"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann

I’ve been reading Buddenbrooks a great novel by the German Nobel Literature Prize winner Thomas Mann, and I have to say I am engrossed in it.  I’m only a third of the way (completed 242 of 731 pages) and I am already convinced that this is ranks with the top tier of great novels.  It’s an epic, family generational novel centered on Buddenbrooks family that runs the family “firm” also referred to as Buddenbrooks.  The Buddenbrooks are a successful, upper middle class bourgeoisie family from Northern Germany.  Most of the novel is set in Lübeck, with occasional excursions into Hamburg and the German Baltic coast.  What a wonderful coincidence that this was the very region of Germany I visited and blogged about here a few years ago. 

The firm was established in 1768 by Johann Buddenbrook (let’s call him JB1 since there are a series of Johan Buddenbrooks) but that predates the novel.  The opening is set in 1835 with JB3 at the height of the family wealth hosting an extraordinarily elegant party on the occasion of buying a new home.   JB3 is also a Consul, which I take to be some part of the city government, and so family has both wealth and prestige.  More importantly, I think, is that we see the family at the height of harmony.  Here is the opening scene.  Monsieur Johan Buddenbrook is JB2 and Madame Antoinette Buddenbrook is his wife.  Tony is the daughter of JB3 and his wife Elisabeth, Madame Buddenbrook.

“What does this mean—What—does this mean…” 

“Well, now, deuce take it, c’est la question, ma très chère demoiselle!

Madame Buddenbrook was sitting beside her mother-in-law on the sofa, its clean lines accented with white enamel and a golden lion’s head, its cushions upholstered a pale yellow; she first shot a glance at her husband, the consul, who was seated in an armchair beside her, and then came to the rescue of her young daughter, who was perched on her grandfather’s knee near the window.

“Tony!” she said.  “I believe God made me—“

And little Antonie, a petite eight-year-old in a dress of softly shimmering silk, was thinking hard, her pretty blond head turned slightly toward her grandfather, but her grey-blue eyes directed into the room without seeing anything.  She first repeated “What does this mean,” then slowly said, “I believe God made me,” and quickly added, her face brightening, “—and all creatures,” and, suddenly finding the track smooth—she was unstoppable now and her face beamed with happiness—she rattled the whole article, as prescribed by her catechism, newly revised and published under the auspices of an august and wise senate in this year of our Lord, 1835.  Once you were moving, she thought, it felt just like racing down “Jerusalem Hill” on the sled with her brothers in winter: every thought vanished from your mind, and you couldn’t stop if you wanted to.

“Including clothes and shoes,” she said, “meat and drink, hearth and home, wife and child, fields and cattle…”  But at these words, old Monsieur Johann Buddenbrook burst into laughter, a high, pinched giggle that he had secretly kept at the ready.  He laughed in delight at being able to mock the catechism, had presumably arranged this little exam for just that purpose.  He inquired about Tony’s fields and cattle, asked how much she wanted for a sack of wheat, and offered her a contract.  His round, pastel pink, good-humored face—try as he would he could not look mean—was framed in snow-white powdered hair, and something like the merest hint of a pigtail brushed the wide collar of his mouse-gray frock coat.  He had not, at seventy proved untrue to the fashion of his youth; he had dispensed with lace between the buttons and the oversized pocket, but never in his life had he worn long trousers.  His broad double-chin rested comfortably on the wide lace jabot.

They all joined in the laughter, mainly out of respect for the head of the family.  Madame Antoinette Buddenbrook, née Duchamps, giggled exactly like her husband.  She was a stout lady with thick white curls at her ears, her unadorned black dress with pale grey stripes expressed simplicity and modesty, and her beautiful white hands clasped a small velvet reticule on her lap.  Over the years, her features had curiously become very like her husband’s.  Only the shape and lively dark hue of her eyes hinted at her half-Latin origins; her grandfather had been French-Swiss, but she was born in Hamburg.

Her daughter-in-law, Elisabeth Buddenbrook, née Kröger, laughed the Kröger laugh, which began with a splutter as her chin was pressed against her chest.  She was, like all Krögers, a person of great elegance, and though perhaps not a beauty, by her clear and cheerful voice, by her easy, sure, and gentle movements, she impressed everyone with her serenity and confidence.  Her reddish hair, which swept back high on her head in a little crowning swirl and lay in broad, carefully coiffed waves over her ears, matched well with her extraordinary soft white complexion and the few little freckles.  The most characteristic feature of her face, with its rather long nose and small mouth, was the lack of any indentation between lower lip and chin.  Her short bodice with high puffed sleeves was fitted to a narrow skirt of filmy silk patterned in bright flowers and open at a neck of perfect beauty, adorned by a satin ribbon glistening with a spray of large diamonds.

