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Book review

Buddenbrooks (1902). Thomas Mann. Trs. H. T. Lowe-Porter, 1922

Buddenbrooks is the four-generation saga of a wealthy 19th-century German merchant family. The Nobel Prize is generally awarded for an oeuvre; Mann’s 1929 citation was primarily for Buddenbrooks: an unusual choice which this novel justifies. Mann’s first novel, written in his early twenties, shows a prodigious talent for observation, an eye for character, an ear for dialogue and dialect, and a canvas ably spanning the better part of the 19th century. Buddenbrooks regularly tops Must-Read Lists of German literature; it has already become one of my favourite novels.

Buddenbrooks is the four-generation saga of a wealthy 19th-century German merchant family. The Nobel Prize is generally awarded for an oeuvre; Mann’s 1929 citation was primarily for Buddenbrooks: an unusual choice which this novel justifies. Mann’s first novel, written in his early twenties, shows a prodigious talent for observation, an eye for character, an ear for dialogue and dialect, and a canvas ably spanning the better part of the 19th century. Buddenbrooks regularly tops Must-Read Lists of German literature; it has already become one of my favourite novels.

In a Baltic town unnamed, but based on Mann’s hometown of Lubeck, Johann Buddenbrook, a vigorous, humorous, and thoroughly practical businessman, is throwing a housewarming party. This party of legendary proportions – the menu descriptions satiate and then nauseate modern readers – occupies all of Part One. (Buddenbrooks is in eleven parts.) Retrospectively, the reader sees the significance of this Nero-like party: it foreshadows the family’s decline. For now, that decline is at bay: as Johann’s son, also named Johannes (nicknamed “Jean” after the Frenchified fashion of the early 19th century), ably shoulders the business. It’s in the next generation that the Buddenbrooks’ fortunes meet a fork in the road. Jean’s older son Thomas is practical, intelligent, and personable; younger son Christian is a sickly, self-indulgent, morbid, culture-vulture wastrel. Their sister Antonie (“Tony”) tries to keep the warring brothers together. Things go wrong: well-planned marriages prove mismatches; Thomas’s rise through the town’s political leadership cannot save his business from floundering; and succession to the house becomes a fraught question as Thomas drifts apart from his wife Gerda, and fails to connect with his sole heir, the fragile “Hanno” (given name also Johannes). After more than 100 years of being pillars of their society, the Buddenbrooks go the way of all flesh.

Mann’s characterisation is conventional and competent, focussing on details of dress, appearance, and the surroundings characters create for themselves, and letting the characters speak for themselves, which they (especially Thomas, Christian, and Tony) do ably and credibly. Through the book runs the conflict between a practical vs. an artistic orientation to life; the Buddenbrooks’ fall comes partly from the failure to reconcile these two drives. The eldest Johann never feels this conflict: “Practical ideas – hm – well, they don’t appeal to me in the least. We have trade schools and technical schools and commercial schools springing up on every corner; the high schools and the classical education suddenly turn out to be all foolishness, and the world thinks of nothing but mines and factories and making money… That’s all very fine, of course. But, in the long run, pretty stupid, isn’t it?” – So says a man living in the lap of luxury, surrounded by damask and silk and enamel, and throwing a seven-course housewarming party after which some guests suffer from overeating. But Johannes Buddenbrook lives in the golden age: sure of his principles, untroubled by modern self-doubt.

Tony is the novel’s heart. She feels intensely, speaks her mind artlessly, cries shamelessly, laughs heartily – and comes away from a series of personal and familial disasters unscathed, and virtually unaged. She falls in love with a medical students, but is browbeaten into a supposedly prestigious marriage with a personable young businessman; however, the decision to sacrifice herself is ultimately her own. For Tony’s driving motive is the furtherance of her family’s fortunes. Her second marriage is also a failure, though a much more ridiculous one. Exaggerating in her own mind the shame she brought to her family by her first divorce – from a man who proved a crook – she resolves, all of her own volition, on a second marriage. But her transplantation from her mannered, cultured, class-conscious Prussian hometown to jolly, informal Munich is unsuccessful; a farcical domestic disagreement terminates her second marriage. Many other tragedies await Tony; each time she feels crushed, and declares herself finished; but each time this childlike, wholehearted woman emerges intact. Thomas ably summarises his sister’s character: “She bore all her mature experiences almost with a child’s unbelief in their reality, yet with a child’s seriousness, a child’s self-importance, and, above all, a child’s ability to throw them off at will.”

If Tony is the novel’s indomitable spirit, Thomas is its chief tragic figure. He starts well: with a firm grasp of business, a sociable character, and a wide set of interests. But the aforesaid split within himself makes his job increasingly harder: he becomes obsessed with trivialities, paralysed in his will: he must spend hours each morning on his toilet “…before he feels himself ready and panoplied…” to face the world. The novel’s climax occurs in a long-pending blow-up between Thomas and Christian. Christian, who’s failed at one business after another, who spends his money on operas and women, and who is now planning to marry a prostitute, accuses Thomas of having been always hardhearted. Thomas replies: “I have become what I am because I did not want to become what you are. If I have inwardly shrunk from you, it has been because I needed to guard myself – your being, your existence, are a danger to me – that is the truth.” Thomas struggles manfully to carry singlehandedly the burden of the business and the family; but a series of events leave him without any able partner in either sphere – and deprive him of the prospect of a fitting heir.

