Saturday, August 2, 2008
Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann (original review)
When I started off Flying Houses with a review of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, I stated that I hadn't yet read Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain, but I was going to read them as soon as I could. Now, this afternoon I have finished Buddenbrooks, and it is equally as affecting as Doctor Faustus, though without the slow build-up that I complained of in that novel. As I mentioned in that first review, the first two hundred pages of Dr. Faustus were rather dense and difficult to get through, but once they had sunk in, the rest of the novel was a total pleasure.
In my opinion there are no weak spots in Buddenbrooks. Though Mann is a literary master for succeeding on every level categorically, perhaps his ability to create characters truly drawn from real life stands out as his greatest artistic gift. The plot of this novel can be explained very vaguely--it's about the decline of a family over four generations. They are a German family with a patriarch named Johann, born around 1770, a son named Jean, and grandchildren Antonie, Thomas, and Christian. While the novel moves slowly at first, taking time to establish old Johann and his wife, their own marriage slightly complicated, with one other son named Gotthold who has been shut out of the family for not working for the family firm and marrying appropriately to his class. It's in the characters that the plot of the novel is contained.
Antonie, also called Tony, is first the most deeply developed character. She really enjoys all of the niceties that come with being a Buddenbrook. It's easy to spoil a lot of the plot elements by writing a review. A lot of people, when they write reviews of this book, just completely go off and talk about stuff that happens all the way through the book, without any sense of not spoiling the fun for the reader. If you can call reading this book "fun" that is--though that is a joke. It is an excellent novel on every level, but it is of very depressing subject matter. However, if you yourself are not the most successful person on the planet, if you want to see someone else struggle, if you think you can gain something from reading about their troubles, well you may have found quite the book. I am always amazed by the fact that of all the different facets and hobbies in my life, it is always the book I am reading which seems to reflect my present state of being. Well, I will just say about Antonie that she falls in love, and for whatever reason she can't marry him, and so she embarks upon a life of quite bad luck, so that it seems if her first initial question of love had been better answered, so many unfortunate fates may have been spared her.
But she is not the only one. Thomas, generally known as the most respectable character in the novel, obsessed with his appearance, a town official, a Senator, the head of the family firm at its most delicate period yet, maintains a rigid, empirical approach to life. However, it is not long before he begins to suffer from depression, and the way Mann describes his personality and his exterior--the "mask" he adorns for business affairs--is truly heart-rending. Thomas is a tragic character mostly because he is the one for whom all the pressure of the firm rests upon--everyone relies on him, and the strain is brought to such a degree that it would nauseate anyone, though in truth it appears that those are the sort of feelings one inevitably does have in life. It is overwhelming in what it asks of you, and Thomas is the best character I have ever read to personify that concept. The only character really concerned about the numbers, true accountability.
Christian is a more typical literary character, and of course one I enjoy immensely and find great comfort in. He is a dabbler in the arts, who likes to go to the theater, and likes to do impressions of people that everyone in his family knows. And he has travels all over and he spends holiday gatherings telling stories about the depravity of a woman he met named Maria (with the family always not knowing how to respond), some English guy he knew named Johnny Thunderstorm, and other stories from the club where he always hangs out. In the very first scene, as a boy Christian has a digestive issue after dinner, and throughout the novel he has little medical issues that keep cropping up that he continues to exagerrate. The pain in his left side, for example, and the trouble with his nerves. Eventually he uses it as an excuse to not be able to work, and finally he starts talking about how he had been doing some experiment with a bottle and some kind of gas which nearly exploded and exploded all of his neighbors with him, or how whenever he saw an open window he had the great sudden urge to jump out of it, or how lately he had been sleeping in bed to look up and see man sitting on his couch, nodding at him. Of course, Christian is the greatest "failure" in the novel. He earns practically nothing and gets by on his inheritance parititioned out to him by his brother. I won't say what happens to him at the end though that is also commonly pointed out as if its no big deal. But I will say that he and Tony are the characters with the greatest longevity in the novel--they're there from beginning to end.
The book reaches its climax in the character of little Johann, or Hanno as he is called, the only child of Thomas Buddenbrook, whose wife Gerda is an accomplished violinist from Amsterdam, and who instills a deep love of music in the boy. She gets him a harmonium, and he increasingly spends time improvising on it, which is upsetting to Thomas, who expects him to take over the family firm and keep their name alive. He has one close friend named Kai who wants to be a writer and is really the only to lend him emotional support, besides his mother. The way the novel ends was rather crazy, in my opinion, and I have to call it a movement of genius, (like Leverkuhn's final symphony ending to Doctor Faustus), which has a chapter with a surprisingly detailed day of studies at school, which then spells out all of Hanno's fears about the impending struggle before him, and especially, most beautifully, more beautifully than any other passage in the book, I noticed the next two pages were of one massive paragraph, describing in detail how Hanno played on the harmonium that night, the "simple motif" he had developed longer, and longer to heartbreaking effect at its end. The passage is one of the most lyrical I have ever laid eyes on, and if what I have read is true, it is supposedly a summary of the aesthetic principles that went into the work of the writing of the novel itself. It is not so different from Faustus in the way it uses music as a meta-reflection of literature, at least in the character of the artistic soul of Hanno.
Buddenbrooks is a novel that I had never heard anyone talk about, or remembered hearing anyone talk about, in my entire life. Thus it is probably "out of fashion" and for some specific reason--maybe it is just too long? Regardless it is a work of great emotional depth that....