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Magic mountains inspired a German author

Thomas Mann as pictured in 1955 Keystone/AP Photo

The German author, Thomas Mann, had a room with a view over Lake Zurich. There he worked on some of his greatest novels and essays. Cluttered with writing utensils and exotic souvenirs, Mann's mahogany desk is much as he left it when he died near Zurich in 1955.

This content was published on March 5, 2014 - 16:00
Dale Bechtel in Zurich, swissinfo.ch

An ivory-handled magnifying glass, a leather-bound folder, Egyptian and Buddhist figurines as well as several fountain pens crowd the desktop.

"Thomas Mann always wrote by hand," says Cornelia Bernini of the Thomas Mann Archive. "Even the last letter he wrote while in a Zurich hospital was written by hand."

The desk followed him from Munich to Switzerland and on to the United States before returning with him to Switzerland, and has now found its final resting place in the archive at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology.

Switzerland left quite an impression on the author, considered the greatest German language writer of the 20th century. He often took holidays in the country, and a visit he paid his wife at a sanatorium in Davos in 1912 inspired The Magic Mountain.

High standards

The novel, which follows the lives and daily routine of patients at a sanatorium, has been described by critics as a work formulating the fateful choices facing Europe after the First World War.

"Some say he worked on The Magic Mountain during his stays here," says Roland Tegtmeyer, director of the Seehotel Sonne in Küsnacht.

The beautifully renovated Sonne enjoys a splendid location on the shore of Lake Zurich, and met the high standards expected by the German author. Besides Mann, it attracted many 19th and 20th century artists, intellectuals and dissidents. Brahms, Lenin and Kafka were among them.

After taking refuge in Switzerland from Nazi Germany in 1933, Mann and his family were drawn back to Küsnacht where they found a house that they rented high above the town, overlooking the lake and mountains.

Even though the house at Schiedhaldenstrasse 33 bears a plaque in memory of the time the writer spent there with his family, the Manns didn't make many friends in the neighbourhood.

Mann's wife, Katja, and their children were even frowned upon for what was often considered brazen behaviour. On one occasion, Katja was reprimanded by the police after she was caught by a neighbour hanging her washing outside to dry on a Sunday.

Mann was fond of the city where he made regular shopping trips. Even though he left most household tasks to his wife, he insisted on buying his own clothes, cigars and writing supplies. He never strayed far from Bahnhofstrasse, still the most fashionable shopping mile in Switzerland.

The writer himself was rarely seen by the townspeople.

Strict regime

"Thomas Mann followed a very strict daily regime. He worked on his writing every day and always wrote in the morning," explains Bernini. "He read books and newspapers in the afternoon and went for walks. In the evening, he listened to music or did more reading. But when he was writing, he wasn't allowed to be disturbed."

Mann chose, according to his letters, "to take beautiful walks through the forests that lie at Küsnacht's doorstep". One of the forests, a dense mix of maple, cherry and pine trees is only a five-minute walk from the house.

Steps lead down from the top of the hill past a fast-flowing stream. The fresh air and sound of rushing water must have helped the writer think more clearly and organise his thoughts. At the time, he was writing his four-part novel, "Joseph and His Brothers".

The forest is still a favourite retreat for residents of the neighbourhood, escaping for an hour or two from behind the walls of their stately homes.

An outspoken and high profile critic of Nazi Germany, Mann returned to the Sonne hotel where he gave lectures and readings in the ornate banquet hall. He was also a highly sought-after speaker in the city of Zurich.

Gold-framed glasses

The "Gebrüder Scholl" shop where he bought most of his writing supplies is now a "Gucci" boutique, and the men's clothing shop "Truns" has been converted into a confectionary. But the writer would still find what he was looking for at a couple of other favourite addresses.

Zwicker Opticians is no longer in the Zwicker family hands, but the name has been retained and it's still at Poststrasse 1 as it was in Mann's day. And it still sells some of the most exclusive glasses in the city.

In his diary for 1938, Mann wrote that he bought "very expensive gold-framed glasses with polished lenses". When he returned to Switzerland in the 1950s, the elderly writer returned to Zwicker to buy "light, horn-rimmed spectacles, which were better than metal ones for a sensitive nose".

On the evening of August 12, 1955, an 80-year-old and very ill Mann, now a patient at Zurich's cantonal hospital, asked for his glasses to be placed beside his bed so that he could read when he woke. He fell asleep, and his heart stopped beating an hour later. It was to be his last request.

Key facts

Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. His works included:
  The Magic Mountain
  Buddenbrooks
  Joseph and his brothers
  Death in Venice

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