The consul fidgeted and bent forward in his armchair.  He wore a cinnamon jacket with broad lapels and leg-of-mutton sleeves that closed tight just below the wrist.  His fitted trousers were of a white, washable fabric and trimmed with a black stripe down each side.  The silk cravat wound around his stiff high-wing collar was fluffed to fill the broad, open neck of his multicolored vest.  He had something of his father’s deep-set, blue, watchful eyes, though perhaps with a more preoccupied expression; but his features were much less full than the old man’s. 

Madame Buddenbrook turned to her daughter-in-law, pressing her arm with one hand and giggling as she spoke into her own lap: “Oh, mon vieuw, always the same, is he not, Bethsy?”  She pronounced it “ollweez.”

The consul’s wife merely waved this aside with her delicate hand, setting her gold bracelet jingling softly; and then the hand performed a gesture peculiarly her own, moving from one corner of her mouth up to her coiffure, as if tucking back a hair that had strayed to her lips.

The consul, however, said with a mixture of indulgent amusement and reproach in his voice, “Now, Father, you are making fun of the most sacred matters again!”

This is quoted from the Vintage International Edition which has the highly acclaimed translation by John E. Woods.   

That opening scene seems so innocuous but it’s pregnant with meaning.  The elegance and wealth are quite obvious, as is the family harmony.  We see a touch of generational distinction between JB2 and JB3, which highlights the coming generational distinctions.  It is from this wealth and success that will have a downward slope as the novel progresses.  What is most interesting is that Mann opens the novel with a discussion of religion, and indeed the Buddenbrook’s Christian (Lutheran, to be exact, though I don’t know if that’s distinction of significance) faith plays a large role the novel.  It is also interesting that eight-year old Tony is at the center of the religious discussion because from what I understand as a mature woman she will have lost her faith by the end of the novel.  So in parallel with the decline of the business and the decline of the family as the Nineteenth Century progresses we have a decline in faith.

The style of the novel owes a great deal in my opinion to Stendahl’s and Leo Tolstoy’s novels.  The novel clearly ascribes to Realism as the aesthetic principle, and in the novel that means excruciating detail as it tries to recreate reality.  Also the genre evokes the family saga novel. That Wikipedia entry lists a number of family saga novels, but the family novel this reminds me the most isn’t even listed there, that is D. H. Lawrence’s novel of the three generations of the Brangwen family in The Rainbow.  

As with many of these epic, family saga novels in the tradition of Realism there are a huge number of characters to keep straight.  Here is a little family genealogy chart I’ve put together that might help the reader.

Old Johann (JB2),
  Josephine (1st wife)
Gottlieb (1st son, mother dies on childbirth), Stüwing (wife)
Children Frederike, Henriette, Pfiffi
  Antonette  (2nd wife)
            Johann (JB3), Elisabeth (wife)
                        Thomas (b. 1825)
                        Antoinette, “Tony” (b. 1827)
                        Christian (b. 1828)
                        Clara (b. 1838)

Tony marries Bendix
            Erika (b. 1846)

Thomas marries Gerda
            Johann “Hanno” (JB4 b. 1861)

It is striking that the opening lines of the novel asks, “What does it mean?” lines uttered by Tony.  It is pointing the reader to the question, what is the cause of this great decline?  I cannot admit it is clear to me yet, here after reading one third of the novel.  I’ve listed in the back cover a series of possibilities, and I’ll share them with you.  They may all be part of a grand reason in an intertwined sort of way, but I don’t know.  Here’s my list, based of course on inductive reasoning from various scenes, in no particular order:
1. Breakdown of the family
2. Loss of faith and idealism
3. Rise of the lower classes displacing the middle and upper
4. Economic degeneration
5. Breakdown of social order
6. Wealth gained without work or sacrifice
7. Increase in the material aspects of life
8. Wealth as a dissolver of noble values
9. God’s will

Finally I want to provide one final scene from the beginning of the novel that crystallizes the idyllic life at the beginning of the novel.  Elisabeth has just given birth to their last child, Clara, and Consul Johann (JB3) leaves his writing desk to check on his wife and child.  Jean is the name his wife uses for him; Klothilde is a niece the Buddenbrook’s are raising at their home.   

