Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Clothes and shoes, meat and drink, hearth and home, wife and child - detailed Buddenbrooks

“What does this mean. – What – does this mean….” (I.1, p. 3)

That’s a funny way to start a novel, isn’t it, as Thomas Mann starts his first novel, the long family saga Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901).  The dashes and ellipses are Mann’s; the page number refers to the 1994 Everyman’s Library edition, the John E. Woods translation.

It is a good question, and one I have puzzled over with no resolution.  I note, though, that in the mouth of the eight year-old Antonie (Tony) Buddenbrooks, it is not a question.  She has been asked by her grandfather, on whose knee she is sitting, to recite the Lutheran catechism, “newly revised and published under the auspices of an august and wise senate in this year of our Lord, 1835.”

That “august and wise” business, presumably sarcastic, belongs to the narrator, although it is the grandfather who “laughed in delight at being able to mock the catechism”:

“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 Buddenbrooks burst into laughter […]  He inquired about Tony’s fields and cattle, asked how much she wanted for a sack of wheat, and offered her a contract. (4, bracketed ellipses mine) 

Grandpa Johann finds the child’s claim to fields and cattle so funny because he is a grain merchant, the Buddenbrooks one of the great merchant families of Lübeck, where I spent several days on my recent vacation.  As a little joke, Mann never mentions the name of the city, although it is clearly recognizable and he does mention specific streets, churches, and neighboring towns.  He does the same thing in the 1903 novella Tonio Kröger, which is a kind of theme and variations on the last part of Buddenbrooks.

I now see that Mann wants that line of the catechism because it describes so much of what he puts into the novel.  The opening chapters, for example, describe a housewarming party, celebrating the families purchase of a mansion worthy of their status, thus giving Mann a long scene to describe food and furniture, clothes and faces, family and neighbors, just the sort of scene used to such good effect by writers like Flaubert and Eça de Queirós.  It is not the entire novel in one long scene, but it contains a lot.

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.  (5)

I should look for a pair of those at the thrift shop.  Also for “the splendid inkwell – a black-spotted hunting dog of Sèvres Porcelain – that graced the secretary” (I.2., 11).  The “colossal smoked ham, brick-red and strewn with bread crumbs” (I.5., 23) and the raspberry pudding, “a layered mixture of macaroons, raspberries, ladyfingers, and custard” (I.6., 28) I can make for myself.  I have already described, in a post on Mann’s contemporary regionalist Sarah Orne Jewett, the landscape room, with its amazing and perhaps oppressive combination of painting, fabric, sculpture, and furniture, a Baroque survival that I now know was a standard component of Lübeck mansions of the time – please visit the Museum Behnhaus Drägerhaus for several examples.  The Buddenbrookhaus, which holds Thomas and Heinrich Mann archives and exhibits, also contains a reconstructed version of the landscape room and other rooms from the book, all inventions.  Buddenbrooks is fictional.  But it is thickly described.

This is one of the things the novel does well.  Maybe I will find one or two more before worrying too much about Tony’s question – “What does this mean.”


  1. It is really a neat idea to reconstruct rooms from the novel at the museum. Based on the picture the room does not look all that oppressive. I tend to like baroque however.

  2. Oh, I envy you... From 'Buddenbrooks', but especially 'Tonio Kröger', Lübeck sounds like a beautiful place to visit.

    The book's pretty good too :)

  3. Baroque has become associated with excess, and can easily take a turn to kitsch, but in context can be vibrant, almost thrilling. I am glad I do not have to live in it, though.

    Lübeck is one of the prettiest cities in Germany. The prettiest, I am tempted to say. In this season, the combination of setting, architecture, and vegetation (all those roses) was amazing.

    "Tonio Kröger" has more of a "tourist's view" of Lübeck, doesn't it? Even though the character is a native, he returns as a tourist. I read the novella after my visit - Lübeck was instantly recognizable in every detail except the city walls, which are now all gone.

    1. That's a shame - I distinctly remember the walks around the walls...

    2. The walks along the river, where some of the walls once were, perhaps compensates today's tourist. One picturesque view traded for another.

  4. love idea of rebuild the rooms using the books ,I love to see perecs life a user manual made into a house to look round ,all the best stu

  5. A real-world Perc, now that is an ambitious reconstruction. After that, perhaps Borges' Library of Babel.

  6. Mann does a good job straddling detail and excess. In the one-plus book of his I've read anyway. Which might not have anything to do with Buddenbrooks' baroque excesses, of course.

  7. The Carnavalet museum in Paris has a recreation of Proust's bedroom, but I much refer this idea of reconstructing rooms from fictions. Imagine an entire mansion like this!

    What a lovely idea, too, to visit the setting of the novel you're reading - maybe that novel especially. Welcome back.

    1. Now that I think of it, my best experience of this was also with Mann. The reading I'd taken along with me to Switzerland was The Magic Mountain, and I was stunned to discover - only upon my arrival in Murren - that the Schilthorn was that mountain up above me.

  8. Oh yes, here we have my visit to the Museé Carnavalet, which, as a bonus, includes a photograph of a dish I wish were in front of me now.

    This vacation actually included a second visit to an author's town and home that from a literary point of view was far more valuable, but I do not expect to get to that for a while.

    To Richard's point, I believe that Mann himself, and his detached narrator, are at minimum skeptical of his characters' baroque tastes, and in his own descriptions certainly never pours it on in the manner of Zola's overripe cheeses and flowers. Mann is more restrained, even when describing excess.

    There is a long Christmas scene that demonstrates the point even better than the initial housewarming party scene, and regardless when else is excess more forgivable than at parties and at Christmas?

  9. I am sorry I missed that post on Carnavalet, but happy for the Internet ensuring that it's still there. I want that lamb crumble for dinner - tonight and maybe all week.

    Mann certainly shows restraint compared to Zola (or to that crumble, for that matter). As I recall, one of his characters in Buddenbrooks even wrestles over whether to eat a peach - a scene I assume led directly to Eliot's line in "Prufrock."

  10. Perfect Provençal cooking right in the center of Paris.

    Young Christian, in the first manifestation of his lifelong hypochondria, becomes obsessed with the idea of choking on a peach pit.

    p. 66 of Woods:

    "Good heavens - Christian, you haven't swallowed it, have you?!" For it really does look as if that is what happened.

    "No, no," Christian says, gradually calming down, "but what would happen if I did?"

    Are world-class, canonical works of literature really allowed to use "?!" ?