Category Archives: buddenbrooks

Buddenbrooks: My Final Thoughts

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.

Buddenbrooks: A Little Cultural Context

Now that we've gotten acquainted with Buddenbrooks' major characters and their arcs, I thought it would be good to pull back a little bit and look at some of the social and historical forces that Buddenbrooks is playing out against.

The Buddenbrooks themselves are something of a bridge between two major components of society that co-existed in Austria-Hungary and the Germanic lands during the 19th century. On the one hand was the landed aristocracy, conservative and still ridiculously rich but in decline as the cities gained prominence; on the other hand was the business class, liberal and on the way up. Together, they formed kind of an "X," with the aristocracy going down and the business class going up.

The Buddenbrooks are definitely businessmen–they live in the city, they own a firm, they even have offices (still something of a novelty at the time). But, they are not that far removed from the landed aristocracy: as the family of Johann Sr.'s wife, Elisabeth Buddenbrook (nee Kroger) lives out in the country and represents the disgustingly filthy rich:

Life was good in the country, in the luxuriously furnished villa with all its barns, servants' quarters, carriage houses–and incredible orchards, vegetable gardens, and flower beds that fell away steeply toward the Trave River. The Krogers lived in grand style, and although this dazzling wealth was of a different sort from the solid if somewhat ponderous prosperity of the Buddenbrooks, it was obvious that everything at her [Tony's] grandparents' was always about two notches more splendid than at home; and that impressed young Miss Buddenbrook.

As impressed as young Tony was, families like the Krogers were becoming less and less relevant as liberalism took hold during the middle and latter 1800s. Carl Schorske, in his excellent Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, provides the schematic of the changes that would occur during the 19th century:

Austrian Liberalism, like that of most European nations, had its heroic age in the struggle against aristocracy and baroque absolutism. This ended in the stunning defeat of 1848.

[And right on cue we see none other than Johann Jr (with Sr in the wings) play the decisive role in turning back the proletarian masses in the Buddenbrooks' hometown in 1848. (Perhaps a bit too pointedly, Johann Sr expires later than night.) But to continue:]

The chastened liberals came to power and established a constitutional regime in the 1860's almost by default. Not their own internal strength, but the defeats of the old order at the hands of foreign enemies brought the liberals to the helm of state. . . . Soon new social groups raised claims to political participation: the peasantry, the urban artisans and workers, and the Slavic peoples. In the 1880s, these groups formed mass parties to challenge the liberal hegemony . . .

And thus on to the eventual unraveling of the liberal order and Viennese culture, to World War I, and then to the rather dark places described in Doctor Faustus.

But those are other books. To return to Buddenbrooks and the 19th century: Although Buddenbrooks is a flawed novel, it is striking how much of this history Mann got exactly right in 1901 at 26 years of age. (Imagine a contemporary 26-year-old writing a 700-page novel that sums up America's 20th century.) And Mann did know what he was doing, for right after describing the Krogers, our standard bearers of the landed aristocracy, only but a page later we are introduced to the Hagenstroms, who are precisely the opposite:

Tony would stand and wait for a while for her neighbor Julie Hagenstrom, with whom she usually walked to school. . . . Her father, Herr Hagenstrom, whose family was rather new to town, had married a young woman from Frankfurt . . . a lady who had extraordinarily thick black hair and the largest diamond earrings in the city. Herr Hangenstrom, partner in the export firm of Strunch & Hagenstrom, took eager and ambitious interest in the affairs of the town, but his marriage had caused some astonishment among families with strickter traditions. . . . Wuite apart from that, however, and despite his active participation on committees, councils, and boards of directors, he was not particularly well liked. He appeared determined to oppose the old established families every chance he got.

And guess who ends up moving into the Buddenbrook family mansion.

I think also, for those interested in a little more, you can make a fairly reasonable argument that Tom Buddenbrook is a kind of rational everyman of the 19th century. He likes pretty Mozart and Haydn, but if you play some of that crazy Wagner he'll run screaming. Toward the end when things start to get unbearably grim, he dabbles in Schopenhauer, but then he gives it up because it's just a little too weird for him. At heart, Tom's simply a hardworking organization man, and he fundamentally can't understand why, despite living his life according to the rules of business and polite society, his family is dying.

