Prompted by a faculty discussion over Great Books in the modern era, I drove home last night thinking about these two great novels together. I loved reading them, and so the best answer, at least for me, is, “The Brothers Karamazov and The Magic Mountain.” Still, it was a good exercise comparing them during my drive on the PCH and I-405.
First is their most obvious commonality: both novels are very long. It takes time to read each of them the way it takes time to read both of the Homeric epics, or a carefully annotated edition of The Divine Comedy. It seems as if only Clarissa or, for a non-fictional example, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would take longer to read.
I first read Dostoevsky’s masterpiece in college, albeit in a class that I sat in. Without remembering exactly how long it took us to read it, I am pretty sure that it was the longest for that class. (We also read David Copperfield, but it was somewhat shorter.) I reread it, more slowly this time, a few years after college. In term of duration, however, there is no comparison to my reading of Thomas Mann’s magnus opus because it took me over the course of two summers, mostly in parks and libraries, to finish. I was living and working at the L’Arche community at the time, and oddly enough, taking a long break in-between enhanced the reading experience considerably. Because I read it so slowly, I remembered it better than Brothers K until reading the latter again this past summer.
My experience illustrates a difference: The Brothers Karamazov has been taught more widely in college. A staple of Great Books courses throughout America, it is, in fact, included in my reading list for Great Books IV. After a quarter-century, I very much look forward to classroom discussions of the novel again. The book has appeared in a variety of other undergraduate courses on European literature, Russian literature, Russian history, the novel, theology, and GE courses such as Western Cultural Tradition at Boston College. Indeed, in college I didn’t read Brothers K for a Great Books class, but a class on the Western novel. The Great Books instructor chose Moby Dick for the “big novel” portion. In senior year, I sat in the course on the novel taught by Pat Costello, mostly so I could read the novels by Dostoevsky and Walker Percy with him and other students. As you can see from the illustration below, W. H. Auden’s course at University of Michigan duly included the novel alongside other illustrious works such as Horace’s Odes, four of Shakespeare’s best plays, the first part of Goethe’s Faust, and, indeed, Moby Dick.
In comparison, The Magic Mountain is taught less often in college. It usually appears in more specialized courses, especially graduate ones, such as German or Central European literature. It is included in the course Modern European Novel at Yale, which is of course wider in scope than Central Europe. On occasions, however, it shows up more wide-open or GE courses such as Global Encounters through Fiction at the University of Georgia and the Twentieth-Century Honors Seminar at, again, Boston College. You may not see it around often, but it is around all right.
What’s about their content? I thought of several interesting comparisons during the drive yesterday. I’d like to revisit these comparisons more thoroughly after teaching Brothers K (and, hopefully, after re-reading Magic Mountain next summer). But here they are nonetheless.
In my opinion, The Brothers Karamazov speaks best to the theologian, the anthropologist, and the dramatist. (On the last, even a non-fan such as Nabokov called it “the most perfect example of the detective story technique” developed and mastered by Dostoevsky. It’s a back-handed compliment, but a compliment nonetheless.) There is a quality of timelessness about it, that I think one could insert it into a course about the ancient Greeks and Romans without disturbing the content at all.
For a start, the typologies of the brothers make the novel both modern and ancient. Start your students on Oedipus Rex and the Oresteia, follow with the Republic, and conclude with Brothers K. Somehow, I don’t think that students will find this sequence jumpy because Dostoevsky, among other things, dissects various constants about the human person that the Greeks had also pondered and dissected (albeit in very different manners): reason and irrationality, passion and love, suffering and redemption. There is a perennial feel about the issues addressed in The Brothers Karamazov, making it also an apt choice for a capstone course in the humanities.
Conversely, I think that The Magic Mountain would be a perfect text for a course about modernity. Were students say to me, “Professor, I’d like to understand modernity,” I’d recommend that they read The Magic Mountain over the summer on their own or during the semester as independent study. The novel shows a microcosm of European society in modern time, plus a seemingly endless host of subject matters related to this society, whose military, economic, and cultural dominance over the world was exceptional at the time. Remember: the story ends with the beginning of the First World War, before Europe began its march toward self-destruction.
If The Brothers Karamazov impresses one with a remarkable depth, The Magic Mountain is rather breathtaking in its breadth. Its scope is panoramic, and it addresses, among other things, the legacy of the Enlightenment as embodied by the humanist Settembrini – he is, naturally, Italian – vis-à-vis the anarchism (if that is the right word) of the spiritualist and absolutist Naphtha. There is a lot else – lots – such as the power of Eros on the one hand and the growth of decay and decadence on the other. Like Brothers K, its quality is universal, if for different emphases. But it is also very cerebral – and Mann himself nearly an encyclopedia. I think that it appeals most to the scientist, the political theorist, the sociologist, and the historian within us: the historian of thought as well the historian of society. (Both novels, I must add, speak to the psychologist in us, albeit, not surprisingly, in different ways.)
It is also a very empowering book, albeit in a very different way than Brothers K. Upon finishing the story about the Russian family and their town, one might long to be a better person, a more loving person, and a person capable of absorbing mysteries about existence. Conversely, upon finishing the story of Hans Castorp and his sanatorium, one might feel an urgent desire to grasp the world and be a more knowledgeable person, a deeper person. “Is it possible to know so much?,” one might ask upon reading The Magic Mountain. By the end, one could say with confidence, “Not only it is possible, but one must know more.” Knowledge is power, and few books empowers one’s love for knowledge more than The Magic Mountain. At least, that was the case with me. If The Brothers Karamazov leaves one with awe towards the transcendence as it is related to the human heart, I think The Magic Mountain has the rare power to make one be more confident about the capacity of human mind. One result of reading Mann’s novel, for me, is the growing conviction that it is possible navigate the complicated world we live in through a sobering grasp of the complications themselves.
In an ideal world, I’d love to teach both The Magic Mountain and The Brothers Karamazov. The fact that they are massive door-stoppers, however, prevent me (and probably everyone else) from doing so. But thinking about both of them has been quite entertaining, and I wish to thank my colleagues for prompting this post. I am sure I will think more about these novels next year.