Buddenbrooks (and other things)

I finished Buddenbrooks yesterday, and now when it’s time to begin another book, I’m wishing I were already in the middle of one. I’m feeling tired and anxious about the new job, and in these circumstances I find it difficult to begin something. There’s something about the effort it takes to orient myself in a new book that’s hard when I don’t have much energy. Actually, I am in the middle of two books, but I’m talking about wanting to be in the middle of a novel and not Proust or anything like Proust.

I’m guessing I won’t finish the From the Stacks challenge, at least not by the deadline (end of January I think), and at least not in the form I’d originally planned. Samuel Beckett’s Molloy is next, and while I’d really like to read it, now doesn’t seem like the right time. It’s not quite the thing to follow Buddenbrooks — I’d prefer something lighter and easier. I’m consider pulling Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe off my TBR-shelves, which would fulfill the challenge in a slightly different way.

Anyway, Buddenbrooks. I sort of knew what this book was about going into it — a story of the Buddenbrook family over the course of several generations, and specifically the story of that family’s decline. I read The Magic Mountain a few years ago, and found that Buddenbrooks is quite different — more about the plot and less about ideas, although the ideas are there, just integrated into the story more. If you’ve read The Magic Mountain, you’ll know about the long philosophical passages — those aren’t to be found in Buddenbrooks.

Perhaps “plot” isn’t the right word to use to describe the story in Buddenbrooks, since it seems less like a carefully-crafted tale that’s obviously shaped and created and more like a description of how life really is. Okay, that last phrase sounds naive, but what I’m getting at is that Buddenbrooks is episodic, and the point of all those episodes is pretty simple — to tell the story of decline. Some editions include a subtitle, “The Decline of a Family,” (although my edition does not — I’m not sure why), which gives away even that simple storyline. The pleasures of this book are not about following the storyline through to the end to see what happens, but are about appreciating the moments along the way.

I found this lack of narrative drive a bit dull at times, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading overall, just to acknowledge that it’s not exactly a page-turner. Knowing what I know about Mann’s later novels, he will continue in this direction; The Magic Mountain, although wonderful, is even less of a page-turner. Buddenbrooks was published when Mann was 25 (in 1901), and I got the feeling as I read that it is Mann’s attempt at writing a Victorian novel, something, perhaps, he needed to do before he went off in a different direction.

What surprised me about Buddenbrooks is its obsession with business and with class. The Buddenbrooks are a mercantile family, and what makes them famous is their (in the beginning) hugely successful business. And their fame feels fairly small-scale; they are big fish in a small pond, but that small pond means so much to them. The characters make sacrifices for the sake of family tradition and reputation. Here is one character’s speech, to give you a taste of the Buddenbrook’s level of devotion to themselves:

To cherish the vision of an abstract good; to carry in your heart, like a hidden love, only far sweeter, the dream of preserving an ancient name, an old family, an old business, of carrying it on, and adding to it more and more honour and lustre — ah, that takes imagination, Uncle Gotthold, and imagination you didn’t have. The sense of poetry escaped you, though you were brave enough to love and marry against the will of your father. And you had no ambition, Uncle Gotthold. The old name is only a burgher name, it is true, and one cherishes it by making the grain business flouish, and oneself beloved and powerful in a little corner of the earth….Oh, we are travelled and educated enough to realize that the limits set to our ambition are small and petty enough, looked at from outside and above. But everything in this world is comparative, Uncle Gotthold. Did you know one can be a great man, even in a small place; a Caesar even in a little commercial town on the Baltic? But that takes imagination and idealism — and you didn’t have it, whatever you may have thought of yourself.

This effort to be great, even on a small scale, costs the characters a lot; part of the cause of their decline is simply the great effort it takes to live up to the old ideals. One of the main characters, Thomas, has a face that begins to look more and more like a mask, hiding the strain of being “a Caesar even in a little commercial town on the Baltic” — Thomas is the one who gives the speech above, which, from the perspective of the novel’s end, begins to look tragic.

In the effort to keep the family status intact, the characters obsess about their social interactions; much of the story is taken up with Buddenbrook family members analyzing who said what to whom and with what tone of voice and with what implications. And their personal choices are shaped by family concerns; several characters cannot marry whom they want or follow what career they want, and they suffer from this their whole lives. They may as well be part of a royal family with obligations to their country, for all the freedom they have.