Brother Christian, with his inexplicable melancholia, his nerves, and his strange issues about swallowing things, seems to be a sort of precursor to the person who will take Tom's place as the 20th century gets started: the psychological man. These currents were, of course, very much present as Mann was writing Buddenbrooks. Freud had just published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, even if he hadn't yet reached the level of professional success and stardom that he would later enjoy.

Buddenbrooks’ Contribution to the Ebook Debate

I've been reading and enjoying Ted Striphas's The Late Age of Print, and I intend to write more about it soon. For now, though, I'd like to pull this Heidegger quote that Striphas mentions while discussing language's progression from the mouth to the pen to the typewriter to the computer to the ________.

Mechanical writing deprives the hand of its rank in the realm of the written word and degrades the word to a means of communication. In addition, mechanical writing provides this "advantage," that is conceals the handwriting and thereby the character. The typewriter makes everyone look the same.

The quote is from Heidegger's lectures on Parmenides, and now Johann Buddenbrook elegantly proves his point while reading an impassioned letter:

While his pink face grew more and more somber, he ripped open the seal with one finger, quickly unfolded the thin paper, and leaned over to catch the candlelight, giving the letter a sharp rap with the back of his hand. There seemed to be disloyalty and rebellion even in the handwriting–for whereas the hand of the Buddenbrooks usually hurried lightly across paper in tiny, slanted lines, this large and wildly tilted script had been pressed on the page with eruptive energy. Many words had been underlined with a rapid flourish of the pen.

On Mann and Music

This is a rich, rich subject that we should return to again, but I just wanted to respond briefly to John's remarks re: Hanno, Thomas Mann, and classical music. John writes:

Similarly, after reading Mann's beautiful rendering of Hanno's musical experiences in Part 8, I'm interested to learn more about the role of music in the writer's life. Scott, having enjoyed Doctor Faustus so much, perhaps you've read about Mann's musical background. Was he a musician himself, or was his understanding more scholarly? He seems to grasp the unspeakable aspects of musical communication with enough depth that I imagine he at least played as a hobbyist, but I'm not sure.

I can't speak to whether or not Mann ever tried to compose, but his grasp of the subject was firm enough for Alex Ross to declare Doctor Faustus the greatest book on classical music written in the 20th century. Having not read nearly as many scholarly works on the subject as Ross, I'm in no way qualified to judge that remark, but I can say that my own reading of Faustus greatly enhanced my understanding of classical music.

One of my pet peeves about classical music writing is that generally writers attempt to put the music into words, but it either ends up sounding like a bunch of jargon of a bunch of flowery language that in no way conveys anything vaguely musical. Well, Mann writes a lot about the sounds of music in Faustus (he does, after all have an entire fictitious oeuvre to describe) and I can hear Adrian's pieces. If nothing else, Mann can evoke the feel of music on the page, no mean feat.

I think Mann also must have had a firm grasp of the subject-matter since he includes a full, lengthy, and in my opinion quite lucid lecture on Beethoven's final piano sonata in Faustus. (Ross also admires it.) Some of the knowledge Mann exhibits on this subject in Faustus also comes through in descriptions of classical music in Buddenbrooks vis a vis Hanno.

Faulkner and Music

One of the most intriguing things I've learned while reading (and reading about) Buddenbrooks is that it was supposedly Faulkner's favorite novel. (This is an unattributed statement in the book's Wikipedia entry, yes, although I've encountered the sentiment elsewhere.)

Granted, Lowe-Porter's translation of Buddenbrooks didn't appear until 1924, so I can't say if Faulkner read it before or during his work on The Sound and the Fury, but I'm willing to believe that's the case based on some similarities in themes and characterizations. In particular, the relationship between Tony and Tom in Mann's novel seems like an influence on that between Caddy and Quentin Compson. (That would leave poor Christian as the Benjy character, a comparison that holds less water but can still be made.)

