Sunday, August 3, 2008
Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann, born 1875, died 1955, wrote this novel at the turn of the century, not far from the age I am now, but younger most definitely, and it's just a different literary industry now--few 25 year-olds will ever have the patience, the deep well of knowledge, or the opportunity to attempt as ambitious a work. That said, there are just as many crazy writers as there ever were, people who consider 700 page novels a drop in the bucket, people who are ambitious in every sense of the word. Few, however, will reach the heights of Thomas.
Oeuvre rule: Thomas Mann has one of the strongest (if numerically stream-lined) careers of any fiction writer, having authored Buddenbrooks to make him an "overnight success," in 1901, having boldly offered up "Tonio Kroger" and "Death in Venice" in the next ten years, having spent another near-decade to complete the Magic Mountain, finally nearing the end on the reimagining of the Doctor Faustus legend, and finishing up at the end of his life with the short-story expansion into the novel The Confessions of Felix Krull. Not to mention anything about Royal Highness, the Holy Sinner, or, perhaps more impressive than anything, the Joseph tetralogy. You could get a plot summary of any of his works and get a sense of his subject matter, but more than any other writer I have been exposed to, it is the quality of the language that sets him apart and makes him more real and seemingly connected to our present-state-of-being which makes him special for me. There are few better masters to mimic.
Buddenbrooks opens up in the year 1835. Part I is a 37 page description of a dinner with the Buddenbrook family--old Johann, grandfather, Madame Antoinette, grandmother, Jean, son, Frau Consul Elizabeth Kroger, daughter-in-law, and Antonie (a.k.a. Tony), Thomas, and Christian, the three grandchildren who will grow up and make the majority of the drama in the novel.
Part II begins describing Tony, the only daughter in the Buddenbrook family, and how much she enjoys the niceties of her position in life. The family is rather well-to-do, a line of merchants that Thomas will continue. Antonie is immediately mistreated by her peers as a little girl, who think they're better than her while she continues to think very highly of herself and her family, and eventually when she turns 18, she is offered a marriage proposal. She goes away to the shore to mull it over, and there meets someone who could be considered the love of her life (indeed she will use his expression about "sitting on the rocks"--waiting for someone to come back after they had gone off to have their own fun--many years after the fact, to very moving effect, if the reader is able to remember such pinpointed details) and then has to return home and enter into a marriage of social convenience. Many reviews of this novel have absolutely no problem ruining every surprise the novel contains by paraphrasing the events in a few sentences. Yes, it would be easy to say quickly what happens to Antonie, but it would be more accurate and mysterious to say that she just has terrible luck, for whatever reason.
Thomas is the most industrious and responsible of the children and justifiably takes over the firm at a surprisingly young age when his father passes. He marries Gerda, who is something of an exotic woman from Amsterdam, who plays the violin and is musically-inclined, and many of the townspeople look down on her. Everything lands on Thomas. There are an indescribable number of stresses that affect his constitution, and this is one of the few times I've read a novel that appropriately captures the feeling of anxiety that comes with all of the overwhelming responsibilities life asks of one. Thomas is a pitch-perfect personification of that side of life, and his metaphysical awakening near the end of the novel is one of the best philosophical revelations I have read, though perhaps only because of its result. I don't want to reveal what happens to Thomas, because it is also, sort of perfect in a way, if terribly depressing. That is, it is funny in its own way.
Christian is the least-developed of the three principal Buddenbrook children, but he is the most familiar literary character. He does not consider himself fit for work, as he is constantly beseiged by pains in his left sides, has nerves that are "too short" and would rather travel and do occasional work in random businesses abroad and go to the theater then actually devote himself to the family trade. As far as the other characters go, Christian is the greatest "failure" --at dinners he likes to talk about the depravity of a woman he once knew named Maria, an English bar-buddy named Johnny Thunderstorm, and to do impressions of other friends and authority figures in town that the family knows. Eventually, his weaknesses begin to get the better of him, and his conversations turn darker, more absurd, and some of the most highly dramatic scenes in the novel come out of Thomas's dismissal of Christian. He begins to mention some kind of bottle he was filling with a gas, and how he nearly exploded himself along with all of his neighbors, and how whenever he sees an open window he has the sudden urge to jump out of it, and how sometimes he will awake in the middle of the night in bed and see a man on his couch, nodding at him. Everyone writes Christian off, but he is one of the great characters in Buddenbrooks.
Finally, besides the other dozen or so minor characters, Hanno, Thomas's only child, is the last great character. He is an artistic soul, given to music, with only one somewhat unusually close friend Kai, Count Molln, who loves Edgar Allen Poe and wants to be a writer. His mother supports his love for music by getting him a harmonium, and Thomas worries that the boy will never want to take over the family firm, as he is the last possible person to be able to do it. The climax of Buddenbrooks occurs in the almost totally obvious and mundane but in a way unthinkable recitation of a day of studies in Hanno's life, and how greatly he had come to despise them. During recess, he offers his complaints on social anxiety:
"Sometimes in class we look at each other, the way we did when Petersen got marked because he read out of a crib, when all of the rest of us did the same. The same thought is in both our minds--but you know how to make a face and let it pass. I can't. I get so tired of things. I'd like to sleep and never wake up. I'd like to die, Kai! No, I am no good. I can't want anything. I don't even want to be famous. I'm afraid of it, just as much as if it were a wrong thing to do. Nothing can come of me, that is perfectly sure."
Finally, that night Hanno plays at his harmonium, and the endlessly-ongoing paragraph that charts the improvisation of his piece, the development of a simple motif which recurs to heartbreaking effect, supposedly meant to mirror the aesthetic principles of the novel, is truly one of the most memorable passages I have seen in recent memory, not unlike the meta-reflections of music in Doctor Faustus relating to literature. The chapter that follows is similarly memorable, but is also hollow and cold in a way. The novel ends on a rather sad note and a quirky, positive image.
It's very difficult to adequately sum up this novel, but it is a great work from a forgotten era, and though these circumstances don't still exist in such the exact same form, these characters are eternal and their qualities are just as real as anyone currently living today.