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.)

No, Tony, No! Don’t Marry Herr Grunlich!

But, it’s too late.

After his unannounced visit to the harbor pilot’s home, where Tony has fallen in love with the harbor pilot’s son, the adults have intervened. Both Tony’s father, and her young love’s father, have declared their romance foolishness, and tomfoolery, and Tony is brought home where she consoles herself by agreeing to marry Herr Grunlich.

I don’t trust Herr Grunlich. His speech is as gilded as his curled mutton chop whiskers. He reeks of falseness, and worse, deceit. He has tricked his way into the family, and his bride into obeying her father, and even the bride’s mother knows that future happiness is nebulous.

“Do you think she’ll be happy with him?” (she asks her husband as the nuptial carriage drives away.)

“Ah, Bethsy, she is at peace with herself, and that is the most solid kind of happiness we can achieve on earth.” (Part 3, Chapter 14)

Hmmm…sometimes, I think peace is overrated. I have sought it often in my life, and it has been a worthy goal. But, it is not without sacrifice. Peace brings with it a quiet blanket to wrap oneself in. Yet one is at the same time shrouded from excitement.

I fear Tony’s sacrifice will be worse than that. I fear her future is doomed.

(I am reading Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann for German Lit Month. It is a wonderful way to spend November nights.)

German Lit Month: The Black Swan by Thomas Mann

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The Black Swan is the first book by Thomas Mann I have ever read. I picked it up because I was intrigued by the theme: an older woman unwilling to face aging. Only, the “older woman” in this book is younger than I am.

Rosalie was still capable of the old warm laughter that came bubbling from her heart-even at this period of her time in life, the spasmodic withering and disintegration of her womanhood, were troubling her physically and psychologically.

Rosalie Von Trummler is a widowed mother of two. Her daughter was born with a club foot, and has therefore rejected advances of love. Her son requires a tutor for adequate advance in his studies. A young American named Ken Keaton is hired to teach Eduard, and he soon becomes a regular addition to the family’s evenings. I was so intrigued by Ken’s point of view about America, one which I can see Europeans adopting. Yet, he does have valid points:

In general, despite being so unmistakably American in his entire manner and attitude, he displayed very little attachment to his great country. He ‘didn’t care for America’; indeed, with its pursuit of the dollar and insensate church-going, its worship of success and colossal mediocrity, but, above all, its lack of historical atmosphere, he found it really appalling. Of course it had a history, but that wasn’t ‘history,’ it was simply a short, boring ‘success story.’ Certainly, aside from its enormous deserts, it had beautiful and magnificent landscapes, but there was ‘nothing behind them,’ while in Europe there was so much behind everything, particularly behind the cities with their deep historical perspectives. American cities-he didn’t care for them. They were put up yesterday and might just as well be taken away tomorrow. The small ones were stupid holes, one looking exactly like another, and the big ones were horrible, inflated monstrosities, with museums full of bought-up European cultural treasures.

At any rate, Rosalie becomes entranced with Ken and fancies romantic involvement with him. Page after page describes her attraction to him, her imaginations of what could be between them. She embarrasses her daughter by giving Ken longing looks across the dinner table, then alternately ignoring him “demurely.”

What should you say, Anna, if your mother, in her old age, were seized by an ardent feeling such as rightfully belongs only to potent youth, to maturity, and not to withered womanhood?

But what becomes the turning point in the novel is the morning that Rosalie has discovered she has begun bleeding again. A strong believer in the force of Nature, Rosalie is ecstatic. She can hardly contain her joy, which she sees as permission to enter into a relationship with the younger man.

Nature has made her voice heard against it (a motherly dowager-hood). She has made my feeling her concern and has unmistakably shown me that it need not be ashamed before her nor before the blooming young manhood which is its object. And do you not really mean to say that it does not change things much?”

Things are changed dramatically, indeed, for the source of this bleeding is not a reemergence into youth as Rosalie expects, but an admittance into the horrors of cancer. It is an ironic twist to be sure, how the advent of bleeding into a woman’s life can signify two such diverse states as preparation for the possibility of birth, or alternatively, death. Thomas Mann has portrayed an enormously silly woman in the mother, especially in contrast to her practical, more mature daughter. But he has also given us a terrific psychological twist as we realize that of course, our bodies are not under our control. No matter how strong our desire for youth may be.

(I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy‘s German Literature Month this November. I hope to read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as well…)