The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
I couldn't get through it.
I thought The Magic Mountain would either be (a) an explicit exposition of pre-war and war time, mixed with some kind of class analysis; or maybe (b) an investigation of exceptional personal sickness and being surrounded by those also sick, while all together trying to come to terms with mortality and material expectations; or maybe (c) it'd be some arty analogy, painting Europe at the time in the form of a sanatarium.
Perhaps I just don't have the background of the era or maybe my expectations were flatly wrong, but none of the above landed for me. Instead, I found myself reading about this dopey protagonist, so out of touch with common sense, doting around in a hospital, making banal observations about his neighboring patients and their intercourse.
A random observation: that a person could absent-mindedly extend a planned three week stay into seven years, with little consequence to themselves or their relations, is absurd. But ok, maybe it's a hyperbole, and the exaggeration is a criticism of something analogous in the real world. But what? Maybe Europe at the time was a little too comfortable and gay during a fatal diagnosis? (I'm probably ignorant here and lack the context the author took for granted, but hey I can still read Tolstoy and Twain and Dickens and they make sense to me, so why doesn't this?)
Ok, perhaps I'll read on and find other devices and together they'll combine into sense. Didn't seem the case to me. Just endless descriptions of this cast of characters, all trying to hold on to their civility and bourgeois lifestyles in the face of sickness and death, none revealing how they're affected by their diseases, to either the protagonist or the narrator; none obviously representative of any subtle interesting theme. And little melodramas of dorm-room drama: slammed doors being frustrating and eyes in the cafeteria being enticing. Again, through all of it, I'm stretching to find the analogy, the profundity of the underlying theme, and I've come up short.
So maybe the book was the extremely sensitive and precise articulation of a lot of the time's idiosyncratic feelings, inevitably bound to go out of scope and sense and style once that time had progressed past the point when its constants could be relied on.
And so if you're the exact reader who is trying to backwards engineer those constants to learn more about them and when they were relevant, then this book might still be for you. But if you're the generalist, looking for something human and indelible, and expecting The Magic Mountain's classification as a classic to pay its way, then you might be disappointed like I was.