German Lit Month: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

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How stange that I should close a book of 731 pages, a book which was largely responsible for earning its 25 year old  author the Nobel prize, and wonder exactly what I ought to say about it. The scope of the novel is very large, and its themes are very big, such that it’s difficult to narrow down a review to fit into one post.

I was entranced with Antonie, eldest daughter of the Buddenbrooks family. I admired her spunk, her devotion to her father, even her tantrums which freely displayed emotion rather than tucking it away somewhere as a responsible adult would.

My sympathies lay deep with Thomas, eldest son of the Buddenbrooks family. I understood his devotion to the family business, his determination to make it all come out right, his frustration with those in the family whose primary skills were incompetence and foolishness.

My heart went out to little Johann, Hanno as he was called, because his gentle, artistic side showed a tremendous passion for music, but alienated him from his father and caused him to be tormented at school.

Of course there are countless other characters, including the rapscallion brother ironically named Christian, who exhibited behavior that was everything but that. There are countless themes including an exploration of the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, sister and brother, homeowner and servant, to the examination of faith, education, and business.

As Buddenbrooks is the tale of the decline of a family, which is said to closely approximate that of the author’s own life, Mann has quite a bit to say about business. These are the types of quotes I found myself highlighting again and again, because they illuminate truths applicable to the 21st century as readily as they did to the setting in the late 1880s.

One quote in particular had me imagining Ayn Rand rising out of her seat in vehement protest. It comes from a discussion between the two Buddenbrooks brothers, where the eldest is chastising the youngest for something he said.

There you are surrounded by both business and professional men, where everyone can hear you, and you say, ‘Seen in the light of day, actually, every businessman is a swindler’–you, who are a businessman yourself, a part of a firm that strives with might and main for absolute integrity, for a spotless reputation.” p. 314

Why is it, then, that a firm so intent on integrity eventually flounders to the point where it is utterly dissolved? Perhaps  the company fails due to a change in economic times, or a change in leadership as the sons endeavor to maintain what their father left to them. But, I suspect it lies more in the fact that they do not adhere to the same moral principals that the consul Johann Buddenbrooks and his wife adhered to. Christianity is not something that Thomas, now responsible for the family grain company, can easily accept. He cannot rely on faith even when his own old age approaches.

Dogmatic faith in a fanatical biblical Christianity, which his father had been able to couple with a very practical eye for business and which his mother had then adopted later as well, had always been alien to him…But now, as he gazed into the piercing eye of approaching death, it was apparent that such a view fell away to nothing, was incapable off providing him even an hour of calm or anything like readiness for death.” p. 631

Whatever reason most attributes to the fall of the Buddenbrooks from the highest aristocracy to a significantly more  humble and lonely existence, I find this sentence to be the overarching theme of all the book:

Life has taught many people that riches do not always make for happiness.

It is as deceptively simple as Tolstoy’s famous first line in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

(I read this book for German Lit Month, as well as one of my selections for the Classics Club.)

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13 thoughts on “German Lit Month: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann”

  1. Yes, it’s difficult to discuss such a large work in a small post, but you’ve succeeded in telling us a bit about the (most notable) characters, about some of the ideas about business, and about money and happiness. That’s a lot. That has significance. Wonderful review, Bellezza!

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    1. I’m not sure how effective I’ve been at telling about this novel, only giving a glimpse into the characters’ lives. There is much to read in the drama which occurs for each one, and it is as though one is reading through a PBS series of several years all in one book.

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    1. That is fine, Mel. I understand how other things call out to us, and it isn’t always possible to read what one has planned. Perhaps we can read along together another time.

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  2. It is difficult to review such a detailed book, but I like the way you’ve focused on particular ideas and questions. It’s interesting how many aspects of the classics still have something to say about our lives today. Transit by Anna Seghers (one of my German Lit Month reads) focuses on refugees trying to flee Europe via Marseille in the early forties. Sadly, some of the challenges and themes still feel relevant to the plight of refugees today..

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    1. I am not at all familiar with German literature, but I do see from some of the posts that themes carry on from generation to generation. It is all the more interesting to me to read about this country, as I lived there (albeit very briefly, only two years) in the mid-1980s. The wall had not come down yet, and we could easily see the bullet holes in buildings and other damage which had occurred during WWII. It brought the war incredibly close to me, a child of the 1960’s.

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  3. You made it. I think you weren’t that sure that you would manage the whole book, right? That must say something about this novel. All these hefty, complex tomes are hard to review. I think picking a few moments, themes and characters works very well.

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    1. I did! I made it! With time to spare for other German novels such as I’ve listed in my sidebar, and a few books which are not fiction. I fear that I did not do Thomas Mann justice, but I did give a small indication of this huge novel. I hope. Thank you for giving the impetus to read in this genre.

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  4. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I think you can see why it was a best-seller at the time. Tony’s story alone might have made the book popular.

    The book can’t be too close to the author’s life, right? Otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Poor Hanno!

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    1. Oh, Tom, I think Hanno is the one my heart most goes out to. Silly Antonie, one can half respect her and half want to slap her. But Hanno, seemed so very fragile. No one understood him but his Aunt Tony and his mother; how terrible to be so separated from his father. And, his teachers! That’s not teaching students, that’s terrorizing them. Everything I became a teacher to try to avoid, as some of that behavior existed in my own school.

      I think Hanno is similar to the author in that Thomas Mann wanted to be a writer, which his father didn’t understand or sympathize with.

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