Thomas is a fitting tragic figure: fully self-aware, valiantly battling himself to the end. But in moments of quiet, this determined businessman allows himself philosophy. On a prescribed rest cure at the beach, he muses on the difference between those who prefer the sea vs. the mountain: “What sort of men prefer the monotony of the sea? Those, I think, who have looked so long and deeply into the complexities of the spirit, that they ask of outward things merely that they should possess one quality above all: simplicity… It is a strong, challenging gaze, full of enterprise, that can soar from peak to peak; but the eyes that rest on the wide ocean and are soothed by the sight of its waves rolling on forever, mystically, relentlessly, are those that are ay wearied by looking too deep into the solemn perplexities of life. – Health and illness, that is the difference.”

The novel itself is sedentary: most of it occurs in one or other of the Buddenbrooks’ houses. First the house in Mung Street; then Thomas and his wife’s house on Broad Street; then the couples’ second house on Fishers Lane. Occasional recuperative trips to Travemunde Beach, and out into town following Senator Thomas Buddenbrook on his public duties, relieve the scenery. When characters do leave town – Tony goes to Munich, and Christian goes to England and then South America – the novel generally waits for these wandering children to come home and tell their own tales. This curious narrative stationarity mirrors the family’s. While the town is growing, and business is prospering, around them – their own fortunes stagnate. And stagnation means death. The parallel rise of the Hagenstroms, a rival family, illustrates, clearly but subtly, how a series of choices and accidents lead to either failure or success.

Buddenbrooks also boasts a well-flreshed and variegated cast of secondary characters. Bendix Grunlich is the dishonest schemer whose impossibly yellow moustaches give him away to the woman he’s courting, but not to her worldly parents, who’re also chasing a desirable match, though more honestly. Strikingly, both measures of worldliness miscarry. Grunlich deceives his wife, his father-in-law, and his creditors — only to lose everything. All his dishonesty has been for nothing: this vanity reads less like poetic justice, and more — fittingly — like a character flaw. Gerda Arnoldsen is beautiful, but cold and over-refined: fresh air and susnhine give her a headache; she treats her own husband with disdain when he is well, and with unconcealed repulsion when he falls ill. Only for music does she have a heart: it’s music that binds her with her father, and that briefly offers kinship with her son. And Sesemi Weichbrodt, as the hunchbacked, good-tempered, unvarying teacher is this novel’s tragic and indomitable hope for the future — and in this role gets the last word.

Mann’s treatment of death, too, is remarkable. Inevitably in a saga, death occurs periodically and in varied forms. Death comes also in fitting forms. The Frau Consul retains her faculties till the end. Thomas, who’s always been split between two paths in life, and who has long been losing his grip on himself, suffers grotesquely but briefly — after a stroke reduces him to muteness, and his relatives to wishing for his merciful release. The novel’s saddest, and most shocking — though in retrospect predictable — death is a masterstroke of vivid but detached narrative.

Politics remains very much in the background. We trace the decline of interest in French interior decoration, and Frenchified nicknames, from the first to the third generation. The founding of the Second Reich, and shifting international alliances, are relegated to passing remarks. Once or twice, Mann feels the need to fill the reader in on current affairs via a chapter-long dialogue between Thomas and his barber, who more or less recite newspaper headlines to one another. These dialogues read as little more than exposition (irrelevant in this family saga), and constitute one of the very few hiccups of this tome.

The novel’s most touching character is young Hanno: the only fourth-generation Buddenbrook, a fragile, supersensitive child who struggles with academics, loathes sports, but is possessed by a love of music. This tender boy is alienated from his father Thomas – who, as he senses his own failures, recedes behind a façade of increasing hardness and competence – but briefly finds a mentor and a friend. Hanno also furnishes Mann with the opportunity to debate about, and describe, music. In narrating how Hanno turns a simple theme into something sublime, and in so doing experiences seismic joy, Mann tests the boundaries of the emotional powers of conventional prose. Hanno’s poor health is the culmination of the family’s decline: in Hanno, physical illness and moral weakness combine to deliver this once proud and prosperous family the final blow.

Buddenbrooks is a monumental achievement. Its style is transparent; its pace sure; its gallery of portraits compelling; its tragedy slow and inevitable. If you read one novel this year, make it Buddenbrooks. H. T. Lowe-Porter’s translation is excellent: the language is mirror-clear, the dialects faithfully transposed for an Anglophone ear.

Read Buddenbrooks for free here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier, my reading more critical, my library more accessible. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing bookshelves, and save money too. Switch to soft copy today.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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