Q&A with Karolina Watroba
If your readers take away only one idea from your book, what would you want that idea to be?
For readers with a background in German studies, I would want it to be the idea that The Magic Mountain, often viewed as a cornerstone of a traditional national literary canon, in fact belongs in a much wider world. I propose that Mann’s novel demands a transnational optic: not only is it set in an international sanatorium, but it has also achieved international success, so the narrative of my book moves from interwar Germany and Soviet Russia to present-day Hollywood and Japan, and beyond. My reading of The Magic Mountain is also worldly in another sense. I am interested in what happens to the novel at the hands of its many diverse readers, as it enters their everyday lives. What uses is it put to? What work does it do for the people who read it? And what can literary scholarship gain by paying attention to the attachments that bond readers to books? It is in this sense that my title playfully advocates ‘closer reading’, which I understand as an invitation, or perhaps provocation, to expand our familiar practice of close reading to account for the emotional closeness that readers often feel towards books. My study aims to show that such an approach can not only usefully complement but even sometimes challenge more traditional academic interpretations of the novel. I focus on three themes that emerge time and again in non-academic accounts of encounters with The Magic Mountain but had hitherto played little role in the academic scholarship on it: the economic system undergirding the story world, the emotional lives of its characters, and the performance of erudition as a structuring force in the novel.
What got you interested in the topic of your book?
I first read The Magic Mountain in the summer before starting university, and it was a wonderfully intense, immersive experience. I couldn’t quite follow the dense philosophical discussions and culturally specific allusions, but that just made me more excited to begin my degree in German literature and ‘improve myself’ so I could become a worthy reader of this great work. I then spent several years diving deep into the scholarship on Thomas Mann, but even as my relationship to The Magic Mountain changed, I actually found myself thinking back to that initial reading experience and questioning my assumptions about what kind of reader that novel demanded. Its protagonist Hans Castorp often feels anxious about his perceived lack in ‘Bildung’ and I gradually began to see that anxiety as a key to how the novel works, how Mann related to his own career, and how readers experience his writing. At around the same time, I started spotting motifs from and references to The Magic Mountain in unexpected places. For example, a character named Hans Castorp plays an important role in Hayao Miyazaki’s critically acclaimed and globally successful Japanese anime The Wind Rises (2013). I thought that if I found more such examples and paid careful attention to the cultural, social, and historical contexts surrounding them, they could significantly enrich the radically new corpus of non-academic readings of The Magic Mountain I was assembling. Tracking down diverse international sources that could offer a glimpse into how Mann’s novel has been read outside the academy over the last century has probably been the most fun part of this research project.
For those interested in learning more about your topic, what should they turn to next (after having read your book, of course)?
Unsurprisingly, I always encourage people to read The Magic Mountain! It is still my favourite novel of all time. If you do not read German, look out for the forthcoming new English translation by the great Susan Bernofsky, which promises to be a hit. I have also heard from many people who enjoyed revisiting, or following up on, later novels and films that rework Mann’s novel, as discussed in my book. I would recommend starting with The Wind Rises or ‘Amundsen’, a short story by Alice Munro, in which two people navigate their strained relationship through competing readings of The Magic Mountain. I was filled with stunned excitement when, after my book had already been sent off for production, my compatriot Olga Tokarczuk published Empuzjon, her first novel since receiving the Nobel Prize – a retelling of The Magic Mountain! An English translation is not yet available, but it will be worth the wait. My favourite works of literary criticism reveal aspects of the text that I completely failed to see on first reading, but which the critical intervention makes impossible to ever unsee. There are many great essays about The Magic Mountain that have done this for me, but the one I find myself returning to most often is Kenneth Weisinger’s memorably titled ‘Distant Oil Rigs and Other Erections’. It uncovers traces of Germany’s real-life obsession with natural resources in the Caucasus within Mann’s fictional sanatorium, not least in Castorp’s infatuation with Madam Chauchat.
What work or idea of thinker influence you the most in the writing of this book?
In the introduction, I reflect on a pivotal moment during my doctoral studies. I happened to simultaneously read Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (2015) and David Lodge’s campus novel Small World (1984). I found Felski’s call to ‘rethink the relationship between artistic works and the social world’ tremendously inspiring. But I was troubled by the possibility that a ‘postcritical’ approach to literature she advocates might in practice end up uncomfortably close to Lodge’s satire of Philip Swallow, the helplessly old-fashioned English professor who stubbornly refuses to engage with his colleagues the theorists and instead professes a simple ‘love of books’. I realized what bothered me in both these cases, and many other discussions about the function of literary criticism: those debates were essentially playing out between academics, without directly engaging with the perspectives and behaviours of non-academic readers through real-life examples, even though it is precisely our collective passion for books and stories that, to me at least, provides the most powerful justification for the value of our discipline. For my book, I wanted to think creatively about what sources could give me access to the experiences of readers who, unlike academics, do not leave behind monographs, articles, or lecture notes. I looked at journalistic reviews, memoirs, personal essays, fan mail, and marginal notes in books, but also blog posts and Goodreads book clubs, as well as more unusual documents, for example marketing brochures produced for the World Economic Forum – as it turns out, its location in Davos is directly connected to the setting of The Magic Mountain. Even though my method is different from Felski’s, it was her writing that provided the impetus for my work. Since then, I have had a chance to meet her and discuss our ideas, and I remain in awe of her intellectual generosity.
Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?
One common question I receive is whether my approach is uniquely suited to The Magic Mountain or if it has broader applicability. I think some aspects of my approach are specific to working with this particular novel, or a relatively narrow grouping of texts – long modernist classics with a formidable reputation that have nevertheless developed something of a cult following among various groups of readers over the years. But I believe that other aspects of my method could be helpful to scholars working on a much wider variety of literary texts, and I am excited to see if others pick it up! One important question my book has raised for me was how I could not only incorporate the experiences of non-academic readers into my work, but also make this work more accessible to them. It is partly a question of style – for example, I have developed a deep suspicion of academic jargon. It is also partly a question of framing – I have found that people outside my discipline can become interested in even the most niche or specialized topics if I explain why they matter and where I am coming from. I have been pleasantly surprised by how many readers who are not literary scholars have found their way to my research – both the book and other pieces, such as programmes on BBC Radio and an essay in The Point, a magazine I greatly admire. It has encouraged me to start writing more deliberately for a wider audience: I now work with a literary agent and my second book will come out with a trade publisher. Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka (London: Profile, forthcoming in 2024), aims to introduce my approach to a wider audience by telling Kafka’s story through the stories of his readers around the world, focusing on Oxford, Berlin, Prague, Jerusalem, and Seoul. I continue looking for ways to bridge the gap between academic and non-academic readers.