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.