Time, space, thermometers and planks

Time, how quickly or slowly it passes at the sanatorium, the characters' perception of its peculiar rhythms, loops and pauses: this is the very stuff of "The Magic Mountain".

Time is woven explicitly into the substance and structure of the novel. For example, the last two of the book's seven chapters take up the entire second half – over 500 pages – despite accounting for six years and five months, while the first five chapters encompass a mere seven months.

We are introduced to the interplay of time and space on the second page of the novel:

"Space, as it twists and unspools between him and his roots, has powers that we usually ascribe to time alone; hour by hour, space provokes inner changes similar to those produced by time, yet in some ways even more dramatic. Like time, it induces forgetfulness; it does this, however, by releasing us from our physical bonds and transposing us into a free and original state. […] Time, people say, is water from the river Lethe; but a change of air is a comparable potion, and though its effects may be less profound, they are faster-acting."

The patients' notion of time, and ours as readers, is further confused by the fickle blurring of the seasons. Summer can burst into autumn or winter; spring can labour to conquer winter, falling back many times before suddenly the meadows are carpeted with crocuses. The year drags past but simultaneously seems to skip from one landmark (Advent, Christmas, Easter) to the next. Add to this the fact that Counsellor Behrens, the sanatorium's medical director, "slaps" apparently arbitrary periods of recuperation on patients, continually dashing their hopes of returning to the lowlands, and it becomes clear why a stay at the Berghof International Sanatorium feels like a sea of monotony, with fortnightly lectures and bandstand concerts the only islands of variety.

While still officially a visitor, Hans Castorp gets a temperature and is finally admitted to the select group of long-term residents. His life as a patient begins with being sentenced to three weeks in bed. In a section titled "Soup forever and sudden clarity", the narrator expounds on the nature of time and tedium:

"A phenomenon lies ahead which the storyteller himself would be well advised to ponder so that readers do not have to ponder it too much on their own. While our account of the first three weeks of Hans Castorp’s stay with the people up here (twenty-one midsummer days that, by human forecasting, should have comprised the whole stay) has consumed amounts of space and quantities of time that coincide very closely with our own half-confessed expectations, the coverage of the next three weeks of his visit to this place will require hardly as many lines, indeed barely as many words and instants, as the previous three required pages, sheets, hours, and days of work; we predict that these three weeks will be behind us and buried in a flash.
[…] It is sufficient for now that everyone remembers how quickly a series—a ‘long’ series—of days goes by for someone who is sick in bed: it is always the same day repeating itself, but since it is always the same, it is fundamentally inaccurate to speak of ‘repetition’; it should be described as monotony, a suspended present, or eternity."

Anyone who has had a stay in hospital has experienced that peculiar thickening of time's flow, as you slip in and out of sleep, and yet the procession of meals, blood tests, checkups, etc. still seems endless, eating away at your time to ... do what? Get better? Think? Simply do nothing?

This "laisser-aller" is exemplified by the narrator's humorous comments on how people – and which people – use books. The patients read in inverse proportion to the amount of time at their disposal. Whereas new arrivals try to fill their time productively, old hands regard reading as a futile exercise, preferring to let their minds wander as they slumber in their "exquisite loungers".

As Hans Castorp matures, he increasingly sees the abundance of time as an opportunity to learn and studies biology, anatomy, botany, astronomy and astrology. Cousin Joachim is bemused and disapproves: they are here to get better, not get clever ideas into their heads!

The ritual by which all the patients take their temperatures for seven minutes seven times a day (I have opted for "take a/my/your reading" for "sich messen": "to measure oneself") seems to give time an objective value, but does it really? Hans Castorp and Joachim Ziemssen disagree about the nature of a minute:

‘A minute is as long . . . it lasts as long as it takes for the second hand to come full circle.’
‘But the time it takes varies according to our perception! And in fact . . . I said, in fact,’ Hans Castorp repeated, pressing down so hard with his forefinger on his nose that its tip bent backwards, ‘that is motion, spatial motion, isn’t it? But hold on! We are therefore measuring time with space, but that's as if we wanted to measure space in relation to time—something only completely unscientific people do. From Hamburg to Davos is twenty hours—by train! But how long is it on foot? And in thought? Less than a second!’
‘Really,’ Joachim said, ‘what has come over you? I think it is getting to you up here with us.’

Brings to mind the planks my daughter and I did recently as breaks between re-reading my translation in my case, writing her dissertation about Arabic feminist flash fiction in hers (and to get warm). Every hour we lower ourselves onto our forearms and toes and hold the position for one minute initially, building up to two and a half, maybe more. Easy. OK, not so easy. Beyond 1:40 all conversation stops, we're panting, the last 10 seconds go on forever. Beyond two minutes it takes musical accompaniment for us to do this: Beyoncé, Yard Act, Pixies... 2:20 – I collapse, my daughter hangs tough. 2:30 – We look up at each other, surprised by how much more bearable it was than the previous stage.

Yeah well, you say, that's the effect of strenuous exercise. Hans Castorp would never do planks. Yet a regular activity with a timer (or thermometer) does produce strange perceptions and sensations.

Sometimes I think that translating "The Magic Mountain" is also warping my sense of time. I started adding to my sample in late June 2023 but only really warmed to my task in mid-August, eight months ago. Now there are nine and a half months until submission.

A morning assignment of five pages sounds doable. But then you get caught up in secondary reading, encounter stubborn passages that won't bed down properly, need to slot in other jobs like checking the edits or proofs of previous translations, blog writing . . . And this is a marathon, not a sprint: five pages a day for a year is a mental challenge. In some ways it is like climbing a mountain.

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