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The Wag Chats with
Curtis White

Curtis White tells us why he decided to use the storyline and main character from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain as the starting point for his new novel, America's Magic Mountain.

WAG: Why did you take Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain for the starting point of your new novel?

Curtis White: I'm an artist who believes in the idea that "what I need will come to me." I was reading The Magic Mountain simply because it was one of those big famous books that I hadn't yet read. Slowly, the idea grew that I could use the ground situation for my own purposes. Some critics and readers treat my novel as an opportunity to compare the two. For me, it's just material. It was just useful. Nothing more than that.

WAG: On the surface, The Magic Mountain and America’s Magic Mountain differ. Mann’s book is exceedingly big and slow-paced, and his writing voice might be called ‘stately omniscience.’ America’s Magic Mountain is short, by comparison, and its voice is quicker. Which of Mann’s themes and forms did you retain?

White: Not many, really. Just the idea of a naive young man going to a place for the ill and discovering that he was ill himself. I was actually thinking just as much of Henry James' notion of the vessel of consciousness. I wanted to write a book in which an innocent (or empty) consciousness was filled with four well-defined but malicious voices. Hans Castorp is socialized into a toxic situation. I wanted to try to create the psychological reality of growing up damaged.

WAG: Is the culturally sheltered protagonist of Mann’s novel, Hans Castorp, more relevant as a character to Americans now than he has been in the past?

White: What's awful to think in any historical period in the West is what it means to grow up into destructive situations. Paul Goodman called it "growing up absurd." Theodor Adorno called it "damage." For me, being socialized into our culture is like being poisoned. Hence my interest in toxins, alcoholic and otherwise.

WAG: Mann’s novel ends with Hans Castorp going back down to the ‘flat’ world to see battle in the First World War. Why did you send your own Hans to his chosen fate?

White: My Hans, unhappily, has to stay where he is. He's a mate. One of the gang. Glug glug.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

White: Well, it may be obvious, but Gilbert Sorrentino is for my money our greatest living novelist, with the most consistent and accomplished "body of work." And yet he's practically unpublishable for commercial purposes. Bookstores can't give his books away. Still, as Haydn said upon hearing Handel's "Messiah" for the first time in London, "He's the master of us all."

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted February 11, 2005


Curtis White is the author of seven works of fiction, including Memories of My Father Watching TV, The Idea of Home and Requiem. He is also the author of two works of nonfiction, Monstrous Possibility and The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves.



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