Z is for "Zauberberg" and "Empuzjon"

"Empuzjon" is Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk's latest novel (published as "Empusion" in German in 2023; not yet available in English) and is both a response to, and a deconstruction of, Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain". It is set around the same time but in Görbersdorf (then in Silesia, part of the German Empire; now Sokołowsko in Poland), where Hermann Brehmer established the first world's first tuberculosis sanatorium at an altitude of 540 metres. Doctors in Davos subsequently adopted Brehmer's treatment model.

"Empuzjon" is a Tokarczukian neologism that combines Empusa, a supernatural being from Greek mythology that also appears in Goethe's "Faust, Part Two" with the Greek "symposion/symposium" – a banquet where debate and poetry were washed down with lots of drink. (I plan to look at Thomas Mann's relationship with Goethe and with Faust in particular when we get to Walpurgis Night in late April.)

There is much latent and sometimes blatant misogyny in the way female characters in "The Magic Mountain" are depicted as gossipy or ugly or uncultivated, and what Olga Tokarczuk does so successfully is to render this misogyny absolutely central and visible. Whereas the Berghof allows men and women to mix freely, indeed promiscuously, the Görbersdorf lodgings of the hero, Mieczysław Wojnicz, are all male, and the terraces where the patients lie to take the air and the sun seem to be single-sex too.

Wojnicz, like Hans Castorp, is an initially retiring character, an ingénu glad to have escaped from the orbit of his strict father and officer uncle and their relentless insistence that he become a "real man". Wojnicz is shocked to find that the corpse of the guesthouse owner's wife laid out on the dining room table when he arrives and alienated by the crude discussions at mealtimes and during walks: "every discussion – whether it centred on democracy, the fifth dimension, the role of religion, socialism, Europe, even about modern art – inevitably ended up being about women" [my translation from the German translation]. The opinions expressed are unbearably misogynistic – whether women have a brain or a soul, for example – and in Tokarczuk's note at the end of the book, we learn that she has paraphrased them from books by male authors across the centuries, from ancient philosophers via Milton, Darwin and Yeats to Kerouac and Burroughs.

Another notable difference with "The Magic Mountain" is that the atmosphere is less socially rarefied, at least in the gentlemen's guesthouse. Whereas the Berghof is geographically and metaphorically elevated above the poorer patients down in the town below, they live at closer quarters in Görbersdorf. This is not so much a cosmopolitan international elite as a gathering of people from the corners of dying Central European empires, and so discussions about democracy and nationalism have an additional import in light of the coming conflagration of the First World War.

Nevertheless, Tokarczuk's novel is interwoven with references and nods to "The Magic Mountain", and it is fun to note the parallels and differences. An X-ray examination is mirrored in a group photograph scene, for example, and the description of the seating plan I discussed in the previous post is rendered here from under the table – starting with the men's footwear. And this emphasises another innovation of the text. Thomas Mann's narrator intervenes in the storytelling, notes the artificiality of its framing and the passage of time, chronicles Hans Castorp's habits and reactions with amusement. In "Empuzjon", the point of view is more diffuse – below, from the rafters, and through the trees and peepholes – as we are alerted to the fact that there are spirits, perhaps vengeful female ghosts on the prowl here: the "fifth dimension" the men discuss during their "locker-room talk" over glasses of "Rhapsody" liqueur. The sense of supernatural threat – to young male outsiders – is voiced by Wojnicz dying artist friend, who says, "I told you – the countryside here is lethal." There are omens of decay everywhere – tuberculosis itself of course, but also all kinds of fungus – and the charcoal-burners and woodcutters who do seasonal work in the local forests radiate menace. They also make supine female figures in the forest out of wood, stone and moss to relieve themselves while isolated from the world of women. (There are a variety of legends about these "Tuntschis" throughout the German-speaking Alps, apparently, most of which involve isolated shepherds and cheesemakers creating, feeding and sleeping with female dolls, which come to life at the end of the season and claim a victim from among their torturers.)

Hans Castorp's initiation in Davos is largely turned outwards, focused on integrating and appreciating European culture, whereas Mieczysław Wojnicz's education is altogether more inward-looking and personal: it goes to the heart of his/her/their identity. Wojnicz endures a terrifying ordeal and emerges on the other side in a completely different form.

It's a riotous revenge, a joyous transformation – but I won't spoil the book. Do read it.

Dr Karolina Watroba, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Modern Languages at All Souls College, University of Oxford, got in touch to suggest that the curious narrative perspective "represents mycelium - a fungus of limitless interest to Tokarczuk, present in most if not all of her books, which she associates both with femininity and East-Central Europe".

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