The novel “Buddenbrokes” brought Thomas Mann world fame. But under the usual mask of a family romance, not the most cloudless reality is hidden.
Only 28 years after the book was written, the Nobel Prize was awarded for it. This novel in 11 parts about a German merchant family, which takes place in a Hanseatic city in northern Germany from 1835 to 1877, cannot be called a youthful work, although its author was only 25 years old when he sent the manuscript to the publisher Samuel Fischer, who published it after some thought without abbreviations.
The history of the “decline of the family” can be traced for four generations as their representatives consistently awaken spiritual sensitivity and they go the way “from naive practicality to a sense of beauty… from merchants to art”. It all starts with the fact that the family moves into an old, solid house with a hall “in the spirit of the eighteenth century”, where nature views in soft colors are on the wallpaper. Forty years later, this house will be sold to some upstarts.
Behind the conservative manner of narration and dialogues, it is easy to notice how abruptly the center of his attention shifts, how often the perspectives change, how even the most basic actors sometimes stand in the limelight, then disappear without a trace. On the surface there is immoderate elegance and a complete illusion of tradition, and from the inside a special compositional style comes into force, with which the lace embellishment of classic family novels cannot be compared.
The principle of an anecdote told from the stage reigns everywhere. Each chapter is good – through the complicating action until the very end, when the mood of the novel abruptly becomes good-naturedly creepy (Wagner’s music, old merchants on the Travemund beach in drunken depression, the holidays of little Hanno).
This is not only the artist’s self-esteem, the reception of the master, as if saying: “Look, I can do this too; telling about a failed family concert, I can make you shudder or grieve about the difficult fate of the schoolboy Hanno, or worry, standing with the senator on the stairs and listening to the strangely quiet music room. You will laugh at Christian’s clowning; laugh at poor Clotilde; resent the brothers’ dispute over the inheritance when the mother’s body lies in the next room; almost cry when little Hanno dies of typhus after all. I can do all this, and much more.”
This is not only a demonstrative skill that declares itself again and again – from a technical point of view, it is the same incessant marking of the distance with which the author divides the action.
This distance is expressed in constant irony, which has a twofold effect. The author is able to colorfully convey the history of his native family (thoroughly studied through archives and private papers) and at the same time should not expose his family relations and himself to the public.
Therefore, you can laugh at Tony, Christian and others as much as you like, but still they have individuality. Like a comedian, he characterizes the characters with the help of repetitive features: bluish shadows under the eyes of Gerda Buddenbrok, the secrecy of the old consular wife, Christian’s small, deep-set eyes – we know these details and strokes to the portrait, recognize them and, pleased with the meeting, forget how limited our knowledge is and how people have turned into types.
We don’t know them well enough to treat them with respect. They, with their peculiarities, have become just a part of our everyday life, which we think we know and with whom we communicate easily: a chatty hairdresser, a meticulous employee, an ever-ill aunt, a hot-tempered father, a forgetful brother.
There is a certain ruthlessness in the way Thomas Mann examines and demonstrates each individually, how, carefully delineating, generously supplies them with apt epithets. They are all worried, sad, indignant and struggling, but they all dance to his tune. The author treats them strictly, but always achieves what is beneficial to him as a storyteller.
How far the narrator remains from his characters, and how far they are from each other! This is the third generation that is destined to sink into oblivion. They have become so estranged from each other with their sensitive natures, their civic consciousness, in the face of all the new historical perspectives open to their prosperous class…
It is surprising that this is a thoroughly gloomy book (where the fatalism of the plot is only aggravated by irony) it has become a favorite work of the German reading public, a general educational value.
If we draw conclusions about the national mentality based on this, then this circumstance indicates that the German audience, turning to the art of the past, remembers not about the imperial times with their cruel splendor and not about the colorful Middle Ages, but about the German bourgeoisie, hardworking and unhappy, peacefully living in a small country.
Little Hanno eats almond cream between times at Christmas, because “it’s necessary” and despite the fact that his stomach hurts from it. Similarly, the convenient form of a “historical family novel” (a set of first-class recipes and a short historical digression are attached) sweetens the tragedy of the work. Therefore, reading this book, we conjure up an image of the good old time, which – as we learn from it – never existed.