Tom and Quentin share an inordinate level of personal responsibility and self-identification with their respective families, a situation that leads in both cases to mental instability. But the really interesting parallel is the extraordinary sympathy that both Mann and Faulkner show towards their female protagonists. Tony's horribly flawed marriages both occur because her being married is considered beneficial for the family business. Faulkner shows similar care in exhibiting how Caddy's "purity" relates to the Compsons' skewed, outdated sense of pride. In both cases, the women function as symbols of the families' false belief that they can control human relationships, particularly as generational shifts change the societal expectations of what's acceptable in those relationships. I'm curious if anyone has any further insight regarding Faulkner's reading of this novel, particularly when his first encounter with Buddenbrooks occurred.

Similarly, after reading Mann's beautiful rendering of Hanno's musical experiences in Part 8, I'm interested to learn more about the role of music in the writer's life. Scott, having enjoyed Doctor Faustus so much, perhaps you've read about Mann's musical background. Was he a musician himself, or was his understanding more scholarly? He seems to grasp the unspeakable aspects of musical communication with enough depth that I imagine he at least played as a hobbyist, but I'm not sure.

Buddenbrooks: Serious Inquiries and Bad Credit

Since we're all currently disgusted with smooth-talking bankers, bad loans, and the whole ethic of overlooking certain facts that we'd rather not know about, I thought it would be good to discuss how a very important bad loan in Buddenbrooks very closely mirrors our own subprime situation.

First a little stage-setting: you'll remember that Tony Buddenbrook, in a sudden burst of family loyalty, has decided to go ahead and marry the rather distasteful Herr Grünlich. Of course, she isn't only doing this for family: as the wife of a rich businessman, Tony will be able to live quite a lavish life of fine clothes, delicious food, and high living in the city.

Sadly, no. Turns out that the man with the golden muttonchops isn't quite as good as he would have his father-in-law, Johann Buddenbrook, believe. The problem isn't so much the fact that he's a tyrant to live with as that he has no money. That's not good.

Yes indeed, this is not good at all. You, I, Tony, and Johann all learn at the same moment that almost all of Tony's sizable 80,000 marks courant dowry did not go to further feathering the nest and developing Grünlich's promising future. No indeed. Just as soon as it was delivered to the hands of the happy groom, Grünlich turned it right over to his bankers. He was underwater.

Why would Johann force his daughter to marry a man with no money and no hopes of getting any? In a word, lies. And in a masterful scene, Mann delivers this surprise right from the mouth of one of the cackling, delighted bankers whose job it was to bleed Herr Grünlich dry and fool Johann into helping them do it:

"Aa-hah!" [the banker Herr Kesselmeyer] cried, his voice cracking. "I find all this really quite, quite funny! But you really should reconsider, Herr Buddenbrook, before tossing such a charming, such a priceless specimen of a son-in-law into the ditch. Such industry and invention wil not be found a second time on Gods good, wide earth. Aha! Once before, only four years ago, with the knife already at our throat, with the rope around our neck–suddenly the floor of the exchange was filled with shouts announcing an engagement to Mademoiselle Buddenbrook, before it had ever occurred. My respect! No, no, my deepest, deepest respect! . . .

"And how did we manage that?" Herr Kesselmeyer continued. "How did we actually go about snapping up both the daughter and the eighty thousand mark? Oho! It can be arranged–even if one has no more than a pennyworth of industry and invention, it can be arranged. If Papa is to come to the rescue, one presents him with very pretty books–charming, tidy books with everything in tip-top order. Except, of course, that they don't quite correspond to crude reality. Because in crude reality, three-quarters of that dowry is already promissory notes."

In effect, Grünlich was a subprime borrower backed by the full faith and credit of daddy Buddenbrook. But now his bailout is effectively ended.

As we all know, matters of money, especially money that has been effectively stolen but is not adjudicable because it was technically stolen from within the confines of the law, can rouse much righteous anger. So is the case here, and Mann plays it for every ounce of feeling.

What really gives this scene its power is how Mann orchestrates it so that Johann and Tony's shock, Grünlich's utter despondency, and Kesselmeyer's smirking triumph occur back to back to back. The rising action to this powerful moment is also perfect: Mann carefully draws the whole charade out: At first we think the problem with the marriage is merely Tony's dissatisfaction with Grünlich's husbandly manners. Then with the entrance of Kesselmeyer, we suddenly realize it is something else–but what? And then finally, after a touching scene where Johann visits Tony and she almost begs daddy to let her divorce her hated husband, Mann delivers the final knockout scene in which all of the cards are laid down.

