Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Five best novels about time and memory

Edmund Morris is the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning author of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex; the concluding book in the trilogy, Colonel Roosevelt, is now out from Random House.

For the Wall Street Journal, Morris named a five best list of novels on time and memory.

One title on the list:
The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann (1924)

Being both German and cerebral, Thomas Mann was better equipped than most writers in the early 20th century to make an imaginative construct of Albert Einstein's 1905 theory of relativity. Mann congratulated himself on having articulated the notion of pliant time in an early draft of his great novel, even before Einstein expanded the theory in 1916. "Der Zauberberg" ("The Magic Mountain") was not published until 1924. Helen Lowe-Porter had barely begun to translate it into English when Bertrand Russell issued a primer, "The ABC of Relativity," to help nonscientists understand the mystery of space-time. He used homely little parables. When Lowe-Porter's translation came out two years later, the novel's enormous metaphor of a TB sanitarium high in the Swiss Alps, where time expands and contracts as subjectively as the mercury in a consumptive's thermometer, made a mockery of Russell with his baskets and balloons. Mann's antihero, Hans Castorp, a young burgher from Hamburg, comes up to the sanitarium for seven days to visit a friend—and stays for seven years. At first, when all is new and strange to him, time passes with excruciating slowness. The book unfolds similarly, with such a wealth of institutional detail that the reader feels hospitalized too. But as daily routine merges into monthly, and monthly into yearly, time begins to accelerate (to quote Mann) "in a way to make the heart stop beating for fear."
Read about another book on the list.

The Magic Mountain
also appears on Brian Dillon's list of the five best books on hypochondria, Arthur Phillips' list of five novels about life during the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, and John Mullan's lists of ten of the best visits to the cinema in literature and ten of the best depictions of the Alps.

--Marshal Zeringue