August 15

8 comments

Your Friday Writing Challenge: Thomas Mann and blankets

Hi everyone,

I’ve been saving this challenge up: it’s a tricky one. When I set myself this writing exercise, I had to force myself just to write anything at all. I kept feeling like a terrible writer. But maybe you will find it easier than me.

This is from The Magic Mountain. It’s early in the book, and the protagonist, Hans Castorp, is still learning the customs of this remote Alpine sanatorium. He has been there long enough to feel accustomed to their routines, but not long enough to quite know why those routines occur.

One daily practice, for many members of the sanatorium — oh, I shouldn’t post this! It’s going to be too difficult! — is to wrap themselves in two layers of blankets so they can lie outside, on their balcony, in the dark of the evening, staying perfectly still but remaining warm. It’s part of their required “rest cure” that they devote hours to each day. Often, while wrapped up on the blanket, Hans Castorp can hear the other, wilder inmates calling to each other below, or a faint piano played in the nearby town.

Here is Mann narrating Castorp’s first experience of wrapping himself. It’s a long paragraph of description, finishing with a funny little detail about the customs of the patients. Here’s the opening:

When they came back up from their meal, the package of blankets was lying on a chair in Hans Castorp’s room, and he made use of them that day for the first time. Joachim, as the expert, gave him lessons in the art of wrapping oneself the way they all did up here, something every novice had to learn right off. You spread the blankets, first one, then the other, over the frame of the lounge chair, but so that a long piece was left dangling to the floor at the foot. Then…

That’s the first half of the paragraph. Can you complete it? How would you present the self-wrapping method, and how would you make the process clear as a physical operation, and also present it in a witty manner that tells us something about the sanatorium and its inmates?

You can see my terrible attempt posted in the comments!

Yours,

Daniel


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  • What an excellent challenge – though I think it’s too hard-core for me! I wanted to read your attempt, though, couldn’t see it in the comments. Am I missing something?

  • Here’s mine:

    When they came back up from their meal, the package of blankets was lying on a chair in Hans Castorp’s room, and he made use of them that day for the first time. Joachim, as the expert, gave him lessons in the art of wrapping oneself the way they all did up here, something every novice had to learn right off. You spread the blankets, first one, then the other, over the frame of the lounge chair, but so that a long piece was left dangling to the floor at the foot. Then you sat down on the bed and, with the first blanket, began to encase your feet and ankles, binding the first corner of blanket within two additional rotations. Warmth had already appeared by this point, as much from the constriction as the enclosure, rising up out of your pinned together knees. To move your legs at this stage would to risk the destruction of the whole process, and so, still lying flat on the bed, you reached for low-hanging low piece of the remaining sheet. This you tugged under your back and then, once it was in place, you flipped the remainder across your chest, making sure to push the loose ends of the upper blanket into the lower one wrapping your legs. Arms should remain free until, at last, the chest was tightly grasped, and then you wriggled hands and wrists into the squeeze of that dark embrace, your only company for the following two hours.

    • I focused on what the tactile function of this repetitive action must be like and what thoughts the character might have while doing it. I think I prefer to leave the mystery of how this is accomplished unknown. (Also, it was really hard to figure out why he’d start in a chair instead of on the floor–the way Scottish men traditionally managed kilts back when they were one, long piece of fabric.) I did view a tutorial of wrapping a Sari to get some ideas, but decided that it would be easier to just suggest the actions instead of step-by-stepping them. Sorry if this was cheating.

  • Here’s mine. Sorry it’s so long.

    …, shoving the end of one blanket beneath his armpit, Hans sat and began the tedious practice of tucking and rolling that turned a human being into a poorly-wrapped, itchy wool burrito. As he spun in nautilus layers, he noted the crack that bisected the ceiling. The lightning strike of imperfection in the white stucco seemed to be getting longer with each revolution. Perhaps the strain of people all rolling themselves into sausage casings on each successive floor was putting a strain on the 1950’s era construction? Looking down, the carpet was likewise marred by the concurrent pounding of bodies striking the floor as they came off the furniture. The couch-like chair, which made him think of the comic strips in The New Yorker where anxiety-ridden patients confessed to indifferent Freudian cutouts, ended before the blankets did. Hans caught himself before he fell. Wiggling an arm out, he pulled up and drew back in the umbilical end of the blanket before contorting himself into a lying position on the cool balcony floor. He had been assured this was similar to how babies in Russia were swaddled at birth—probably to prevent them from becoming accustomed to freedom. Hans didn’t put much faith in the ‘woo woo’ magic of rebirthing, or revisiting the womb, or whatever freak-based interpretation you called crawling back into the birth canal; but he as he closed his eyes to the world, he had to admit, it was a good place to sit and think of all the stupid shit you’d done that brought you to this ridiculous point in life. Perhaps the Russians had the right idea after all.

  • “Perhaps the strain of people all rolling themselves into sausage casings on each successive floor was putting a strain on the 1950’s era construction?” I liked this a lot! Well done!

    • I just caught my typo of an unnecessary ‘he’ near the end. I dislike the inability to make corrections to comments on WordPress.

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