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Swiss Tryst

Our itinerary in the Alps was whimsical and random. But in Davos we had some business. It had been the home of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the German Expressionist painter, who cofounded the influential Brücke group. I believed the Kirchner Museum in town held a painting by the artist that had once belonged to my grandfather. It featured a snow-covered mountain range dotted with pine trees. For many years I thought nothing of it, but gradually that painting became a kind of totem of my grandfather, who always sat on the couch just below where it hung. Kirchner's hand was a kind of divining rod for the turbulence to come to Germany, Europe, and, as it happened, my grandfather—a German Jew who fought for his country in World War I, put himself through medical school by performing Shakespeare on the Frankfurt stage, and later escaped Germany one step ahead of the Gestapo; he'd been tipped off by his brother, also a doctor, who had a Gestapo officer as a patient. After my grandfather died, the painting was sold. The museum curator, Dr. Roland Scotti, would give us a tour the next day.

Today, Elizabeth and I took a walk up toward the hotel that was the setting in Mann's novel for the International Sanatorium Berghof, which sits on the side of a mountain above the town. The walk took an hour and a half. Eventually we reached a plateau and turned to look back over the valley. The similarity to my grandfather's painting was striking.

The hotel, called the Schatzalp, has a pre–World War I, Titanic-like aura of doomed splendor. We sat on the balcony, on a chaise of exactly the same sort that Mann's patients lounge on, swaddled in blankets, breathing the magically restorative air, taking their "rest cure."

"Let's stay here next time we come!" I said to Elizabeth.

"I don't know," she said. "It's a little…."

It's a little like a Venus flytrap. Mann's novel famously begins, "An ordinary young man was on his way to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graubünden. It was the height of summer, and he planned to stay three weeks." The next 700 or so pages are devoted to his sojourn of seven years.


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