Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann
Buddenbrooks, one of the truly great European novels of the twentieth century, was first published in 1901 when Thomas Mann was 26 years old. How someone so youthful could produce this incredibly mature work about the decline of a nineteenth-century family dynasty unable to adapt to changing political and social circumstances is a mystery and a miracle. Mann describes the delicate web of life in all its complexity, so that we care for and come to love characters whose lives are very different and remote from our own.
I am currently reading this book for the second time in as many years. It is one of those select novels to which one returns again and again because its riches are inexhaustible. It does not give up its secrets easily, yet it is delightfully easy to read – even in French translation, as I am doing. I particularly enjoy Mann’s immersive opening chapters which, today, would probably be deemed unacceptably confusing and as ‘holding up the narrative’. The beginning of the book introduces a dozen or so characters, who sit around and talk about nothing very much, then have dinner with their guests, whereupon they all talk about nothing very much. Nothing happens, yet everything happens. We have become part of the family, part of the social world of the novel.
One of the major themes of Buddenbrooks is to show the ways in which individual subject positions – especially those of women – are conditioned by prevailing ideologies. Thus, notions of family honour and tradition, deeply conservative political views and religious beliefs, and considerations of economic advantage dictate the course of a person’s life – even that of the male head of household. Oftentimes, these ideologies are internalized, so that they exert a subtle psychological pressure; at other times, they are imposed from outside. The erosion of this secure world of rigid hierarchy and social stability – as much as from conservatives anxious to retain the reigns of power as from radical new philosophies of individualism and emancipation – destroys those who cannot adjust to the new realities. One is reminded of that other great novel of change and decay – Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) – in which Prince Fabrizio takes to heart the maxim that ‘everything needs to change, so that everything can stay the same.’ Those who do not take this lesson to heart inevitably fall by the wayside.
Buddenbrooks contains one of the most memorable and moving deaths in all literature. It also depicts the workings of memory, regret and the passing of time with an understanding and acceptance infused with a transcendent and sanctifying power. Buddenbrooks sanctifies lives – even foolish, frivolous lives – even our own.