The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com
  • There Are Critics and then There Are CriticsThere Are Critics and then There Are Critics

    Nice response from Jon Baskin at The Point to AO Scott's recent essay (and the many responses thereto). Jon spends a good... »
  • Marcos Giralt TorrenteMarcos Giralt Torrente

    My piece covering two new translations of books by Marcos Giralt Torrente—Paris and Father and Son: A Lifetime—has just... »
  • A Little Lumpen NovelitaA Little Lumpen Novelita

    The latest Bolaño, reviewed at M&L. In one of the monologues that make up the long middle section of Roberto... »
  • ePoetryePoetry

    I don't really think poetry written for print works in the electronic format. You can make an argument that there isn't a whole... »
  • Issue 37 of The Quarterly ConversationIssue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation

    Here it is. If you're the kind that doesn't like to just jump into things, full TOC after the... »
  • The Translation BestsellerThe Translation Bestseller

    I wonder if, given the minuscule amount of translated books published each year, but the relative regularity of a bestseller... »
  • Future LibraryFuture Library

    Cool idea. Edouard Levé would have been a fantastic participant. A thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka,... »
  • Juan Jose SaerJuan Jose Saer

    You all should really be reading Juan Jose Saer (if you're not already). His books have a very particular feel . . . I could... »
  • In the ArchipelagoIn the Archipelago

    Jill Schoolman, interviewed at BOMB. Hope everybody reading this in the Bay Area will come out to the event with Scholastique... »
  • How They ThinkHow They Think

    Okay, I know it's wrong to respond to clickbait, but—the thing that pisses me off about this is that it's somehow a... »

You Say

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

What’s at Stake in Buddenbrooks?

As previously discussed, Buddenbrooks' subtitle makes clear that this is a book about the decline of a great family. So, an important question: Why should we care?

Now of course, there's something inherently empathetic to watching anything that was once great shrivel up and die (especially when that death is painfully protracted out over 700 pages). True, but I still think that Mann has an obligation to make us care. Why, after all, should we mourn the decline of a stuffy upper-crust family in the north of Germany, especially when many of said family's members seem, to put it plainly, undeserving of our sympathy?

On one level, we care because this isn't just about the Buddenbrook family: through a rich (one might at times say too rich) soup of imagery and weighted moments, Mann makes it clear that the Buddenbrooks represent a way of life, in fact, even the rise and decline of a certain strand of Germanic culture in the 19th century.

Historic virtuosity and symbolism is all well and good, but this is a novel after all, so we need a little more than that. For me, the moment when I really started to see the Buddenbrooks as something that would be tragic when it passed, as something that it was painful to watch die, came on page 154.

A little set-up. There are four Buddenbrook children: two boys, two girls. Antoine (nicknamed Tony) is the eldest daughter–she's got quite a lot of beauty in addition to the Buddenbrook name, so it's no surprise when a certain insufferably ass-kissing social climber starts to woo her. Of course Tony wants nothing of this suffocating man with the muttonchops, but he's got money and a promising business, so Mr. and Mrs. Buddenbrook make the decision to join them.

It's not hard to see where this is headed. Needless to say, after the concerted urging of practically everyone Tony comes into contact with, and after a couple of not-too-subtle threats, Tony's defenses have been sufficiently weakened to make the following moment believable. She's in her father's study when she sees the family notebook:

Right next to the inkwell lay the familiar lare gilt-edged notebook with its embossed cover and pages of various kinds of paper. . . .

She picked it up, started paging through, and soon found herself absorbed in the reading. The entries she read were mostly simple matters that she knew well; yet each writer had picked up where his predecessor had left off, instinctively adopting the same stately, unexaggerated chronicle style, which in its very discretion spoke all the more nobly of a family's respect for itself, its traditions and history. This was nothing new to Tony; she had been allowed to study these pages several times before. But the contents had never made an impression her the way they did this morning. The reverent importance given to even the most modest events pertaining to the family's history was inspiring. Propping her elbows on the secretary, she read with growing enthusiasm, with pride and high seriousness.

No event had been omitted form even her own brief past: her birth, her childhood illnesses, her first day of school. . . . And what else might be recorded here after her own name, given to her in honor of her grandmother Antionette? Future members of the family would bring to the task the same piety with which she now followed past events.

Now this is an important moment. It is here that we begin to really feel that the Buddenbrooks are more than just a family. That Johann Buddenbrook would have such regard for the minor matters of his everyday life, that it all would be written down in the family book like the most important twists and turns from a story that can never be ended . . . that's not common. That's the beginning of a myth, and call it pompous if you want, but Johann Buddenbrook is a man that has true respect for himself, his family, and his business, which is to say his life.

And this moment is when Tony really begins to understand that she is a Buddenbrook. She sees herself all in the pages of her family's journal, she recalls that she is named for her grandmother, she realizes that she too one day will record family events in this journal. The Buddenbrook name cannot be escaped. It is her life. It must be lived up to.

As we read along with Tony, we begin to understand the duty inherent to being a Buddenbrook. We begin to understand the great responsibility and obligation that comes with such a name and such a place in the world. We begin to see that being a member of such a family requires certain sacrifices, that it requires the elevation of oneself to a higher calling, and so we are not at all surprised when Tony, in a moment of inspiration, suddenly writes her and her suitor's names together into the family notebook:

Tony gazed for a long time at her own name and the open space after it. And then, suddenly, she flinched and swallowed hard, her whole face a play of nervous, eager movement, her lips quickly touching for just a moment–and now she grabbed the pen, plunged rather than dipped it into the inkwell, and, crooking her index finger and laying her flushed head on her shoulder, wrote in her own clumsy hand, slanting upward from the left to right: "Engaged on 22 September 1845 to Herr Bendix Grunlich, merchant from Hamburg."

Watch as Tony plunges her pen, see her flushed face, watch as she alters the very fabric of reality by simply writing a few words. What a moment! These words can never be erased–they follow records that have been kept for hundreds of years. They can never even be scribbed out. As if the Buddenbrook family notebook would admit such a scar upon its pages. She's as good as married.

Tony–and us, I think–now understand what it is to be a Buddenbrook. This is perhaps the family's high point: a prosperous business, a new mansion that is the town's crowning jewel, four healthy children just beginning to step out into the world, a brilliant match between a lovely daughter and an up-and-coming businessman. We can stop a moment and admire the view from this rare peak–it will get no better than this–and then after catching our breath we begin our descent.

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Buddenbrooks: Why Woods? Like Scott, I’m reading the John E. Woods translation of Buddenbrooks.  I confess that my decision to read this particular translation was not the product...
  2. Buddenbrooks: A Post-War and Peace Novel While we're reading Buddenbrooks, I think it will be useful to consider the book as a sort of work written in the tradition of War...
  3. Buddenbrooks: Which Translation? Katy at Love German Books asks which translation of Buddenbrooks we're reading. I don't know which Sacha and John are reading, so maybe they'll chime...
  4. This Month, We’ll Be Reading Buddenbrooks Last spring I was completely blown away by Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. On the spot I vowed to read more Mann, and then didn't...
  5. Buddenbrooks for the Pynchon Fans A little curiosity on page 351 of John Woods' translation of Buddenbrooks (Vintage): If we have lower postal rates these days–and stamps and book rates...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>