Just to get a little closure on this huge book, I wanted to take a minute and talk about how the whole thing struck me. Scott, I hope to hear your thoughts on the matter, as well.
First of all, the "Cultural Context" post was helpful, even if I read it after finishing Mann's novel. Mainly it illuminated what Mann was doing with the social aspect of his book, an aspect that I felt slightly let down by once I got into it. By opening Buddenbrooks with the lavish dinner scene, introducing all the leitmotifs with color and description, I felt he was setting us up for more widespread social critique than he ended up giving us. Instead, the book moves along (quite engrossingly, I'll add) as mostly a series of character sketches, and Mann never quite addresses the issue of German character in quite the way I expected. (Although, having read The Magic Mountain before, I may have been gearing up for more of a novel of ideas.) Either way, your information about the changing nature of business and the Buddenbrooks' place in that change helped me better appreciate how serious their disorientation must have been, and how Mann's focus on a relatively small-seeming shift in business culture really did say a good deal about the change in their country generally.
Still, as a series of character sketches, Buddenbrooks was frequently astounding. Most of the characters' fortunes go exactly where you'd expect them to (which is to say, down), yet the wealth of description and Mann's nonjudgmental tone affords them a real humanity even, as in Thomas's case, they suffer inordinately for their miscalculations and flaws. Certain scenes stand out for their absolutely spot-on tone and descriptive power: Tony's young romance while vacationing and her subsequent reading of the family book; the revolutionaries storming past the mansion in 1848; Johann's first encounters with music; Thomas' horrifying dental experience near the end. That these incredible passages all concern characters of different genders and ages speaks to what I thought was Buddenbrooks' most remarkable trait—Mann's incredible empathy and imagination. His ability to render all his characters equally convincingly was really what kept me turning the pages.
Mann's authorly remove from his characters' lives (he almost never says outright what we're supposed to think of these people), as well as the increasingly horrible fate of those lives, reminded me of James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, even if Mann is light years beyond Farrell as a stylist. (I loved Johann's thoughts near the end about hearing a symphony on Sunday: "You can't believe in Monday when you're going to hear Lohengrin on Sunday night." His youthful excitement is just gorgeous and so honest in the novel's final third.)
Mann's shifting attentions from character to character also reminded me a little of Wapshot Chronicle Cheever, which is often deservingly criticized for being basically a short story collection strung together loosely enough to qualify as a novel. Like that book, I felt that Buddenbrooks was very much a first novel, which was surprising, as we don't usually think of writers who hit the ground running with 700+ pages as typical beginners. But that's not a flaw, just an observation. While plot proceeds as you expect, I admit that the final few pages were devastating and exactly how the book needed to end. The book's form may have been that of a particularly descriptive, long episodic first novel, but Mann's way with characters, his affection, and his lovely, unaffected style, drew me in. I look forward to reading much more by him. Thanks for reading with me, Scott.