Buddenbrooks – A Literary Conversation (Part Two)

As you may have seen yesterday (over at Lizzy’s Literary Life), Lizzy and I are ushering in this year’s German Literature Month with a four-part chat about Thomas Mann’s epic novel Buddenbrooks.  Yesterday, we focused on the background – today we’re moving on to look at some of the flaws in the younger characters…

LS: It’s a puzzle to me that the Buddenbrooks couldn’t find suitable marriage partners for their women. Can you offer any explanations?

TM: It’s more that they thought they had found good partners but were misled by their inability to look beyond their traditions.  Poor Tony suffers the most when she makes the sacrifice of her first marriage, but it’s really her father’s fault as he’s too old-fashioned to see that her suitor isn’t all he might be, putting too much faith in the words of a few businessmen who have no reason to be on his side.  There’s also a religious side to the family, and their belief in the Protestant faith leads to their favouring men who wouldn’t otherwise set any hearts fluttering (there are definite shades of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins in the men who come to stay at the Buddenbrook house!). Coming back to the previous discussion about when the rot set in, there’s a definite sense that if Tony had been allowed to follow her heart (and not her slightly empty head…), things may have gone very differently for the whole family.

And when we talk about the family, it’s really on the male side that things go wrong, as we burn through four generations by the end of the book. Don’t you think it unfortunate that it’s the men that have to go out and defend the family honour (when they’re not really up to it, healthwise)?

LS: For the Buddenbrooks, definitely. But, even though the novel is set in times of political change, I can’t see that Mann is arguing for anything different.  Sure, he’s poking fun at their traditions, but if he were advocating fundamental change, then surely his females would have been stronger, more competent characters.  As you said, Tony is and always remains empty-headed.  To a certain extent, the family becomes her religion and she is its last stalwart at the very end, but without the wherewithal to be effective. As for Gerda …. it’s interesting in the light of your comment about Tony and Morten, but when Thomas does follow his heart and marries his musically-gifted wife – a practical business decision too in view of the size of her dowry – he gradually comes apart at the seams.  There’s something dangerous about Gerda’s brown close-set eyes.  What do you think it is?

TM: You talked earlier about the moment the decline sets in, and Thomas’ decision to marry Gerda is, of course, another of those moments.  There’s a bit of an obsession with her eyes, and I’m wondering if there’s a touch of distrust of outsiders here (if not subtle racial prejudice) – perhaps such eyes are something out of the ordinary up on the German coast!  What the marriage does bring about, though, is a mix of genes bringing together the elusive artistic nature of the Buddenbrooks (evident in Christian’s eccentricities) and Gerda’s artistic sensitivity, leading us to Hanno, the end of the (family) line…

I’d like to go back to Tony as, despite Mann’s occasional attempts to disparage her, I see her as one of the most successful characters in the novel.  Her creator pokes fun at her by having her repeat stock opinions she inherited from others decades back, but you sense a core strength to her that the men don’t have.  Thomas is certainly successful, but all of his achievements come at a cost.  It’s no coincidence that the closing scenes revolve around a collection of women, many of whom we might have expected to be long gone by this stage.

LS: I do agree about Tony.  She has the makings of a good strong matriarch (as emphasised by the cover on the Vintage edition on the right). Alas circumstances do not permit it.  As for the women survivors – it’s what women did and still do – life expectancy being what it is.

Regarding racial prejudice in Buddenbrooks, I never read any of that into the obsession with Gerda’s brown eyes (though you could take the references to Hagenström’s hooked nose that way, if you choose to). In the course of this reading, I developed a little obsession of my own though – with Gerda’s silence.  While we hear much about her music, including her interesting predilection for Wagner, but she doesn’t speak much.  In scene after scene, she is silent.  Even at her husband’s funeral, she stays in the background, as emotionally detached as ever.  I find her unfathomable as she’s only ever active musically, making and debating music with kindred spirits (I don’t believe she had an affair) or mentoring her son, Hanno (much to the frustration of her husband).

That poor, poor boy. Born a weakling, unintelligent and with moderate musical ability.  He was born to disappoint both parents, but while Gerda bears it with grace, Thomas – I have to say this – becomes a bully.  I realise he was seeing his worst fears materialising, but I was less than impressed at his conduct during Hanno’s poetry recital.  My sympathies for Thomas only recovered once he was in the dentist’s chair. But my heart bleeds for Hanno.  

There’s an emotional weight in the writing of Hanno’s scenes that’s missing elsewhere.  The sheer purgatory of his school days reflects the misery Mann himself experienced, but I’m not aware that other aspects of Hanno are autobiographical.  Nevertheless, Mann couldn’t bring himself to write Hanno’s death scene with the same realism he used for others, including Thomas, who is also recognised as being the author’s avatar.  So emotionally devastated was he that he sought refuge in a detached medical description.  Stylistically it comes as a sharp, shock to the senses – the cold, inexorable hand of fate is claiming its next victim.  We don’t know who until the following page, when the resulting despair confirms that the Buddenbrooks line has reached its end.

As you read Buddenbrooks in the original, are there other elements of Mann’s technique that you’d like to comment on?

Well, of course there are – but not today.  Come back tomorrow when Part Three of our chat turns in the direction of Mann’s style and his use of dialects 😉

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