Project Guiltpile: Unfinished behemoths

Picture 8Guilt! Guilt, I say!

Since moving to this godforsaken place, I have developed a habit that has come back to dog ear me in the ass on the way out. I suppose it was only natural that having lived for so long in semi-claustrophobic Japan, I would find ways to welcome the spatial glut of North America.

I could use the term bibliophile, but for its recent twee and self-congratulatory associations. It’s more that I have a ridiculously inflated idea of how much I can read given a limited amount of time. With books you can always fool yourself, like those poor addled multi-taskers, that there’s no need to filter. It’s all relevant.

Well, I can still fool myself a little while longer. In California, there is little employment. Let’s rejoice about this for once and take advantage of the time. I’m going to make up a list of books I hope to take a chunk ou t of before leaving. I’ll update it each time I finish one on the list. Let’s see how far I can get.

First off, The Magic Mountain. I’m getting close to the end of this one. Why did I buy this? Well, as doomed climbers say about real mountains, it was there — and only a dollar.

But there’s another story. A few, quite a few years back, I worked with an elderly Swiss gentleman, very dour and ascetic, whom I always overheard praising the strength of the mighty cockroach in the next cubicle. Usually he did this to elderly Japanese salarymen, who in beginner’s English, would fumble over the “r” in roach, and blink at him in polite discomfort.
This gentleman, Hans, we’ll call him, once descended upon me in the lobby and asked if I’d ever read “Die Zauberberg,” which with my bad ears and undergrad German, translated as “The Clean Hill.”

“No,” he snapped, “The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.”

Now Mann I knew. I love Death in Venice, and even more so, Visconti’s adaptation of same with its garish colors and cackling plague infested minstrels. At that time, however, the only thing I knew about The Magic Mountain was that it was one of those reading rites of passage, 800 lurid pages of mottled lungs and five course meals served with sherry in fine crystal.

Hans, noting the hint of recognition in my face, went on with a sense of mission: “My father was a doctor up in Davos. He tended to many of those patients. I spent my entire boyhood there.”

He continued to tell me how as a boy, he would run about the sanatorium grounds, often disturbing the lavish meals of the patients, many of whom he recognized when reading Mann’s book.

Not reading The Magic Mountain would be a lost opportunity personally equivalent to Castorp’s lost years. Yet, as I do I find myself scouring the pages, and going over the features of every small or slightly youngish character to appear. I can’t help but expect that each time Herr Settembrini and Naphta break out into another religious and philosophical spat that they’ll be cut off by a gaunt, bespectacled boy, who will shake his head and tell them that none of it matters.

Only the cockroaches will survive.

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