Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann

Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann

Book review of Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann

I’ve found reading Thomas Mann a bit of a challenge.  Dr Faustus and Magic Mountain were uniquely engaging, but also tend to have long passages when Mann goes off into his “essay mode”, with lengthy philosophical discussions on areas which seem rather arcane these days.  

Also of course, the books were immensely long, and with Dickensian-length novels like this I occasionally find myself having to force myself to get through a hundred or more pages a day.

Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s first major novel, was a little different however.  The book was published when we was 26 years old, and is set in his home town of Lubeck in Northern Germany and covers a period of about 40 years in the mid-19th century.  

This novel is less complex, less dense, than his later works, being a family saga covering three of four generations of the Buddenbrook family.  However, despite the initially more accessible format, the book is still a major achievement and speaks to readers on many different levels.

All the characters in the novel are drawn with exquisite detail, the reader being led into a psychological portrait of each member of the family, their motivations, their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams.  

Buddenbrooks is a classic novel of decline, the prosperity of the family being slowly eroded, not by decadence (although it was probably seen as decadence at the time) so much as general human failing and weakness.

The family business is the central thread, its success being the goal and ambition of every family head, with values of family honour and consistency being bred into sons and heirs from an early age.  It would be unusual today to hear anyone express these values, when it is the norm for young people to choose their own career.  

To the modern mind, it would be unrealistic to expect anyone to deny their own ambitions in order to promote the business begun by their grandparents and passed on through the generations.  For the young women of the family, the goal is to find a suitable partner, one who will contribute to the general sense of family honour and prosperity, and as is shown in the history of Antonie, sister of proprietor Thomas Buddenbrook, it is quite usual to forgo the romance of a lifetime in order to marry someone from the right class and with the right business connections.

Only a single-minded man like Thomas Buddenbrook could pursue a business career with such dedication and perseverance.  Every aspect of his personality supported the task of continuing the building of the Buddenbrook company, his overly smart appearance, his devotion to traditional religion, his ability to put family second, his chronic failure to see through the bourgeois morality which infected his whole being.

Thomas Buddenbrook achieves success through his hard work, but as a human being he is almost a caricature of a business-man and pillar of the community.  Eventually sacrificed on the altar of his own hard work and business loyalty, in a more modern novel he would be seen as an insufferable tyrant, failing to respond to the emotional needs of those around him, whether his wife, his son or his sister.

Thomas Buddenbrooks alter ego is his son Hanno, a delicate, quiet boy, whose psyche is oriented towards art and culture.  He goes along with his father as far as he can, but his heart isn’t in it, and he just wants a quiet life, playing music with his mother and talking with his best friend.  Hanno finds school difficult:  he is not a high-achiever, and is also bullied.  

We read the almost perfect account of the a summer holiday in the coastal resort of Travemunde, when four weeks stretches before Hanno, free from the tyranny of the school regime.  Alas, his peace of mind lasts barely two weeks before “shades of the prison house” encroach on him and the fear of school returns.  

Few of us will not recognise the account towards the end of the book of a typical school day, with homework unfinished and the fear of being called on to stand up and translate the selected passage in front of the class.

Perhaps the strongest character in the book is Antonie, Thomas’s sister, whose marital problems dominate her life, almost as a punishment for her rejection of true love in favour of the apparently business-friendly but disastrous marriage she is inveigled into by her parents and brother.  Perhaps one of the strongest scenes in the book is the dissolution of her marriage, when her father has to admit his complicity in the so mid-judged arrangements she was forced into.

The meta-plot is the decline of the Buddenbrook family, and doubtless Mann is making statements about the shallowness and mis-founded morality of these people.  So dedicated to God and Church, they fail to see that there is more to true religion than keeping up appearances and asserting traditional values.

An ability to see through the strictures of their class and societal codes may have enabled these people to lead more fulfilling lives and to achieve true authenticity in their family relationships.  In the Buddenbrook family you either sink or swim, but the water is so deep and murky that far too many drown in the impossible demands of living such a buttoned-up life.

Undoubtedly a classic (who am I even to confirm such an obvious fact?), and worth every one of five stars, I would say that this is a novel all serious readers should read, and I am only surprised that its taken me so long to get to it.