Der Zauberberg

Two days ago, in the evening, I finished reading “Der Zauberberg” in German. I had started in early June, a bit before the previous post, so it took about seven months. This is comparable to the time it took me to read Proust, but it is certainly the longest time I’ve spent reading (without long interruptions) a single work. Much of this reading was done in the tramway, using heavily the Leo app and it’s excellent English-German dictionary to get through the more philosophical parts (I was told by friends who saw me sometimes that I was particularly absorbed…)

And although I had claimed that I wouldn’t buy a second copy, I actually did get one (second hand, from a 1926 printing) to have one


where the French dialogue in the crucial Walpurgisnacht scene is not translated (in modern German editions, such as that of the GFKA, these parts are printed as in the original text within the main body of the novel, but a translation is appended at the end of the book). By the way, I learnt from the Kommentar that Thomas Mann wrote the French dialogue directly in French (not in German that he would later translate), but that they were re-read and corrected by a more fluent friend.

The Magic Mountain

Once more, I have yielded to the arch-Tempter, the Book-Buying demon.

This time, it started when I bought (second-hand — I actually think today that only second-hand books are really authentic, unless of course the book is brand new) the translation by J. E. Woods of the novel “Joseph and his Brothers” by Thomas Mann. I expected that (like Joyce’s “Finnegans wake” and Faulkner’s “A Fable”, which I both own and in one case read) this was only a gesture of respect for the work of a writer that I admire. To my astonishment, I read this four-part fifteen-hundred page book (“The stories of Jacob”, “The young Joseph”, “Joseph in Egypt”, “Joseph the Provider”) in a few weeks, and found it too short, and realized that it was a masterpiece. The story of Joseph and Mut-em-Ênet in the third book is, indeed, an extraordinary act of literary empathy. And this story was written in exile by a conservative sixty-year old german, when most of everyone and everything he loved was either utterly betraying his culture or was being destroyed.

Well, so when I learnt (from a blog post of the ETH Bibliothek) that — after who knows how many years of work from the editors — the commented edition of this book was appearing in April this year (the Grosse kommentierte Frankfurter Ausgabe announced it in 2008 as “in plan, 2012”), I couldn’t resist and ordered it. I actually had already bought a German version of the book (“Die Geschichten Jaakobs”, “Der Junge Joseph”, “Joseph in Ägypter”, “Joseph der Ernährer”, to use the original titles), and since the available room in my apartment doesn’t really allow for more than one copy of thousand pages long German books, I donated these to my colleague Ian Petrow who had told me of his liking for the “Magic Mountain”.

But then, could I really keep my paperback German copies of “Der Zauberberg” and of “Doktor Faustus”, when both existed in the same amply commented edition? I couldn’t, donated the old ones (to the same colleague), and bought both. So here I am:

Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann

(on the left, the older (in)complete works of Shakespeare for scale).

The empty slot in the middle is that of the “Zauberberg”, which I am now trying to read in German, with much help from online dictionaries. And it reminds me that I started reading “The Magic Mountain” in Rutgers (and in translation, of course), when a friend there recommended it to me, especially because of the character of Lodovico Settembrini:

Auf dem Wege von links kam ein Fremder daher, ein zierlicher brünetter Herr mit schön gedrehtem schwarzen Schnurrbart und in hellkariertem Beinkleid, der, herangekommen, mit Joachim einen Morgengruss tauschte – der seine war präzis und wohllautend – und mit gekreuzten Füssen, auf seinen Stock gestützt, in anmutiger Haltung vor ihm stehen blieb.
GFKA, p. 88

For the Yiddish version, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer, see here.

Like Joyce, Thomas Mann died in Zürich, and his grave can be found there.

Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann

Where will the Tempter bring me next? I believe that, most likely, it will be the Opere of Primo Levi, or those of Niccolò Machiavelli, although my Italian is now rather worse than my German.

“Jacques Ménard, autor de Nicolás Bourbaki”

When, exactly two years ago, I published my earlier post containing the story of J. Ménard, I was apparently suspected by some people of being the author of that text. I tried for a long time to find the original Spanish version mentioned in the text, whose existence conclusively refutes this assertion (since my understanding of Spanish is, unfortunately, non-existent). After much effort, I have finally succeeded!

“Seminar”, the opera

This afternoon, while chatting with Will Sawin, between addressing rather technical points of ongoing projects, we observed that although we’ve seen seminar talks shared between two speakers, it was never with simultaneous speakers. It was just a step to jump from there to the idea that someone should write an Opera about a mathematical seminar talk, which — as opera does — would allow a duet, or trio, or quartet, or quintet, or sextet, of simultaneous speakers, including maybe some from the audience, or the chairperson trying to control the situation.

Unfortunately, I don’t know music, but if I were twenty years old, I’d be very tempted to write “Seminar”, the definitive opera about a math talk. At least, I can think of a libretto and try to write it (which language? I think French is best here, although the title should then be “Séminaire” or “L’exposé” in that case; which topic? good question — of course it would have to be a real talk; which style?)

In any case, I can safely predict a triumph in enlightened circles.


Keen-memoried readers will remember the word appearing before on this blog. As one of the happy few who have read “The Unconsoled” twice, I applaud with pleasure the honor given to K. Ishiguro! (If my credentials are disputed, let me clearly state that I can answer the question: “Which spectacular goal scored by a Dutch player during the 1978 World Cup is described in the book?” — or rather, almost, since the description is ambiguous and could apply to two goals by the same player, during different games; I actually remember watching at least one of them).