There is also the problem of how art fits into this world of business and family status; young Johann, the only hope to keep the old ways going, is not interested in or competent in business; rather, he is a budding musician, a dreamy, introspective boy who feels terror at his father’s disapproval, but isn’t capable of following in his footsteps. Rather than allowing the new generations to follow their interests and letting the business die if need be, the younger people’s lives become sacrifices.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

8 responses to “Buddenbrooks (and other things)

  1. I have The Magic Mountain, the only Mann in my collection, waiting to be read some time soon. I’m hoping I enjoy it! I did not know about the long philosophical passages but am hoping I don’t find it all too abstruse.

    I have a deadline to reach as well for a book club: 100+ pages left in the Pamuk to finish in four days. Which doesn’t sound like much until you consider how long it took me to get through the first 280+.

    I hope you do manage to settle into a new lighter read that is not Proust soon.

  2. This is sort of why I like having more than one book on the go at once. Sometimes when you are so into a novel (and I imagine Mann is pretty intense), you are so wrapped up in the characters/story and then it ends, and then what. I know that feeling of being at a loss on what to read next. With other book(s) started, you have already invested a little time and attention and (for myself anyway) you can get into another story fairly easily. Okay, so here is me justifying why it is just wonderful having more than one book on the go at a time! I really want to read Thomas Mann–I have both of these novels, but I don’t want to start something like that until I know I have time (and not so many other reading commitments). I’m definitely not going to finis the TBR challenge. I have only completed one book (but I have three others started and will finish them eventually). I am there in spirit, if not in completed books!

  3. I read Magic Mountain as a student and managed to write one fairly coherent essay on it, but now, apart from the sanatorium I remember nothing more than it was quite hard going. Buddenbrooks sounds like it’s a little less so, but still requiring some effort. I like the way you talk about the family’s “level of devotion to themselves”. I found that amusing – there some families out there like that, to whom their own goings-on and shenanigans are completely fascinating and the rest of the world is a pale shadow in comparison.

  4. Like Charlotte, I had to read Mann for college, and I gamely ploughed my way through Buddenbrooks. All I can remember now is the scene with the man who dies of toothache. Owwie! That makes my jaw rattle in sympathy even now! It was lovely to read your review and remember a bit more about the book!

  5. I’ve never read Mann before though have always thought I should sometime. He sounds like he’d be good for a long plane ride or a cold winter vacation. I hope you find something good to get into soon.

  6. I think it’s definitely time for something a little lighter, and I’m amazed you were able to get through as much of the challenge as you did, as you truly made it challenging. Mine,if I’d done this challenge, probably would have been full of really easy things like the next Harry Potter book, something by Joan Didion (a friend of mine gave me all his Joan Didion books a couple of months ago when he bought the new volume of her collected works), and WHITE OLEANDER. Mann is like Proust: haven’t read him. Want to (want to even more after reading this post) and will get to him eventually, I hope.

  7. LK

    Haven’t read Buddenbrooks, so kudos to you for doing it.

    I am in the midst of potential job change myself, Dorothy, so I sympathize. And, being me, I went out and bought Po Bronson’s “What Should I Do With My Life?” If you have it or can get your hands on a copy, might be just the thing. Sort of inspirational around vocation and very easy reading.

    Best to you!

  8. Thank you Imani — I have picked up the Mary McCarthy book and am enjoying it. Do try the Thomas Mann — it does have the philosophical passages but don’t let that deter you!

    You are so right Danielle — that IS one of the best things about being in the middle of multiple books — finishing one isn’t quite so disorienting. And about the challenge — no need to take them super-seriously, right? Finishing the books eventually is plenty good enough.

    Charlotte — what I’ve taken away from Magic Mountain is largely the outlines of the story too, not the details — I’m impressed at you tackling this in an essay!

    Litlove — that scene IS memorable. Ouch. Yeah, I don’t want to dwell on that one too much :)

    Stefanie — Mann is definitely good when you’ve got some time and want to stick with a book for a while. I did manage to read Buddenbrooks in just over a week, so it doesn’t have to take that long.

    Emily, thanks! Now I don’t feel so bad for bailing on my reading plans.

    LK — best of luck with the new job! And thanks for the sympathy — you really do know what it’s like. Thanks for the book recommendation.

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