Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family – by Thomas Mann

buddenbrooksI haven’t delved much into German literature in the past, so reading this 19th century German family saga was a new experience for me. I found Thomas Mann’s style to be quite engaging (or perhaps the combination of Mann and the translator, John Woods, since I was reading it in translation). The prose is crisp, clean, and forward-moving. The chapters are short, and Mann doesn’t indulge in long-winded descriptions and detours like those found in novels by Dickens or Hugo. He strikes right at the heart of people and situations by focusing in on one of two telling details: the curve of an upper lip, the persistence of an appetite, the shadows around a pair of eyes. The details were striking and often told more in a sentence than could have been said in a page full of milder description.

I found Mann’s descriptions of music in this book particularly captivating. I am always on the lookout for authors who have the ability to translate the ethereal transcendence of music into the confines of the written word. Thomas Mann’s descriptions rank right up there with E.M. Forster’s in A Room With a View, though Hanno’s Wagnerian leitmotifs and improvisations express something darker and more troubling than Lucy’s stirring renditions of Beethoven sonatas.

As for the plot, the reader receives early warning: the book’s subtitle is “the Decline of a Family.” It ended up being an even steeper and rockier descent than I had expected. The story occurs during the period between the 1830s and the 1870s, and explores the lives of a wealthy bourgeois family interacting with the changing times around them. Oddly enough, the social and political events of the historical context were kept very much in the background. The narrative focused much more on the individual characters and their efforts to be successful or achieve happiness.

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The story spans four generations within the Buddenbrooks family, and we see all sorts: the jolly but skeptical Enlightenment man, the piously devout but disconnected father, the woman who responds to her difficult life with refreshing flows of tears and an unending stream of words, the fun loving hypochondriac, the image-conscious businessman who hides his severe depression, the sensitive musician who is misunderstood by the world. It’s a memorable cast.

A theme that I found to be particularly poignant in this novel was that of the tension between faith and reason. Throughout the novel we see the juxtaposition of the impotence of faith with the meaninglessness of reason alone. From the first moments of the book when we see a young girl being drilled on her catechism and her grandfather mocking the validity of such an exercise, religion is presented as the easy path –- the choice of sticking one’s head in the sand and holding blindly to irrelevant beliefs. The religious characters come across as somewhat ludicrous, but at the same time those who reject religion come across as tortured and adrift. It’s as if the younger generation can’t in intellectual conscience accept their predecessors’ beliefs, yet they still long for the certainty and comfort of faith; as if they’ve thrown off the tether of belief, but found themselves unable to find grounding in anything else –- floating adrift in the sea of modernity.

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