If this were a normal January, free from the specter of COVID-19, Davos would be bracing itself for an invasion by several thousand of the world’s most self-important people: pompous politicians, slick CEOs and — worst of all — freeloading journalists. Normally this pretty Alpine town is the venue for the World Economic Forum in the last week in January, but this year that annual schmoozefest is safely confined to the internet. ‘Key global leaders will share their views on the state of the world in 2021,’ forewarns the WEF website but, for the first time in the WEF’s 50-year history, they’ll be doing it remotely. Due to the pandemic, Davos rests in peace.
If you’ve only ever heard of Davos because of WEF, you might assume it must be terribly grand, full of exclusive chalets and expense-account restaurants. That’s certainly what I assumed when I first came here, and I was pleased to be proved completely wrong. Apart from those few days in January, when the masters of the universe descend en masse, Davos is a pleasant, unpretentious place. Like most places in Switzerland, it’s clean, tidy and full of prosperous, contented people, but it’s not nearly as blingy as most other Swiss ski resorts. The sports center is full of schoolkids. There are more convenience stores than luxury boutiques. Tourism is a major industry, especially in winter, but this is mainly a town where ordinary Swiss families live and work.
I’m no master of the universe. I can’t ski to save my life, and my family lives in London not Davos. So what keeps bringing me back here? Two things: the arresting, disturbing paintings of German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and the German novelist Thomas Mann’s haunting Meisterwerk, The Magic Mountain. On my previous visits it was Kirchner’s paintings which loomed large, but now, in our weird new world of miasmic sickness, it’s Mann’s vast novel which takes center stage.
Long before it became a ski resort or a playground for pampered plutocrats, Davos was a refuge for Europe’s tuberculosis ridden bourgeoisie. Before antibiotics, there was no cure for this insidious illness, which killed around half of those who caught it. The best that modern medicine could offer was a stay in a sanatorium at high altitude, where the air was supposed to do you good. The highest town in Europe (over 5,000 feet above sea level), Davos was the mecca of this nebulous holistic trade. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in a TB clinic in Davos, and in 1912 Thomas Mann came here to visit his ailing wife in the town’s Waldsanitorium. Out of this visit, one of the greatest, strangest novels of the 20th century evolved.
Originally, Mann envisaged The Magic Mountain as a comic contrast to his malevolent novella Death in Venice, but the outbreak of World War One rendered this medical satire obsolete. When Mann resumed writing it after the war, it became a very different novel — bigger, bleaker, more enigmatic. When it was published in 1924, it was hailed as a requiem for the complacent culture which the ‘war to end all wars’ had swept away. A century on, it reads like a parable for our befuddled response to the coronavirus: loitering in a limbo of escalating lockdowns, plagued by conflicting rumors, enervated by the waiting and the worry, and wondering whether the purported cure is actually worse than the disease.
The Magic Mountain concerns a naive young German called Hans Castorp who travels to Davos to visit his cousin Joachim in a TB sanitorium and ends up staying for seven years. During this listless interregnum his life becomes increasingly surreal, as his fellow patients transmogrify into apparitions in an endless dream. I’ve never read a better description of the half-life we’re living now, the way days drift into weeks then months, the way relationships dissolve. As Mann says of the sanitorium, ‘It is a sort of substitute existence, and it can, in a relatively short time, wholly wean a young person from actual and active life.’ I wonder what he would have made of Zoom.
When you’re eventually allowed to travel here, you’ll recognize various locations in the novel. But what’s most thrilling is the way the novel’s spooky ambience reveals the darker side of Davos. Switzerland puts on a cheerful face for its visitors, but this happy holiday veneer conceals something harsher: the most dramatic landscape in the whole of Europe, inhabited by tough, inscrutable people. Forget Orson Welles’s famous quip, that Switzerland is a land of brotherly love whose only invention is the cuckoo clock. This was a war zone for centuries, a source of mercenaries and banking for Europe’s armies (and cuckoo clocks come from Germany). As Mann’s creepy Bildungsroman confirms, there’s more to Switzerland than cheese and chocolate.
This dark side is personified in the intense, tortured artworks of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who arrived here in 1917. One of the pioneers of German Expressionism, Kirchner volunteered for the Kaiser’s army during World War One but suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent here to a sanatorium. After his discharge he lived in a succession of simple Alpine huts in the hills around the town, painting mesmeric mountain landscapes. (If you’ve never been here you’ll never believe his lurid sunsets, but they’re entirely true to life.) In the 1930s Davos became the center of the Swiss Nazi movement, under the leadership of its German founder, Wilhelm Gustloff, who lived in Davos. In 1936 Gustloff was assassinated by a Jewish student here in Davos. Hitler made him a martyr. Denounced as a ‘degenerate’ artist, Kirchner became increasingly fearful of reprisals. After the Wehrmacht marched into Austria, in 1938, he shot himself in the field beside his house.
Davos now boasts a sleek museum, containing the world’s biggest Kirchner collection. The three houses where he lived are still here. They’re all private dwellings, not open to visitors, but that doesn’t really matter. A brisk hike between the three of them is a wonderful way to spend a day. Start at the Waldfriedhof, the leafy cemetery where Kirchner is buried, and finish up at Café Schneider, where he used to go to read the newspapers.
My favorite hotel is the Grandhotel Belvedere, a palatial slab of the Belle Epoque built in 1875. Thomas Mann stayed here, and so did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who set some of his Sherlock Holmes stories here; he also introduced skiing to Switzerland. Kirchner couldn’t afford to stay here, but he made them some promotional posters; even great artists need to make a living. More recent guests include Albert Einstein, Angela Merkel and Bill Clinton.
The most atmospheric hotel is the Berg hotel Schatzalp, perched on a steep hill high above the town (in Mann’s day you had to walk up, but now there’s a funicular). Looming over Davos at a vertiginous altitude of over 6,000 feet, it was the acme of modernity when it opened in 1900. Now it’s a precious, mysterious antique. Built as a sanatorium, some say it’s the setting for The Magic Mountain; others say Mann based his novel on the Waldhotel (formerly the Waldsanitorium, where his wife stayed). Personally, I think it’s a bit of both — but in the end, who cares? Either way, the Berghotel Schatzalp is intensely evocative of Mann’s novel and that lost world.
Sometimes serene, sometimes sinister, depending on the changing weather, this Jugendstil hotel is surrounded by a beautiful botanic garden. In summer it’s idyllic, strewn with flowers, but in winter when it’s draped with snow it feels wild and untamed. I went or a walk up here when it was snowing and got hopelessly lost amid the fir trees. With a shudder of recognition, I recalled the scene in The Magic Mountain when Hans loses his way in a snowdrift, but there was no thrill in this realization, only panic.
Finally, wet with sweat despite the cold, I made it back to the hotel. Still panting to catch my breath, gulping down the cool clear air, I took the funicular back down to Davos, where I warmed my bones with a cup of hot chocolate in Café Schneider. I thumbed through my copy of The Magic Mountain, looking for the bit about Hans which matched my ordeal, but the passage which sprang to mind was something his cousin Joachim says. ‘Sometimes, I think being ill and dying aren’t serious at all — just a sort of loafing about and wasting time,’ he says. ‘Life is only serious down below.’
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.