Sunday 4 February 2018

Verfall einer Familie: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

'I found your address in a letter from your mother to mine; it was tucked between pages 123 and 124 [*] of Buddenbrooks [**] which Mother was reading before she died. I have been unable to read the book since that awful day, but I recently took it down when I asked Doris, my maid, to dust the shelves.'
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 13 (Letter from Fanny Bauer to Julius Herz)

Who does not enjoy a family saga? Virginia Woolf, never a populist, had much success with The Years, and Buddenbrooks (1901) remains Thomas Mann's best-loved novel. It covers the years from high Biedermeier 1835 to the very different 1870s in the lives of the Buddenbrook family, a bourgeois*** north-German clan. I've visited Lübeck and the Thomas Mann museum (the 'Buddenbrookhaus') several times, but in my pre-blogging days, when I took no photographs. But I remember a sedate city, autumn leaves underfoot, and a vaguely marine atmosphere, as of cold seas not too far away.

Thomas Mann and his wife Katja
revisiting the otherwise destroyed
house in 1953

The novel, like many great novels (or long novels), conquers by stealth. Slowly, slowly it works its magic. The novel's main character is probably Antonie (Tony) Buddenbrook, first seen as an eight year-old. Rather like Trollope's Plantagenet Palliser, Tony, while remaining the novel's emotional heart, is never wholly emotionally accessible, though we see the key moments of her life: an adolescent holiday romance, her two less-than-successful marriages, her triumphs and humiliations and compromises.

Tony's brother is Thomas, who becomes, like his father, the head of the Buddenbrook business and a politician. At the height of his success he builds a new house in another part of the town - a house across the road from a little flower shop - the florist's in which, twenty years before, his first love worked. And she's still there:
'Oh,' the senator said, raising his head with a little jerk, and with clear, friendly eyes gazed straight into Frau Iwersen's face for a second. And then, without saying another word, he took his leave with a polite wave of the hand.
The gradual accumulation of narrative power and import over time (the flower-shop romance was several hundred pages back) is again Trollopian. But the impressionistic moment of recognition between Senator Buddenbrook and Frau Iwersen, which the reader must attempt to understand and interpret alone (Did he build that new house in order to regain contact with the woman? Did he remember her secretly all those years?), is more modernist.

The novel's subtitle, 'The Decline of a Family', is significant, and an ominous presence over earlier, more prosperous passages. The family's deterioration, when it comes, is seen in forensic detail. And where and when do the problems truly begin? Thomas Buddenbrook thinks he knows. Things never went well after that move to a new house. And it was he, his own mood, that was to blame. And how far is everything connected to the presence of that little flower shop across the way?
'My mood has not sunk to below zero because of a business loss. It's just the other way around. I truly believe that, and that's why things are as they are.'
Nothing will ever be glad confident morning again. He is aware of having reached a summit, and that 'the tangible tokens of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline'. From this point in the novel all bourgeois cosiness vanishes, and one reads on anxiously into territory Mann would colonise in later works. The intensity with which Mann scrutinises Thomas Buddenbrook renders him almost a prototype for the agonised protagonist in 'Death in Venice'.
Sometimes he would look out at the gray gables and to the passersby or let his eyes rest on the centennial plaque hanging on the wall, the one with the portrait of his father, and he would think about his family's history and tell himself that this was how it all ended, that what was happening now was the final chapter.
Contrasting with Thomas's conservatism and concern for the world of commerce (with which he has in any case lost faith) is Hanno, his sensitive artistic son. The opposing values of father and son are dramatised as brilliantly as E. M. Forster would do a decade later in Howards End. A memorable chapter late in Mann's novel covers Hanno's summer holiday on the Baltic coast. At the end, back home, Hanno speaks to his aunt Antonie, who remembers her own youthful experiences on vacation in the same resort. But now it is stylised, a formalised memory without freshness or urgency. The moment is deeply affecting. Buddenbrooks is a long, long novel, but sometimes a novel has to be long if it is to earn such power, such resonance.

It ends with another tour de force, a forty-page chapter covering a day in the life of Hanno, now a teenager at school. Gradually we realise what Mann is about. The school, Prussianised, brutal, macho, utilitarian, represents the modern world, or rather the new confident united Fatherland that has come into being during the course of Buddenbrooks. Injustices are meted out against the innocent. The weak collude with the strong. The boys side collectively with their aggressors, thankful for their own deliverance. Difference is roundly punished.

It is, of course, deeply, chillingly prophetic.


* I suspect this may be a reference to the early scenes with Herr Grünlich, Antonie Buddenbrook's importunate and unwanted suitor. For Grünlich (perhaps) read Julius Herz; for Antonie, Fanny. Or perhaps Herz is Morten Schwarzkopf, the young man Antonie has a holiday romance with at about the same point in the novel. In any case, the connections between Buddenbrooks and Brookner's The Next Big Thing, and particularly between Tony Buddenbrook and Fanny Bauer, are of interest. There are, for example, their marriages, which end poorly. I note that both characters have second husbands (Permaneder in Mann, Schneider in Brookner) who are named Alois. Alois Permaneder and Alois Schneider both turn out, after the wedding, to be worth less than seemed to be the case before.

There are other parallels. Brookner's Herz has a musical brother who ends in a sort of asylum. In Buddenbrooks Thomas's brother Christian is committed to an institution, and Hanno is a promising pianist.

** I recommend John E Woods's translation for Everyman's Library.

*** '[T]he landscape, so well remembered, so totally familiar, of the bourgeois past', comments Brookner in relation to Thomas Mann in The Next Big Thing (ch. 12).

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