disease and death. Mann’s dark comedy, tinged with fear and disgust, takes place in the luxurious remote enclosed society of the International Sanatorium Berghof. He indicates the magic of the place with a witty game of recurring numbers. The young, naïve Hans Castorp, who leaves his ordinary life in Hamburg to visit his tubercular cousin Joachim Ziemssen, generates much of the comedy. Hans gradually progresses from incomprehension to knowledge and to eager acceptance of the distorted medical, social, and sexual customs on the magic mountain.

Hans lives with a cast of bizarre characters who, monstrously perverted by illness and egoism, engage in frenetic sexual activity or carry their intellectual disputes to extremes of aggression. Mann satirizes, in the vivid portraits of Dr. Behrens and the psychiatrist Dr. Krokowski, the mingling of science, mysticism, and financial greed in the medical profession. Comedy lightens the mood of the novel and enables the moribundi to endure their agony in the “Chamber of Horrors.”

more here.