How to write your novel – Ask a brewer!

Ask ten brewers how to brew beer and get eleven opinions.

 Ask ten brewers – get eleven opinions. As a brewer and a writer and a one-time writer on brewing, I have always been fascinated by the truth of this brewers’ paradigm. More interesting is applying the idea to other creative areas, such as writing and publishing.

 I think most writers do as I do. We get an idea onto paper anywhichway and worry about the content, style, grammar, syntax and spelling, during the editing stage. Ask ten writers then, you should get one answer. Not so!  Apparently there is another way. Thomas Mann, so the story goes, sat every day with a fresh sheet of writing paper, and hand wrote a page, and didn’t cease toiling until he thought his labours had produced the perfect 200 words. His wife then typed and looked after his six children. She ended in a sanatorium in Davos, suffering from exhaustion. He visited her and had the idea for his greatest work, Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). It is among the greatest works of world literature (according to a Channel 4 documentary). Proust, Kafka, Conrad and Dostoevsky were the other runners and riders.

Unreadable Genius

 My copy of the Magic Mountain is 1002 pages long and each page is around two sides of hand written text. That means it took him 5 years 5 months to write, which isn’t that bad. Many of us have been hacking around on novels, much shorter in words and for longer in time.

Mann started the novel  in 1912, finished in 1924, but added nothing to it during WW1. After the war he revisited, rethought and rewrote the whole project. In that time (6 years) it grew from a novella, much in the style of Death in Venice, to the monster it now is. His wife typed and provided the cash for his lifestyle.

 My copy has been out of reach on the top shelf since 2000. I can be sure, because I used a post card as a bookmark and can still read the date on it. The post card was last inserted on page 380 – where I gave up. Mann said that any prospective reader should be prepared to read it twice so I have 1624 pages still to do. I read on a little, from where I stopped. My translation – Then death was just the logical negation of life; between life and barren nature was a gaping abyss, which research tried unsuccessfully to bridge.  I’m amazed I got that far before throwing in the towel. I’m equally amazed men and women faced the task of translating his beautiful German it into every major language.

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A Magic Mountain, perhaps.

 The truth is, I started reading it because of the Channel 4 documentary and everything else of Mann’s I’ve read is a breeze and pure genius. The Buddenbrooks –  read twice and the film once and the same for Death in Venice – pure delight. What went wrong with Der Zauberberg for me? Simple. It’s too clever for mere mortals. In one volume he redefined sickness and health, time and place, and everything and anything else we can think of. A sanatorium up a mountain is the setting, and is the perfect place to do this. It is full of sick, educated people, hanging on, loads of money, unlikely to recover, trying to make sense of their mortality, but each with their own little bit of worldly wisdom and philosophy, which they have time to impart to their companions.

 In the story, Castorp goes to the mountain to spend a few weeks. The doctors find an ill-defined murmur and convince him to stay – years. He loses touch with time, space and reality, except once, when caught in a snowstorm. The book is about the ideas with which Castorp – the main protagonist – is bombarded. Maybe he was a metaphor for the millions bombarded on the battlefields of Flanders, a bombardment which changed our world view forever and is discussed by the patients on the Magic Mountain. Germans discuss things to death.

Back to brewing – Castorp’s first concern when arriving at the sanatorium was whether Porter was available on the Zauberberg.

Woolf to the Rescue

 Is Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway an English equivalent? The British don’t bombard with ideas. They slap make-up on uncomfortable truths and hope they stay out of sight. No such luck with Woolf! Reading Mrs. Dalloway is like hiking with a pesky stone in the shoe. You keep shoving it out the way, into some remote shoe corner, certain it will return to remind us of its presence in the most inconvenient way.

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Was Woolf driven by her illness?

How did Woolf write? Not like Mann! I believe she used her illness to propel her writing, because writing can be so cathartic when the blues set in. When she knew a final bout of depression could not be avoided, she took her own life, to protect her family. I imagine she poured her emotions into her writing, whenever she was strong enough and in so doing, kept her demons at bay.

She has one similarity with Mann. Her husband Leonard, devoted himself to her literary success, as convinced of her genius as Katia Mann was of Thomas’s.

Too many words.

In our digital age we are producing words faster than ever, and no one uses pen and paper nor sits every morning until they have a perfect page. And the influence of conflict? Which post war? I am asking which proxy war in the 21st century shall we put as our datum point? Who will produce the piece of literature to define these decades, and if someone does, who will publish it?

Would anyone try to read it? We shall never know.

If ten brewers are worth eleven opinions then a hundred publishers will provide just one.


Risk has become a four letter word.

And I doubt Mrs. Dalloway drank beer. She was definitely a Champagne or Mosel wine person.

Thomas Mann lived for a while in Nidden, then East Prussia, now Lithuania. That is further east than Pomerania, once Prussia, now Poland and the birthplace of the super-heroine of my new novel, The Last Stop – A novel about the Berlin Sex Industry and one woman’s fight back. Available on Amazon.

Published by Clive La Pensée

Clive La Pensée, ex-science teacher, recognised writer on history of beer, novelist, expressionist, dreamer, believer in never giving up, empathiser, hopeful for a future without class, gender or racial prejudice. It's tough and at the moment, one has to remember distance travelled, rather than where we are at.

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