A blond young man with the pink face of a child, with sideburns, a regular patron in a Monte Carlo casino. He enters the stage right on the next day following Castorp’s arrival in Davos. He tries to impress the ladies in the sanatorium’s lounging arcade with his projects of committing suicide. He demonstrates a knife and brings a loaded revolver from his room while, at the same time, offering chocolates to his audience. From the very beginning he appears to be a silly figure, a cheap buffoon, a typical character at best, good for sealing the background against which the main plot unfolds. A showy type to be found in any sanatorium at any time. Katia Mann writes in her memoirs that she met a Herr Albin, the chocolates, the gun and all, during her stay in a sanatorium in Arosa.
Well, then, a silly figure, a braggart and a coquet – and someone like that is entrusted in the novel with the suicide department?
The little Mr Friedemann died a suicidal death, the protagonists of the short stories Death in Venice and The Clown are considering committing suicide, the father of the con man Felix Krull kills himself and so does Doktor Überbein in Royal Highness – all that prior to The Magic Mountain. Then there are those who don’t want to live, like Senator Buddenbrook or Hanno. As his letters to his brother, Heinrich, suggest, Thomas Mann himself was close to the thought of committing suicide around 1900. In 1910, his sister, Carla, took her own life. In The Magic Mountain, a student is mentioned who hanged himself in Davos and, during Castorp’s stay, two characters that commit suicide are Peeperkorn and Naphta. The latter – according to the rule that a gun introduced in the first act has to fire in the third – does it using a gun borrowed for the purpose of a duel from Herr Albin (who, besides the knife and the revolver, owns a pair of officer’s pistols – the guy obviously has a whole arsenal at his disposal). There will be suicides afterwards too – in Thomas Mann’s closest circle and in his writing. Suicidal death was a very serious matter for him.
Herr Albin doesn’t commit suicide, of course, he only wants to be interesting. He floats about for a whole seven years among the Berghof patients with an assortment of lethal weapons and an unlimited supply of chocolates always at hand. Unlike the ladies in the lounging arcade, we are unable to take him to heart. A cheap seducer, demon for the poor – we would gladly repeat after Wokulski that there is as much demonism in him as there is poison in a match. And that’s where we’re wrong. True danger camouflaged with Joker’s costume, fundamental matters in a kitschy décor, a comical register instead of a tragic one – those are Mann’s favourite tricks in this novel. Herr Albin’s first appearance is accompanied by a sense of coldness – it’s probably the same coldness that emanates from Leverkühn’s interlocutor in chapter XXV of Doctor Faustus. And suddenly the scene breaks off, dispelled like a dream or a phantom. The name “Albin” can be traced back to German mythology, from which Wagner took his elves and Alberichs.
Like every true devil, Herr Albin embodies the Zeitgeist. According to a brief characterisation provided at the beginning of the novel, the times in question “despite their hustle and bustle, provide … neither hopes nor prospects … they respond with hollow silence to every conscious and subconscious question about the ultimate, beyond-personal, unequivocal meaning of all exertions and deeds …” This diagnosis is aptly confirmed by those passages in the novel where time melts into an everyday “soup of eternity” and manifests itself as a permanent problem – it needs to be hurried, pushed, spent, killed, galvanised by means of “change and episode”. The alternative: a rejection of life as the only way of manifesting human sovereignty or life divided into episodic attractions – fits this picture quite well. Also Behrens, nicknamed Rhadamanthus and holding the highest office of chief doctor in the sick world, says only how much time one has left – rather than what’s worth doing with that time or with one’s life.
If we look more closely at Herr Albin’s doings, we may notice the interesting detail that it is him who introduces to the patients a book, or a rather “badly printed booklet”, translated from French, called The Art of Seduction, an “exposition of a philosophy of physical love and debauchery, all in the spirit of worldly, life-affirming paganism.”1 The thing does the rounds of all the rooms, old and young patients alike can’t wait for their turn, and two ladies almost come to blows over which one is the first in line to read it.
The book confirms Herr Albin’s seductive talents not only with its title. At first sight, it looks like an existential chocolate kind of temptation, only addressed specifically at artists. Who wouldn’t like his work to enjoy such popularity?
We will never find out whether Castorp read The Art of Seduction too or only followed its successes. In the same chapter we see how he devotes himself to readings of quite a different kind, in the fields of anatomy, physiology, and biology. That Castorp, reading with a pencil in his hand and marking the more interesting passages, resembles Thomas Mann himself who, as we know, also read academic books from various fields and highlighted fragments he could use in the work he was planning at the time.
1Perhaps Mann took into account here Marcel Barrière’s Essai sur le Donjuanisme Contemporain, translated into German and published in 1905, see: U. Karthaus, Die Kunst zu verführen und der verführte Künstler, in: Liebe und Tod – in Venedig und anderswo, hrsg. von T. Sprecher, “Thomas-Mann-Studien” 33.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak