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Thomas Mann

We've mentioned Thomas Mann a few times recently, so let's give him his own thread.

Since I was in Germany last month I have been reading Buddenbrooks, at a fairly leisurely pace. I finished it on Wednesday evening, and have been supplementing it with Hugh Ridley's book about the novel, published by CUP in 1987 as part of their 'Landmarks of World Literature' series. Anything I write about it is likely to be very gushing and lacking in insight, for which I apologise in advance. There will also be some slight spoilers in what follows, though nothing earth-shattering.

All of Mann's most celebrated 'longer' fiction tends to be very long. This book is 731 pages, in the Everyman edition I read. I'd put off reading any of Mann's big novels until now because of a suspicion that they might be dry and 'difficult'. I like difficult, actually - now I do - but in the past I've been a bit timid when it comes to books that can double as doorstops. I needn't have worried, anyway. It's entirely absorbing from start to finish, and not the least bit complicated - at least, not on the surface. It tells the story of four generations of a family, the Buddenbrooks, over a period of 42 years, from 1835 to 1877, and chronicles the family's slide from prosperity into comparative poverty. The narrative progresses by small steps, moving forward a year or two at a time, with no large jumps. I marvel at Mann's subtlety and control of the story, and of the paths of his characters' lives. Everything is expressed with such delicate clarity. He was younger than I am now when he wrote this. I can't feel more humbled...

The characters who take up the most of the novel's attention are, unsurprisingly, the children who are young when the narrative begins - Thomas (Tom), 9, Antonie (Tony), 8, and Christian, 7. In the final reckoning, all of their lives have been failures, but they do not live without hope. It's hope that can be the most devastating thing about life. Tom and Tony are both haunted by the spectres of love affairs that might have been. In Tony's case this is expressed in the most devastatingly tender way - by her repetition, every hundred pages or so, of one of a handful of comments the only man she might genuinely have loved said to her in their brief time together, which she has taken to heart in the years since. She never talks about the relationship directly - it's one of the few things she doesn't talk about constantly - and it is only by the echo of these comments that we see the true depth of her loss. In Tom's case, he is forced by his sense of rectitude to abandon the flower seller he loved in his youth. Their eyes meet, once more, many years later.

For me, the heart of the novel beats most strongly in the scenes involving the child Hanno, the son of Tom. I am not entirely surprised to find that the genesis of the novel lay in this character, and that from his initial sketches Mann traced Hanno's genealogy backwards to form the rest of the story. I'm not surprised either to find that Hanno, as an aesthete breaking away from his family's commercial heritage, is partly based on Mann himself (as Tom is based on Mann's father and Tony on his aunt). Hanno, like so many of the characters - perhaps a sign of the times? - is a rather sickly child, but finds a love and talent for music that animates him unlike anything else. He is passionate about the opera, and only really appears at ease socially when playing the piano or harmonium. The scenes of his musical education with the organist Herr Pfühl, who at first detests Wagner and then finds himself, against his natural inclination, falling in love with the master's music, I found particularly delightful.

In a book spanning a period of 42 years and full of short chapters lasting only a few pages, there is suddenly a long chapter of around 50 pages towards the end which documents a single day in the life of Hanno Buddenbrook. Mann always brings small details to the reader's attention, but this sudden prolonged focus on such a relatively short space of time is curious. I felt it brought Hanno closer to me than the other characters, and although I loved everyone in the book it was Hanno for whom I felt the most affection. And yet I sensed a sort of dispassion towards Hanno in Mann's writing, the source of which I can't identify exactly. Does Mann like his characters? I wondered. There is always a subliminal suggestion, linked to his sickliness, that Hanno may be doomed, and a kind of undertow of tragedy that accompanies not just him but many of the characters of the book. I think it may simply be Mann's ironic detachment that gives this impression. It's a wryly funny book, and it possesses a lightness that belies its length.

It's difficult to judge the author's intended tone exactly when reading any book in not in its original language, though this translation seems (to the uneducated reader) exceptionally good. It's a modern translation by John E. Woods. There is one oddity, which is that it's written in American English. I'm not so provincial that I can't cope with reading 'fall' for 'autumn' or even 'one hundred twenty' for 'one hundred and twenty', but this is a novel which treats, among other things, class differences (there are a fair few characters who meet with ostracism as a result of their having married beneath themselves, as it were), and as a result there is quite a lot of dialect. How difficult it must be to translate dialect! I suppose the Bavarian Herr Permaneder could be given any regional accent in a British English translation ('Wotcher, guv', 'All reet, pet', etc. etc.). In this translation he speaks as follows: 'Why, Frau Grünlich! Why, howdy do! How y' been gettin' on all this while? What y' been doing' with yourself up in these parts? Jesus, 'm jist plum tickled.' Takes a bit of getting used to.

Although this is a 'historical' novel in that it treats a specifically demarcated period in German history, references to historical events are few and far between. It's not a story that could have been transplanted to a different time and place, but it bears the marks of history very lightly, and I never felt disadvantaged by my ignorance of the period. From my reading around the book, I gather Buddenbrooks is unconventional in that it is a social novel, and not focused on a single individual, which had been the norm in German literature for some time until that point. Mann was an admirer of the tradition of the Scandinavian family novel (the province of writers like Jonas Lie and Alexander Kielland), which influenced him here.

I hope I'll have a bit more to write when I've finished the Ridley book, but anyway this is the best book I'll read this year.

I enjoyed your response to 'Buddenbrooks', Gareth.  It makes me want to re-read it.
Joe Mac

Me too. Thanks, Chib, for making the effort.

On another note, is the name 'Buddenbrooks' an anglicization? 'Brook,' or 'Brooks,' seems very unlikely as German.

Quite keen to reread it myself, Mike, but I'd better try some more Mann first. I have The Magic Mountain on the actual TBR, but I think I'll read Doctor Faustus next, which, as a former music student, I should be ashamed not to have read. And I'm going to revisit some of the shorter fiction, especially Tristan and Tonio Kröger, which I think I read (or started reading) in my teens but don't remember at all.

Interesting question, RN - I'm not sure. It doesn't look especially unGerman to me, but I can't think of any more German Brooks, though I know of a few Bruchs. Perhaps someone else will have a better idea. I think E/V has been more immersed in German culture than I have. The title of the novel, if anglicised, should be 'The Buddenbrooks', i.e. the Buddenbrook family. The German convention doesn't bother with the article at the start.

I meant to reply to this at the time, Gareth, since I read Buddenbrooks a few years ago.  I had forgotten almost all the details - it's actually quite odd what you remember of a book you have read just once.  I don't think I could have named a single character, but I recall oddly parts where the family members have connections with another part of Germany and there is a snobbish dislike for the way the people there talk.  The trouble is this is very hard to translate, as you mention - how does a translator show a dialect that is not approved of?  Should you translate it literally?  Use an English one with similar connotations (perhaps Cockney, or the rural north or something?), or what?

The other memory I had was of impending doom throughout, or at least through the second half, and I must admit this spoilt my pleasure in the book to some degree.  I don't really enjoy books where everything seems to go wrong and things can't seem to be pulled back from the abyss.  (Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance had something of the same feeling for me.)

I think, but it's not certain in my mind now, that Tom was my favourite character and I was willing him on to better things.  Which he acheived for a while, but then something inexorably went downhill.  It was in the end a sad book for me.  Or that's the lasting impression I have. I think I have forgotten Tony's exuberance (Tony wasn't my favourite character, I think.) and Hanno.  

I see in my listings I gave Buddenbrooks 18; Bleak House the same year (2006) got 19.  I have a much greater memory of Bleak House - perhaps that is just because I discussed this quite a bit with Himadri.  

Cheer, Caro.

Caro wrote:
...perhaps that is just because I discussed this quite a bit with Himadri.Cheer, Caro.

To be honest we ALL enjoyed a discussion with H.!

Chibiabos83 wrote:
Quite keen to reread it myself, Mike, but I'd better try some more Mann first. I have The Magic Mountain on the actual TBR, but I think I'll read Doctor Faustus next, which, as a former music student, I should be ashamed not to have read.

There's a lot about music in The Magic Mountain also, even though one of teh characters, Ludovico Settembrini, refers to music as "politically suspect".

There's one long chapter towards the end of the novel in which Mann discusses in detail a scene from Act 2 of Carmen, and the finale of Verdi's Aida.

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