Castorp by Pawel Huelle
This book will be especially enjoyable for readers well-primed in late 19th- and early 20th-century novels. Reading it is like stepping unobtrusively into these novels’ backstreets, their neighbouring towns and undocumented dynasties. That is not to call Castorp anything as crude or self-congratulatory as an in-joke or an imitation – it is a courteous and joyful immersion in a venerable mode.
The main link into classic literature is Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain. Hans Castorp is Mann’s hero, borrowed and furnished with one more year of back history before Mann’s main narrative begins. Where Mann casually mentioned his hero’s training in ship-building in Danzig, Pawel Huelle has decided to follow Castorp through his student time in some detail.
Translated with humour and verve by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the novel takes the young, unformed Castorp into an environment where everything is new and either moderately alarming or peculiar. Lloyd-Jones makes a masterpiece of the hilarious double-act carried on by two old gentlemen taking the waters. She does less well with Castorp’s landlady’s inane, repeated homilies. But, the world of pre-war Danzig opens to us through the concentrated force of wilfully old-fashioned storytelling.
Everyone Castorp meets is a little larger than life: the shrewd alcoholic Kiekiernix, who befriends him on the ship to Danzig, out-eats and out-drinks Castorp at breakfast; his over-friendly landlady Frau Wybe and her rude, domineering maid make a grotesque pair of opposites; the clerk at the university engages the horrified Castorp in an endless stream of statistic-heavy small-talk; even the students he meets seem all to be drunken rakes with little interest in their studies. Castorp takes refuge from everyone in his scientific training, and in his habits of drinking porter and smoking Maria Mancini cigars.
The search for a new supply of these crucial comforts takes Castorp to the seaside resort of Zoppot, where he encounters a young couple, a Russian officer and his Polish sweetheart, apparently meeting in secret. Our hero follows the beautiful Pole, and steals the book her lover has given her. Here the literary layers multiply, for the book is Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, which Castorp now reads over one intense, burgundy-infused night, and through which he falls hopelessly in love with its owner.
This is a new kind of reading for Castorp, a revelation that brings him close to a woman he hasn’t even spoken to; a revelation also to his readers who will recognise a Proustian investment in the person by means of the object. Proust is near, too, in Castorp’s special love of puddles, “in which besides the reflection of all these things, visions and lights, his own, intent, rippled face appeared for an instant...”, and again in Castorp’s connection of a peasant girl’s song with his father’s last performance on the piano for his dying wife. The emotional connections of these two phenomena come together at the novel’s climax in Castorp’s realisation that his beloved has recognised his love and that this counts for something, although it makes her no more accessible to him.
This is not quite the end of Castorp and I wouldn’t spoil it for anyone. Suffice it to say that amid the fantastic clutter of period-issue novelistic accessories – the bathing houses, the trams, the café manners – the odd bit of news from the outside world does occasionally penetrate. It is a clipping worthy of a Sweeney Todd’s black comedy that closes the novel.