Saturday, August 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Buddenbrooks. The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann

I was just on a vacation with a long car ride, so I took along one of my back-to-the-classics challenge books. My classic in translation (a particularly lengthy choice) was Buddenbrooks. The Decline of a Family, by Thomas Mann.

Thomas Mann is a brilliant German writer from the early twentieth century. Buddenbrooks is his first novel, first published in 1901 (when he was 26!). This novel is reported to be largely responsible for Mann’s Nobel Prize in literature. (See my long-ago review for Joseph and His Brothers, probably the best book I have ever read.)

Set in the 1800s in a German city near Hamburg, the novel follows four generations in the Buddenbrooks family. At one time prosperous grain merchants, the intertwined "firm" and family members are unable to maintain their success in the face of changing economic opportunities and personal/familial difficulties. There is no single crisis or poor decision that leads to the decline of the Buddenbrooks, but rather a slow accumulation of miscalculations and bad luck. Not every member of the Buddenbrooks family is blessed with good health and strong business acumen, so the fact that the firm is so closely tied with the family means that when one suffers, the other does as well. Their little victories provide episodes of pleasure and hope–the things that make life bearable–but there is a tinge of pathos even to the victories, because they are so fleeting.

Although this is a long novel, filled with day-to-day anecdotes of the daily life of the wealthy merchant class, it reads quickly. The characters in the novel are aware of the larger picture–the historical events taking place in their lifetimes– but they are only peripherally affected by them. Events are discussed but not experienced, which itself is an interesting commentary on small-city bourgeois society. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, and commercial enterprise form the narrative of the novel. Religion is a balm for some, but dismissed by others, giving it an ambiguous significance. The lovers of the arts–music and poetry in particular– are seen as odd, even exotic, creatures who have little of actual value to contribute. And yet, the novel demonstrates how illusory and unreliable is the supposed stability of mercantile success.

The novel’s greatness (aside from extraordinary writing that shines through translation) lies with the characters, sympathetic even when not particularly likeable. They are very real, three-dimensional people. Their errors are understandable. We root for their small triumphs even while seeing that, in the big picture, small triumphs only postpone the inevitable. It’s a tragic story even if the consequences are not far-reaching or historic. The intimacy of the tragedy makes it even sadder.