Once Upon A Time In Lübeck…

On the back of my copy of Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s lengthy tale of the decline of a north German family, there’s a quote from the author:

“Without doubt, my most popular book in Germany is ‘Buddenbrooks’, and it may well be the case that, in my own country, my name will always remain primarily linked to this work.” (Buddenbrooks, 2008, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag)***

This quote dates from 1932, after Mann had completed many of his most famous works (e.g. Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain), and – to a non-German, at least – it is a somewhat surprising claim.  Certainly, the book had never really come across my radar until this year.  Therefore, I was eager to find out why this book was given such praise, and, to a certain extent, I think I can see what he was getting at.

The book begins in 1835 in Lübeck, a large town on Germany’s Baltic coast (and, incidentally, Mann’s hometown), where the wealthy merchant family, the Buddenbrooks, are preparing to celebrate an extravagant house-warming party in their brand-new mansion.  We are introduced to the family members, with special attention given to some of the characters whom we will accompany through the following 750 pages, as they eat, drink and make merry.  With such a show of opulence, it seems that this is a family on the rise, with high status in the city and success in business: who would think that in the space of a little over forty years, this would almost all be gone…Buddenbrooks is, primarily, the tale of a family’s demise, detailing how a fortune and reputation earned painstakingly over centuries can melt away in the twinkling of an eye.  Based on stories and impressions gleaned from the lives of Mann’s own relatives (a classic example of an artist washing dirty linen in public…), it is, nevertheless, a work of fiction.  It sounds a little like a great big Victorian novel, an impression which is supported in the first few parts of the story, where the emphasis is a little more plot-driven than is later the case.  However, this is a Victorian-style novel by a modernist writer, and the novel’s worth is based less on its events than on the fleshing out of certain of the characters.

The main character is Thomas Buddenbrook, a schoolboy at the start of the book, who eventually takes over as head of the family and manager of the business.  The two roles are, in fact, inseparable as the prestige of the family is due in no small part to the renown of the company.  Having been groomed from an early age to fulfil a certain role in life, it is no surprise that Thomas has learned to control his behaviour, to harness all his energies and direct them towards increasing the good name (and wealth) of the Buddenbrook empire.

Despite his relative importance in his hometown, Thomas is under no illusion as to his worth in the grand scheme of things, but is determined to be a big fish in a small pond, in his mind lambasting his unambitious uncle at one point:

“Didn’t you know that you can also be a big man in a small town?  That you can be a Caesar in an average trading spot on the Baltic?” (p.276)

It is, therefore, all the more frustrating when he is forced to acknowledge, privately at least, that his is a family in decline.  In a conversation with his sister Tony, on the occasion of the opening of his new house, Thomas confides his frustrations to her, saying:

“I know that the outer, visible and tangible signs and symbols of happiness and success often only appear when, in reality, everything is already in decline.” (p.431)

Eventually, this strain between his need to be and appear successful at all times and the reality of a decline in fortunes has an effect on his health; he is unable to keep up the mask he wears without suffering.  In private, his face droops wearily, and he is continually exhausted from the effort of presenting an impecccable front to the world.

Thomas’ character is very different to that of his sister Tony, the other main character in the book.  She too is forced to choose between following her heart and subjugating her feelings to the success of the family; however, once she has made the decision, she never looks back, devoting her whole life in a vain attempt to uphold her family’s reputation.  Failing to do so by marrying successfully, she finds other outlets for her energy in helping prepare homes for the other family members, acting as a messenger and go-between, and suggesting lucrative business schemes to her brother.
Throughout her life, Tony stays young, childish and emotional, unable by virtue of her gender to take part in the town’s politics and barred from jumping into the family business.  However, her optimistic nature means that she does not become an Anna Karenina figure, choosing instead to hold her head up high and make the most of the few opportunities which do come her way.  In Tony, Mann has created a sympathetic portrait of a woman frustrated by a lack of outlets for her talents and energies, and while we initially feel sorry for her, as the decades go by, the reader recognises her strength and her ability to serve the family in her own, special way.
By the time we get to Hanno, Thomas’ son, the Buddenbrook family is in steep decline, and the musically-talented young man (a thinly-veiled image of Mann himself) is another example (as in Death in Venice) of an artist arriving as the last scion of a respectable, successful family.  This is a theme which the writer adressed again and again in his work, and a scene where Hanno absent-mindedly draws two bold lines after his name in the family papers shows this.  When asked why he’d done this, the confused boy eventually blurts out:
“I thought…I thought…that was it…” (p.524)
As we will find out towards the end of the novel, Hanno’s naive answer is not as innocent and meaningless as it first appears…
So, is Buddenbrooks worthy of the comment I quoted at the start of the review?  It’s certainly an impressive work, its constant, gradual development of personalities helping to hold the reader’s attention over the whole 750-page stretch.  While not all of the characters are as well-drawn as Thomas and Tony, the scale of the book allows us to become acquainted with the quirks of many a relative and friend before the story is over, and the lack of emphasis on one central plot allows Mann to devote more time to unveiling his characters’ personalities.  I don’t think it’s for everyone, but anyone with an interest in German literature or personality-driven books will find something worthwhile here.
I enjoyed it thoroughly (although, at times, I did feel that I would never reach the end), so I’m looking forward to having a crack at Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) at some point.  Eventually.  Not in the near future.  And very slowly.  It’s important to keep things in perspective…

*** All quotes in English are my own (and, hopefully, not too inaccurate) translations.

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5 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time In Lübeck…

  1. Violet – If I gave the impression that it was a struggle, that was more down to reading this and 'He Knew He Was Right' virtually back to back – three weeks on two books is a little taxing! I did enjoy it immensely though 🙂

    Parrish Lantern – It's not that bad 😉 Now, 'Der Zauberberg', on the other hand…

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  2. Great review. I also loved this work. I wish I read German since I bet it is more beautiful in his own language. Magic Mountain is on my list and I am looking forward to reading it as well.

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