From Maria Mancini to Rütlischwur

This is a companion piece to the short video we made about my visit to the Tabak-Lädeli in central Zurich's picturesque Storchengasse.

Thomas Mann was himself a passionate smoker of cigars (and cigarettes), as can be seen in the two photographs below:

(Both photos courtesy of the ETH-Bibliothek, Thomas-Mann-Archiv)

The Maria Mancini cigar that plays such an essential role in "The Magic Mountain" also featured in an early Mann advertising drive to promote his new novel. Indeed, the brand survives to this day, produced by Schuster Cigars in Bünde in northern Germany, who sent me the photos of the full range below.

When Hans Castorp first arrives at the Berghof International Sanatorium in "The Magic Mountain", he proudly proclaims that he has brought 200 Maria Mancini cigars with him, and we learn that smoking a cigar while looking out over the harbour in Hamburg is his favourite feeling in all the world. Indeed, it doesn't only imply good living for him; it makes him feel "authentic" and constitutes an essential part of his cultivated demeanour:
"The first thing he required at the end of a meal was a finger bowl of scented water and the second was a Russian cigarette, which was duty-free and which he acquired clandestinely via some easy bribe. This cigarette preceded a cigar of a delectable Bremen-based brand called Maria Mancini—of which more anon—whose aromatic poisons combined so pleasingly with those of coffee. "

In his latest book "Mann vom Meer" ("Mann from the Sea"), Volker Weidermann examines the author's love of the sea, its deathly connotations and symbolism in his work, as exemplified by a remark to his cousin Joachim on page 76: "I mean, a good cigar signals that you are safe; literally nothing can go wrong. It is the same as lying by the sea; you’re lying by the sea, you know, and you need nothing else, neither work nor amusement . . ." This was Hans Castorp's original dream before he gradually awoke to life, learning and responsibility in the Alps.

Now, however, in the new and unfamiliar climes of Davos, a disturbing thing happens: the faithful Maria Mancini tastes of nothing, or only of papier mâché, and time after time he feels throws away his barely smoked cigar in disgust.

The tastes of the cigar, and the orders he sends back home to Hamburg to replenish his stocks, are a barometer of his adaptation to life in this rarefied atmosphere, and gradually the pleasures of smoking return.

There is a revealing discussion with Counsellor Behrens, another cigar fan. It is from this exchange, just before Hans Castorp asks Behrens if he may see some of the portraits that the latter has been painting of Madame Chauchat, that HC's description of his cigars – "Maria Mancini, Postre de Banquette ... Sumatra-Havana, sand-leaf wrapper" – is taken.

I won't dwell on their conversation, other than to highlight that the two of them study each other's cigars in a way that not only recalls how Hans Castorp and his schoolboy crush, Pribislav Hippe, examined a pencil, but is even more phallic, to the point of being pornographic:
"... there was something organic and alive about the parallel ribs running diagonally across the raised rims of their occasionally exposed binders, the surface pattern of veins that seemed to pulsate, the slight irregularities in their skin, and the play of light on their surfaces and edges."

Having once floated the idea of buying local tobacco, by the final pages of the novel HC has abandoned cigars from the plains completely and now smokes "an extremely refined sand-leaf cigar called 'Rütlischwur'", which replaces his pocket watch in helping him to keep time while doing his rest cure.

I asked René Wagner at the Tabak-Lädeli if he'd ever heard of this "Rütlischwur" brand. Nope, never. (It's worth mentioning that Switzerland did indeed use to produce a lot of tobacco for domestic consumption, but this has now dwindled to virtually nothing. 'Rütlischwur' is a very evocative name nonetheless because it refers to the mythical oath taken by the first three cantons to found the Swiss Confederation, traditionally dated to 1307.)

To finish, I'll return to this picture of a lacquered Russian cigarette box with a picture of a troika on it.

(Photo © ETH-Bibliothek, Thomas-Mann-Archiv. Photo by Stephan Bosch)

Thomas Mann’s novels repeatedly mirrored the real world of his desk, as is wonderfully exhibited by the permanent exhibition of his library and artefacts at the ETH in Zurich. After her return to the sanatorium, Madame Chauchat in "The Magic Mountain" takes her cigarettes from a case featuring a picture of a troika, as Thomas Buddenbrooks did in Mann's first bestselling novel.

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