The Magic Mountain (1924) by Thomas Mann
I know that I sound like a broken record when it comes to Thomas Mann, my Favorite Author Ever In The History of The World, but I'm telling begging pleading with you to read The Magic Mountain (the John E. Woods translation).
Mann, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1929, is considered one of the most influential and brilliant writers of the 20th century, and not just in his native Germany. Not only that- Mann also stood up to fascism and Nazism, using his influence and popularity to try and persuade his fellow citizens and his readers beyond Germany to reject it as well.
Now, I've read most of what Mann has written, including his short stories and essays, but The Magic Mountain is everything a beautiful work of literature should be. Each character is a world unto him/herself- we can picture them clearly and feel like we know them (because we know someone like them in our own lives). Hans Castorp, Claudia Chauchat, Ludovico Settembrini, Leo Naphta- each has his/her own charm, mystery, obsessions, and traumas.
The plot is straightforward- Hans goes to a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Alps (here's a real-life version upon which it was partly based) to visit his cousin, Joachim. He plans to spend just a short time, but ultimately stays for several years. The doctors, patients, and general ambiance of the place conspire to lull Hans into a kind of lassitude, a kind of "Lotus-Eaters" situation, until he starts to believe that he is developing tuberculosis.
Mann used his knowledge of sanatorium culture (vibrant in the early 20th century- his wife stayed at one for a time) to comment upon the diseased state of Europe on the eve of World War I. But there is so much more to the story. The religious, ethical, political, medical, and literary discussions and arguments that the characters carry on with one another are brilliant and complicated, but also edifying. You'll want to jump in to these discussions yourself, they're so engaging.
And then, for all you opera/music lovers, there's an extended scene near the end of the novel in which Hans listens to recordings of famous arias, and it is masterfully written.
So if you can read The Magic Mountain in the original German, go for it- I envy you (one day, I promise I'll learn German). But if you can't, by all means read the Woods translation. It is superb. This, my dear reader, this novel must also be reread often- something I intend to do more consistently. I've read it three times now, I think, and each time I love it even more.