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
  • 20 Books at 3820 Books at 38

    I'm surprised to learn Andres Newman is so young. Also, great overview of his books in English. Andrés Neuman is... »
  • The Future ModianoThe Future Modiano

    The Complete Review has the details of the future Englishing of our most recent Nobel laureate. And also, sales figures. For... »
  • Quarterly Conversationi Issue 38Quarterly Conversationi Issue 38

    Issue 38 right here. or TOC after the jump. Features Readings, Fragments,... »
  • On KafkaOn Kafka

    Rivka Galchen on the new Kafka bio by Reiner Stach. I have come to the conclusion that anyone who thinks about Kafka for... »
  • Me on ModianoMe on Modiano

    My review of Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano. The most focused of the book’s three diffuse novellas is... »
  • Elena Ferrante InterviewedElena Ferrante Interviewed

    At the NY TImes. I'm currently reading Book 1. Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following,... »
  • Infinite FictionsInfinite Fictions

    Buy David Winters's book.... »
  • Tarr After the HorseTarr After the Horse

    At BOMB: A couple of months after that, in February 2011, Béla Tarr presented the world premiere of The Turin Horse at... »
  • Bolaño: A BiographyBolaño: A Biography

    This is a pretty fair assessment of Bolaño: A Biography. Denied access to papers in the Bolaño estate, the Argentine... »
  • Literary AdvocatesLiterary Advocates

    Very honored to be among the esteemed list of "Literary Advocates" named by Entropy magazine for 2014. The list of... »

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.


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

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>