WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT HIM?: My friend the German genius recommended him while we were still in college. I also stole a copy of Dr. Faustus from the library, but I gave it back.
WHAT ARE YOU READING?: Buddenbrooks, which is what the Nobel committee cited as Mann’s crowning achievement and which he wrote when he was 25, before all his truly great works. I would rather read Dr. Faustus or The Magic Mountain, but I’m trying to stick to what the committee recommends, even if it does basically recommend juvenalia.
REVIEW: Buddenbrooks was good, but wow did it drag on. It belongs in every “development of the novel” reading list, because it is excellently constructed the way (I assume) Henry James’ novels are, but Mann ever so gently lays an undercurrent of intellectual discontent under the normal workings of The Nineteenth Century Novel. The story is basically the same as One Hundred Years of Solitude: we start with a vital, self-confident man at the head of a sturdy household and end when the family is done for and all their hard work dispersed.
The story follows the Buddenbrook family through four generations. Johann is a rich and influential grain wholeseller who has passed his prime, but still runs his family and business with a stern hand. His son Jean takes his father’s place in due time, but is also a thoroughly pious man. After he dies, his son, Thomas, takes over the firm, but he is full of doubt and drives himself insane trying to keep up appearances. Tom’s son Johann dies of typhoid fever, but even before that, they both knew that Thomas would be the last owner of the company.
Jean’s children are the primary characters: Thomas, Christian and Antonie. Generally speaking, we watch their place in the world, their reputations and the prestige of The Firm decline in the course of half a century. It starts with Jean and Antonie being swindled by her first husband and his creditors and finally ends when Thomas dies and commands that the firm be liquidated. We see plenty of evidence that appearances, making things seem to be going perfectly well, is what really drives the family to ruin. Incidentally, the first event in the novel is Johann Buddenbrook buying a house from a bankrupt old merchant family, and everyone gathering and saying “how could they have fallen so far?” HOW INDEED?!?!?!?!
I love how it is bookended with Ovid’s lament for the fall of man (Met. 1.89-150, btdubs), which praises mankind’s ability to live naturally and without corrupted social constructs. That seems to be the theme of the book. As time goes on, the idea of being a Buddenbrook overtakes everyone’s ability to live and thrive as human beings. For instance, Jean Buddenbrook threw lavish Christmas parties, where rich and poor mingled and took their ease, but after his death, his wife threw one that was solemn as a funeral. Or there’s the house; in the days of old Johann, who bought it to bring his work and home life together and celebrate the two. It’s a happy place, where the people in the highest families were always coming in and eating and spending the nights enjoyably. By Thomas’ time, most of the house is in disrepair: he specifically mentions that the billiard room flooded. Its days as a celebration of the firm of Buddenbrook are over.
DO YOU RECOMMEND IT?: Yeah. As far as late 19th century novels go, Buddenbrooks is the bee’s knees.
WHAT’S NEXT?: Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. She wrote three books about Kristin, but I am only reading the first. Also, sometime soon I will do Harry Martinson’s ANKARA: A SURVEY OF MAN IN TIME AND SPACE, but not immediately.