“Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann: minute descriptions of a bygone way of life
A book group’s choice of Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician”, a fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann, prompted me to read one of this Nobel prize winning author’s works. “Buddenbrooks”, his first novel published in 1901 when he was still in his mid-twenties, traces the decline of a prosperous family of Lübeck merchants over four generations, clearly based on his own. In writing about the materialism, snobbery and stifling moral codes of the wealthy middle classes, perhaps this may be compared with “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy, who also won the Nobel Prize.
Although it is considered one of the finest novels representing C19 Germany, I have to admit that by the end of Chapter 14, I had decided against struggling on dutifully through the remaining almost 600 pages. Flipping forward through the text, and searching for motivation via the many glowing reviews did not alter this decision. Initially, I thought that the stiff style, which could of course be said to reflect C19 German society, might be down to the English translation. I switched from the version produced by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, who possessed sole rights to translate Mann’s work for more than two decades, to the American John Wood’s less formal style, published in 1994.
However, the problem remained for me in the mind-numbing descriptions of people’s dress and appearance, the décor and furniture of rooms, the plentiful food and small talk, although all this may well convey very accurately the ambience and behaviour of a particular society. When poor little Christian Buddenbrooks shocks his mother at a social gathering by complaining he is “damned sick”, the doctor knows it is a case of indigestion triggered by four heavy meals a day, but tactfully suggests a strict diet of “young pigeon and French bread”. This may be quite revealing, even slightly amusing, but are such incidents sufficient to hold one’s interest?
There is a plethora of characters who make brief appearances, lists of families who form part of the Buddenbrooks’ social circle, but all are sketchily portrayed and two dimensional – admittedly perhaps intentionally indicating the superficiality of relationships. There are telling hints that some of the pushiest socially inferior upstarts are doing rather too well, but this theme is not fleshed out. Those described in more detail often seem somewhat eccentric or unreal, their inner thoughts remaining opaque.
Dramatic incidents prove damp squibs: a house warming party is threatened by a letter to patriarch Johann Buddenbrook from his estranged son, demanding compensation for his share in the property – this sounds like a promising plot-line, but comes to nothing. Likewise, when sent to holiday on the coast to ease her stress over being courted by a man her parents wish her to marry, Tony (Antonie) Buddenbrook ironically falls for a young medical student but this situation is never developed. It seems that Mann was more interested in characters than plot, but even the main players seem too bound by convention to express themselves with any spontaneity and depth.
By Chapter 14, it is clear that girls like Tony are mere pawns in a marriage market designed to support family fortunes, pampered but denied a decent education so dependent and ill-equipped to cope with life. Tony’s sense of personal importance grounded in her family, acceptance of her role in forming a link in the chain of family connections, ultimately lead her to agree to marriage to the phony creep Herr Grünlich. The fact that even she can see through this character while apparently her father cannot, may be a clue to the failure of the family to prosper, as the decline begins.
So, feeling that I have grasped the narrow, blinkered bygone world presented in this novel, so lacking in natural expression of real human feelings, there is not enough to move, amuse, enlighten or fill me with anticipation to read to the end.