Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
The German Classic and Nobel Prize winning Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (originally titled) is a novel of epic proportions.
The opening scene takes place in 1835 at the Buddenbrook estate. It’s a formal family dinner party and gathering of the Patriarch Johann Buddenbrook’s relatives and intimate friends including the town’s prestigious doctor, a leading German poet, senator, pastor, stock broker, and several business associates. It is a cheerful, optimistic event with good conversation, imported cigars, and vintage liquor, and abundant food served on exquisite china and silver in lush surroundings of crystal chandeliers, velvet drapes, fine art, and tasteful extravagant decor.
The Buddenbrook family is at it’s prime; they are the elite of society, the family business is thriving, and life is good. But as the grandson Tom cynically ponders many years later when he is the Patriarch and everything seems to be going wrong, “often the outward and visible material signs and symbols of happiness and success only show themselves when the process of decline has already set in.”
The plot starts out at a slow pace because Thomas Mann makes quite an effort to familiarize the reader with cultural norms with descriptions rich in detail, and he also does an excellent job of character development. The primary characters are the grandson Tom who inherits control of the family granaries, his sister Tony, and Tom’s son Johann who is expected to follow in his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father’s footsteps.
Throughout the story significant scenes occur involving the various family members and is broken down into 11 parts… each sometimes skipping ahead several years and carrying the reader through 4 generations of the Buddenbrooks to the conclusion in 1877. While Germany is struggling through an industrial revolution, several wars, an economic crisis, and political turmoil, Mann focuses on the Buddenbrooks involvement in their own family struggles; births, marriages, divorce, deaths, the Buddenbrooks 100 year anniversary of being in business, holidays, and vacations… the family dynamics, their accomplishments, and their tragedies.
What makes this book a classic – aside from the realistic plot, the memorable characters, and the great story-telling – is Thomas Mann’s ability to inject authentic social and cultural details. The attitudes of the rich elite, the role women played in society, the tradition of honoring and respecting the elderly, the role religion played in their lives, the disgrace of declaring bankruptcy and shame in criminal behavior, and obligations of family life.
And perhaps a forewarning of things to come in Eastern Europe, the Buddenbrooks anti-semitic attitudes towards Jewish people. Their biggest adversities, regardless of the root cause, always left them pointing the finger at the “contemptible” Hagenstrom family… competitors in business and rivals in society. Whenever a Hagenstrom crossed paths with a Buddenbrook, nasty thoughts ensued.
There are many memorable scenes, but several that made a lasting impression were Tony’s carefree summer holiday at the seaside resort, the violent family argument that took place during the reading of the deceased mother’s will, and the description of little Johann’s typical day at school.
Thomas Mann was only 26 years old when he wrote Buddenbrooks, but wise beyond his years. He was strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Buddenbrooks has elements of psychology. At a point of darkness and debilitating depression in Tom Buddenbrooks life, he ponders his religion and borders on having a miraculous revelation about the meaning of life. But in the end, it alludes him and he concludes, “Was this message meant for me? I don’t know what it was: I only know it was too much for my poor brain.” As indicated in the title, the decline of the family is eminent but it is not for me to reveal why or how this happens. Perhaps it was inevitable with the changing times. Perhaps it could have been avoided. Like all family sagas, the combination of diverse personalities, critical events, and defining moments all play a part… or as the old German saying goes, “so ist das leben”.
Rated 4.5 Stars.
All contents © 2014 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.