Very good writing, indeed, but I also bring this scene up for a different reason: this is really the first clear knock against the great Buddenbrook edifice. And what I think is interesting here is that this tragedy, unlike the many others that will soon befall the Buddenbrook family, is not the fault of Tony's generation but of her parents'. That's right: this is on Johann's head, and he knows it. As Kesselmeyer delights in all the money he has made and mischief he has caused, all Johann can reply is:

I did not thoughtlessly lead my daughter into this misfortune. I made serious inquiries about my son-in-law. The rest was God's will." . . .

Herr Kesselmeyer shouted after him, "Aha? Inquiries? And of whom? Of Bock? Goudstikker? Petersen? Massmann & Timm? They were all in on it."

And there you have it. Is it any surprise that scarcely 15 pages later Johann Buddenbrook lies dead? He has put his prize daughter into a marriage in which the only possible resolution is divorce, and he has thrown away the hefty sum of 80,000 marks courant. He has effectively made his elder daughter unmarriagable and struck a dire blow to the family finances in one shot. That sort of thing tends to put a family on the path to ruin.

I point out Johann's role in the Buddenbrook tragedy because I didn't realize this in my first pass through Buddenbrooks: it all really starts here. I had imagined the tragedy as one that solely was the fault of Tony's generation; but then I looked back and realized that no, Johann actually starts things off.

Without Tony's failed marriage it is possible to imagine a much different future for the family. As a divorcee, Tony becomes an especially detestable millstone around the family's neck, and her general draw of money, energy, and attention comes to make future problems that befall her brothers and sister worse than they would have been otherwise. In most other ways Johann is an unimpeachable character; but in this one key way he has let the family down.

From Buddenbrooks to Mann’s Future

Sacha pulls a great quote in his recent post on Buddenbrooks. I agree with Sacha that it's a worthwhile quote for what it shows about the evolution of Tom Buddenbrook from a man who once bought in to the idea of a rational, accessible world to a man who approaches life with a philosophy that is nearly existential.

But there's another reason I like this quote. It tells us about Mann, the author. For multiple reasons, Buddenbrooks is commonly regarded as different from Mann's later works, which are not only different stylistically but also have a much more modernist sensibility to them. From what I've read of Mann's later works, I'd agree with this assessment. (And on that note, I'm eager to read The Magic Mountain to see if it's a sort of bridge work from early Mann to later Mann.)

So it is interesting here that Sacha pulls this quote since it so clearly seems to anticipate Mann's later sensibilities. It reminds us that by the end of Buddenbrooks Mann has clearly left behind the 19th century world and is already sensing what will come in the 20th century; and thus it's no surprise to see Mann referencing one of the the 19th-century philosophers who would be so important to 20th-century thought.

Buddenbrooks: Why We Care

Scott asked a valuable question: Why should we care about these people?

He cited the passage on p. 154 regarding Tony's experience with the family history, which I agree is Mann's first explicit answer to the issue. We care because this family is convinced of its own standing and importance, and not in a self-important or ironic way. Scott's right that Tony's experience in this scene is touching and illuminating, for her and for us.

And this got me thinking about Buddenbrooks' structure. I believe Mann makes us care because, in the first third of the novel, at least, he positions the family's downfall as simultaneous with Tony's coming-of-age. As her relationship with Grünlich progresses through Parts 3 and 4, she goes from a strongwilled, rebellious teenager to a more resigned, dependent young mother. But when Grünlich's business fails and her father takes her back to the family home on Meng Strasse, she confesses that she's "learned something about life… One is no longer such a silly goose." (p. 234 in the Vintage edition.) This is small consolation for the family's embarrassment, which is no doubt the point. But Tony's undergone the most basic experience of any bildungsroman, and I think Mann draws us deeper into this troubled family's problems by layering his narratives in such a way.

