Thomas Mann’s great 19th century family saga, a dazzling portrait of its time – and ours
A new film version of Thomas Mann’s first full-length novel may seem to be just another attempt at jumping on the bandwagon of a great historical novel in period costume.
But as a reminder to revisit the novel, or to discover it for the first time, it deserves our vote of thanks. What a colorful panoply of characters, each vigorously portrayed through their actions and their speech; what a rich, detailed depiction of social mores; what an incisive analysis of the changes time and circumstances wreak upon this family, whose decline is heralded in the subtitle of the work. Altogether, what a riveting story this is, and a razor-sharp analysis of human nature.
All this is as true and as relevant to today’s reader as it was when it was first published, by S. Fischer in Berlin in 1901. Then, it was an immediate, unexpected, and unprecedented success. There had been nothing quite like it up to that moment in German literature – unlike French, with Honore de Balzac or Victor Hugo, or English, with John Galsworthy. But while we are interested enough in the doings and downfall of Galsworthy’s Forsytes, they do not represent something larger than themselves in the way that the Buddenbrooks do, nor is the craft of the prose as strong.
This is Mann’s great art; he succeeds in capturing our attention for the story of the members of this merchant family and drawing us into their lives in a way that we would have hardly thought possible, and, at the same time, allowing us a historical, psychological, and almost philosophical insight into the passing of an era.
In Buddenbrooks, Mann does not attempt to be stylistically innovative in his literary style, which is rooted in the poetic realism of Theodor Fontane where realistic objects or natural events take on a symbolic aspect. For example, as Johann Buddenbrook, the second generation patriarch, lies dying, a visceral cord of nature itself seems to break after an unbearable atmospheric tension, releasing a sudden downpour of sheets of falling rain, the sound of which almost seeming to orchestrate the moment of his death.
This is also true, of course, for the characters, who are vibrant and very real and yet also symbolic of something larger. Of the three Buddenbrook children, two brothers and a sister, it is Antonia, called ‘Toni,’ who is at the center – whose childish attempt at the catechism opens the novel, who tries so hard to find her rightful place in the world, and who symbolizes the fate of all women at the end of the nineteenth century. She is determined to keep up appearances at all costs and, ultimately, is the one who is most betrayed. Nothing is left of her aspirations but an outer shell, because, however clever she is, as a woman of a certain social standing she must marry, and marry well; then, when her first husband turns out to be a liar and cheat, who married her for her money, her fate is sealed through no fault of her own. After her divorce, she is ostracized by society; her unhappiness only exacerbated by her pride.
Thomas, the elder brother destined to take over the firm, sees it rise to its zenith and then watches helplessly as the times change and the market is governed by new factors, making the merchant middleman redundant. He is portrayed as a hard-working, ambitious, but in no way egotistical man. The author seems to feel for him, who tries at every turn to do the right thing, but can finally no longer hold back the turn of the tide. Thomas, the upright merchant and conscientious city councilor with a penchant for sartorial elegance, is singled out by fate in his unusual choice of wife, the beautiful Gerda, who plays the violin so poignantly.
It is Gerda’s entry into the family that heralds a whole new dimension – art. Here, Mann has found his favourite theme; one to which he will return in many novels and novellas, notably in Tonio Kröger, Death in Venice, Doktor Faustus. The world of business allies itself with the world of art, but it is an uneasy alliance, and the child Hanno, who takes after his mother, playing the piano with ease and grace and even improvising in the manner of Wagner, dies young. The dynasty of Buddenbrooks has come to an end.
The theme of the artist – and, most particularly the musician – and his place in society is one that Mann sees as an unresolved and unresolvable conflict, both within society and in the heart of the artist himself. The world of business and money-making, social graces, and civic duties is sterile and lacks profundity without art. Yet the artist cannot survive in society. He is too sensitive, too in touch with the depths of beauty. Art – music – is set apart from everyday life and, in this novel, there can be no reconciliation.
The younger brother, Christian, cannot apply himself to anything for any length of time. A hypochondriac and libertine who shirks work whenever he can, symbolizes the shriveled branch of the family tree. Absorbed only in himself, mocking others, he sets himself apart from his family and society. His fate would seem to be a warning, for he is pitiable and yet finds no pity.
Buddenbrooks is also the story of the city of Lübeck, of the thriving port peopled with the workers and the townspeople, the civic councilors and their servants and coachmen. The tall houses with their gable windows, the cobblestone streets, the fine mansion Thomas builds for his family and the cramped offices of the clerks, all form the stage setting for this drama. And, indeed, it is a dramatic story, with the classic arc of rise and fall, hope and disillusionment. But it lives at its best as a novel of over 700 pages in the fine Everyman edition with a brilliant new (1998) translation by John E. Woods, and a marvelous introduction by the revered Cambridge Professor Emeritus of German literature T. J. Reed. After seeing the film, we should always revisit the novel.
Die Buddenbrooks, von Thomas Mann
S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt (2002)
Available at Morawa,
1., Wollzeile 11,
01 513 7 513-450
By Thomas Mann
Translated John E. Woods, introduction by T. J. Reed
Everyman Library (1994)
Available at Shakespeare & Co.
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