As I reach my 27th year, I am reminded that I am 2 years too late to write my first masterpiece. After all, Thomas Mann wrote his first novel Buddenbrooks when he was just 25.
First off, reading this book was a lot less challenging than I expected, mainly because the book is made up of short chapters. Very, very short chapters. So while the book itself covers a broad range of topics and spans four or five decades around the 1800s, it wasn’t nearly as dense as it could’ve been and was actually really enjoyable.
The book opens with a dinner party introducing the Buddenbrooks – Johann and his Swiss wife Antoinette, their son Jean, his rich heiress wife Elizabeth and the grandchildren. The mood in the family gathering sours when they receive a letter from Gotthold (Johann’s son from his first wife) who is on bad terms with Johann as he has gone against his family’s wishes and married a common shop owner’s daughter. For a large part of the book the focus will be on the third generation Buddenbrooks (aka Jean and Elizabeth’s children) – the business-minded Thomas, the prideful Antonie (”Tony”), the good for nothing Christian, and the serious Klara whose lives fall apart in different ways.
The book is a feat of realism. Through this story, Mann describes the lives of a specific class of people in a city so vividly that I wasn’t at all surprised when I learned that his own family served as inspiration for the Buddenbrooks. Actually, reading up on his biography I was quite convinced that the character of Hanno was semi-autobiographical. Born into a powerful Lübeck merchant family with a foreigner mother, more interested in music and art instead of academics, and has romantic feelings for a member of the same sex.
If this scene isn’t foreshadowing, I don’t know what is:
“At the very end, recorded directly under his parents’ names, in Papa’s small, neat hand that hurried across the page, he read his both own: Justus, Johann, Kaspar, born 15 April 1861. That he found amusing. He straightened up a little, nonchalantly picked up the ruler and the pen, laid the ruler under his name, and scanned the whole genealogical hodgepodge once more; then, with a passive, dreamy look on his face, he set the gold pen to the page and, with great yet somehow thoughtless and mechanical care, he drew two neat, lovely horizontal lines across the bottom-the upper line a little less thick than the lower, the way he had been taught to do on each page of his arithmetic book. He laid his head critically to one side for a moment, and wandered off. After dinner, the senator called for him. He scowled and asked him gruffly, “What is this? How did this this get here? Did you do this?” He had to stop and think a moment whether he had or not. But then, shyly and nervously, he said, “Yes.” “What for? What were you thinking of? Answer me! What made you be so malicious?” the senator shouted, slapping Hanno’s cheek with a lightly rolled-up notebook. Pulling away and holding his hand to his cheek, little Johann stammered, “I thought… I thought… there wouldn’t be any- thing more.”
There’s one scene towards the end where Thomas is reflecting on his old age after reading a particularly moving book which stood out quite a bit from the rest of the novel. It reminds me a lot of one of Prince Andrei’s many philosophical musings in War & Peace:
“An end, a dissolution? Empty words, and whoever was terrified by them was a pitiable wretch. What would end, what would dissolve? His body, his personality and individuality-this cumber some, intractable, defective, and contemptible barrier to becoming something different and better. Was not every human being a mistake, a blunder? Did we not, at the very moment of birth, stumble into agonizing captivity? A a prison with bars and chains everywhere! And, staring out hopelessly from between the bars of his individuality, a man sees only the surrounding walls of external circumstance, until death comes and calls him home to freedom. Individuality! Oh, what a man is, can, and has seems to him so poor, gray, inadequate, and boring. But what a man is not, cannot, and does not have-he gazes at all that with longing envy-envy that turns to love, because he fears it will turn to hate. I bear within me the seed, the rudiments, the possibility of life’s capacities and endeavors. Where might I be, if I were not here? Who, what, how could I be, if I were not me, if this outward appearance that is me did not encase me, separating my conscious ness from that of others who are not me? An organism-a blind, rash, pitiful eruption of the insistent assertion of the will.”
I liked this book a lot. By a lot I mean I’ve never been so aware of my lack of writing talent (I mean, while I was reading it I couldn’t forget that the guy published this book when he was my age!) and enough to be sad at how underrated it is outside Europe. If you’re a fan of realism or tragic books (something like The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa), definitely check this one out.
However, as much as I loved it.. It did feel like an early work to me because there is something lacking in the way Mann characterizes the various Buddenbrooks members and there are some plotlines that I thought would be important to the book (such as Gotthold’s storyline) that don’t end up amounting to anything though those could very well just be intentional. I can’t be 100% sure until I’ve read his other works, though. Generally my favorite novels have really good character development OR very interesting characters. Though this novel has neither, I don’t really mind it as it does a great job in painting otherwise quite ordinary people who each embrace their own role in society.
My medium-term goal is to slowly read Thomas Mann’s other major works in chronological order of publication (yes, that’s how much I loved Buddenbrooks). I’ve often heard that The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus are even better books (hard to believe as Buddenbrooks is already incredible). Sadly, not all his novels are readily available in English in paperback or kindle format so I don’t know how my ambitious plan will turn out.
I should also mention that there is a new book about Thomas Mann written by Colm Tóibín called The Magician that looks like it will be really good. I’m also hoping to read that in the near future.