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.

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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.

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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

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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.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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.

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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...

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