He heard the sound of dainty, hasty chimes.  Just above the secretary hung a painting in muted colors, a depiction of an old-fashioned marketplace and a church, and in its steeple, a real clock had just struck ten in its distinctive tones.  The consul closed the case full of family records and carefully put it away in a black drawer of the secretary.  Then he went across to the bedroom.

Here the walls were hung with dark fabric in the same large-flowered pattern used for the long draperies of the new mother’s bed.  A feeling of peace and convalescence, of triumph over fear and pain, hung in the air, along with the scents of eau de cologne and medicines, their traces blended by the gentle warmth of the stove.  Only dim light filtered through the closed curtains.

Both grandparents were standing side by side, bent over the cradle and watching the sleeping child.  The consul’s wife, however, lay in bed, wearing an elegant lace jacket, her reddish hair perfectly coiffed, a happy smile playing over her rather pallid face.  She put out her lovely hand to greet her husband, a gold bracelet tinkling at the wrist, and as was her habit she turned the palm upward as far as possible, which seemed to heighten the warmth of her gesture. 

“Well, Bethsy, how are you feeling?”

“Splendid, splendid, my dear Jean!”

Her hand still in his, he turned toward his parents and lowered his face to the baby girl, who was breathing in rapid, noisy gasps, and for a whole minute he took in the warm, benign, touching fragrance she emitted.  “God bless you,” he said in hushed tones, kissing the brow of this little creature—whose tiny, wrinkled yellow fingers bore an awful resemblance to a chicken’s claws.

“She drank and drank something wonderful,” Madame Antoinette remarked.  “Just look at the stupendous weight she’s gained.”

“Would you believe me if I say she looks like my Netty?” old Johan Buddenbrook said, his face absolutely radiant with happiness and pride.  “Those flashing black eyes, the devil take me if …”

The old woman modestly waved this aside.  “Ah, how can anyone speak of resemblance at this point?  You’re going to church, Jean?”

“Yes, it’s ten—high time we left, I’m just waiting for the children.”

And the children could be heard now.  They were storming noisily down the stairs, to the accompaniment of Klothildes’s audible, chastening hisses; but when they entered the room, all dressed in their little fur coats—St. Mary’s still bore winter’s chill of course—they did so softly and cautiously, first of all because of their little sister, and second, because they had to compose themselves for Sunday worship.  Their faces were red and excited.  What a holiday!  The stork, definitely a very strong and muscular stork, had brought all sorts of marvelous things beside the new sister: for Thomas, a new sealskin school bag; for Antonie, a large doll with real—how extraordinary!—real hair; a colorful picture book for well-behaved Klothilde, who in her quiet, grateful way was occupied almost exclusively with a bag of sweets the stork had also brought; and for Christian, an entire puppet theatre, complete with Sultan, Death, and the Devil.

They kissed their mother and were permitted one cautious peek behind the green silk curtains, and then, together with their father, who had thrown on his cape and picked up his hymnal, they quietly set out for church, the Sunday calm broken only by piercing cries from the newest member of the family, who had suddenly awakened.

What a beautiful scene.  The birth of a child is the ultimate blessing.  Again it is pregnant with meaning.  I won’t get into all of it, but notice the painting in the first paragraph I quoted.  It displays a marketplace and a church, representative of the values of Christianity and the commerce, the values which are at the center of the novel.  Here they are crystallized in an idyllic moment.  But also in the painting is a clock, a symbol of time.  Time in the painting is frozen, and so the idyllic moment is frozen, but time in reality will progress, and change will head downward.

So far I adore this novel.


  1. I may give this a go when I'm done reading everything else I've got stacked up. 700+ pages though....

    1. I am really enjoying it Jan. What makes it more manageable is that the chapters average about four or five pages long. So you can read in snippets.

  2. When I was reading “The Magic Mountain”, the first time, at Hunter, long ago, we saw a German film “The Buddenbrooks”. It probably was the 1959 one. It didn’t relate to “The Magic Mountain” and I never got to “Buddenbrooks” but read the Magic Mountain a second time later to better understand it. “Joseph and His Brothers” is my next Mann candidate, if I ever get to it. Mann requires lots of time.

    1. He does. You might want to read this novel. Thanks for your thoughts Galicius.