Buddenbrooks and Translation

I just wanted to briefly jump into the fray regarding the Buddenbrooks translation discussion. Sacha and John both seem to conclude that Mann in translation is necessarily diminished Mann:

  • Sacha: "As smoothly as Woods handles the speech of, say, Herr Permaneder, and as much as I understand that his character is supposed to be a parody of Bavarian culture, I wonder what nuances my lack of access to the German is denying me. . . . Questions like the ones my experience with Buddenbrooks are making me ask prompt the recognition that even the best translation loses something."
  • John: "So in other words, I'm just fine only "getting" 90% of Mann's book by
    reading it in translation, because that's the tradeoff you make when
    you read anything outside its original language. And we basically have
    a choice between two versions, which is less taxing than, say, choosing
    between different translations of Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment. I think we'll be okay."

Now, I can't speak to this particular translation, but I must disagree with the idea that "even the best translation loses something." It's true that many, probably most, translations do "lose something," but I've heard many translators tell me that the translation can be better than the original. I'll bring in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who himself holds that the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude reads better than the original Spanish.

In addition to this, Borges is said to have famously instructed his translators not to write what he said but what he meant to say.

Without turning this Buddenbrooks discussion into a debate on translation, I'd just like to put across the point that it's wrong to view the translation as some kind of a photocopy of the original book. It's a work unto itself. Yes, we can and do have workmanlike translations that are essentially bad photocopies, but we can also have translations that are great art.

And, yes, I do agree with John that even in the Woods translation I'm probably not "getting 100%" of Buddenbrooks, since I doubt Woods could import every last nuance of Mann's German that a native German-speaker would get in the original. But let's keep perspective. All readings are necessarily limited by some kind of context. After all, I doubt that many 21st-century native German-speakers are getting all the references implicit in a studiously researched book about 19th-century culture.

Buddenbrooks: Concerning Death, etc.

Late in Buddenbrooks (p. 633 in the Woods translation), family patriarch Thomas has an epiphany while reading a casually acquired book:

He was filled with an unfamiliar sense of immense and grateful contentment.  He felt the incomparable satisfaction of watching an enormously superior intellect grab hold of life, of cruel, mocking, powerful life, in order to subdue and condemn it.  What he felt was the satisfaction of a sufferer who has always known only shame and the bite of conscience for hiding the suffering that cold, hard life brings, and who now, suddenly, from the hand of a great and wise man, receives elemental, formal justification for having felt such suffering in this world – in this best of all possible worlds, which by means of playful scorn was proved to be the worst of all possible worlds.

The chapter that triggers this recognition is entitled "Concerning Death and Its Relation to the Indestructibility of Our Essential Nature," and it's part of a real book (although Mann gives no clues regarding its origin).  Specifically, it's a chapter of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, the major expression of his thought. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes:

Among 19th century philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer was
among the first to contend that at its core, the universe is not a
rational place. Inspired by Plato and Kant, both of whom regarded the
world as being more amenable to reason, Schopenhauer developed their
philosophies into an instinct-recognizing and ultimately ascetic
outlook, emphasizing that in the face of a world filled with endless
strife, we ought to minimize our natural desires to achieve a more
tranquil frame of mind and a disposition towards universal
beneficence. Often considered to be a thoroughgoing pessimist,
Schopenhauer in fact advocated ways — via artistic, moral and
ascetic forms of awareness — to overcome a frustration-filled
and fundamentally painful human condition. Since his death in 1860,
his philosophy has had a special attraction for those who wonder about
life's meaning, along with those engaged in music, literature, and the
visual arts.

It's a major shock to witness this man, a model citizen and his generation's only real guardian of the Buddenbrook myth, fall under the spell of these ideas.  Mann keeps a poker face here, never drawing explicit connections between Thomas Buddenbrook's mental state and his family's many misfortunes, but the placement of the Schopenhauerian epiphany at the end of a long string of indignities leaves little doubt that events in the world have driven the head of the family to question his assumptions about life.

A hundred years later, in The Corrections, a novel likened to Buddenbrooks by a number of critics, Jonathan Franzen had his patriarch Alfred Lambert turn to Schopenhauer at a similarly low emotional ebb.  I assume this episode was meant to be an homage to the earlier book, but can't find confirmation – does anyone know?


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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