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.