Monday, July 15, 2013

“It’s all gibberish! They just want to trick us.” - the literary thing about Buddenbrooks

Reading Buddenbrooks and Thomas Mann’s early stories has led to questions, most of which do not have ready answers.  Turning to Mann himself has not been so helpful.  Mann invariably says things like this, found on p. xv of T. J. Reed’s introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of the novel:

a Munich colleague asked him what he was working on, and he answered ‘in words more morose than cheerful: “Oh, it’s tedious, bourgeois stuff, but it treats decline – that’s the literary thing about it”.’

The aspects of the novel I have found the most impressive are the tedious bourgeois stuff, while I am skeptical about the decline stuff, which does not seem to support as much meaning as its author would like.  Thomas Mann thought he prefigured Max Weber, but I am not so sure that treating Buddenbrooks as a work of sociology does it a lot of good.  Mann disagrees.  Mann and I always seem to disagree.

The tedious, bourgeois stuff is what I think of as the Flaubert-like side of the novel – the parties and wallpaper.  Mann talked more in terms of Richard Wagner and leitmotifs.  I would love to read about some examples.  Perhaps I missed them.  Mann’s leitmotif method, as I see it, is a mechanical repetition of detail, more John Williams than Wagner, with the Darth Vader theme playing whenever the character appears.  So to speak.

It all appears to be much less intricate and sophisticated than the subtle patterns created by Flaubert, Joyce and Nabokov, but of course these patterns are almost entirely invisible on a first read of Madame Bovary or Pnin, and here I am complaining that I do not see them after one pass through Buddenbrooks.  Well, obviously.

Related is the mystery of Mann’s irony.  Mann is routinely described as being particularly, even uniquely ironic, but I am having trouble distinguishing his irony from that of, say, Anthony Trollope, another incessantly ironic writer who is given less credit for his stance.  So for example, Thomas Buddenbrooks would like to have more heirs, but only has one son who is unsuited to business.  Long ago, he had a fling with a girl who works in a flower shop before he married someone of the proper status.  The flower girl, over time, has many healthy children.  This is, in a sense, ironic, and is perfectly good novel writing, but I do not see how it is so unique to Thomas Mann.  I have wondered if Mann’s irony is the same thing as his detachment, admirably accomplished for a story so rooted in his own biography, but now we are back to Flaubert, who is similarly detached.

The post’s title can be found on p. 693, Part Eleven, Chapter 2, the longest chapter in the novel, Hanno’s school day, “one day in the life of little Johann,” as the chapter’s last line says.  At times reading Buddenbrooks, I sympathized with Hanno, although he is referring to Ovid in Latin.  The next line, beginning the next chapter, is “Typhoid runs the following course:” followed by a detailed, clinical description of the symptoms of the disease, three full pages of dismaying, repulsive symptoms with no reference to any of the novel’s characters aside from a doctor, the tone different from anything else in the novel, but in some ways resembling the surprising end of The Sorrows of Young Werther, where the one-sided epistolary novel transforms into a coroner’s report.

I suppose it is not all gibberish.  I have a full agenda for the next time I read Thomas Mann.


  1. I don't know if Mann's irony differs significantly from that employed by others. I often think of the memorable scene in Buddenbrooks when Thomas Buddenbrooks (it is Thomas, right?) is able single-handedly to defuse the angry mob gathering in the town in 1848. This kind of irony - that unspoken transmission of the hollowness of that tiny, myopic victory, when the reader knows that all around it Europe is being turned inside out by the larger force of revolutionary fervor - seems the kind of thing at which Mann is particularly good.

  2. Thomas's father, actually. And then an unexpected result of the incident is an ironic death.

    There is some good comedy in that scene.

  3. Best never to trust what authors may have to say about their work. They may not realise themselves that the work has been going in directions they had not intended. Or perhaps they were just being, er, ironic.

    From what I remember of this novel, it was the clarity I enjoyed - the firm, clear lines in which the whole thing was drawn. Miles away from the sophisticated and intricate patterns of a Flaubert, a Joyce, or a Nabokov. Butthis is still a very erly work (written in his mid-20s, I believe): Mann smudged the lines more in his later works.

  4. I am more comfortable with authors who are blatant liars. Mann seems to be earnest. What am I supposed to do with that?

    Maybe this is more of his patented irony, the kind I do not understand.

    A consequence of you second paragraph - with which I agree - is that Buddenbrooks is a second-rate artistic achievement.

    1. Possibly. But perhaps there's a place for firm clear lines, as long as the lines are well executed, and in the right place. Otherwise we'd have to dismiss Dürer's woodcuts as second-rate art also.

  5. First, I am a defender of the second-rate. So "dismiss" is the wrong word entirely.

    Second, there is way more to Dürer than his lines.

    I am going back a step - is smudginess meant to be a characteristic of Flaubert, etc.? If so, I have lost the metaphor. An increasingly smudgy Thomas Mann is exactly what I fear I will find as I read more of him.

    1. Woodcuts don't offer the opportunity for shading. All the artist can depict must be depicted by lines. This, obviously, calls for a different sort of skill from, say, a charcoal sketch, where patterns may be produced by all kinds of intricate shading techniques. I am no expert on art - well, no expert on anything much really, if it comes to that - but Dürer, it seems to me, excelled in using lines, and lines only, without shading, for expressive purposes: it meant that each line had to be perfectly placed. If the works of Flaubert, Joyce & co may be likened to a charcoal sketch - or even, perhaps, to a painting - then the woodcut, where one is restricted only to lines, is perhaps a reasonable metaphor for Mann's art in "Buddenbrooks".

      (Of course, whether Mann's literary lines are as expressive as Dürer's is another matter: for me, this kind of writing - all lines, no shading - is done here as well as it can be.)

      I don't think Mann ever quite used the the kind of shading that, say, Flaubert excelled in. But he did develop his art in directions where my metaphor (which isn't frankly that great anyway) breaks down. But in "Joseph and his Brothers" - which, as far as I have read, seems to me his masterpiece - he did push his technique much further than what we see in "Buddenbrooks", and the achievement does seem to me considerable.

  6. Dürer used shading in his woodcuts.

    I do not really think of Flaubert as someone who uses shading, but rather strong, clean lines, each line perfectly placed. We seem to be translating the metaphor in different ways. I am sure, though, that when, someday, I read The Magic Mountain and come across one of those long passages of philosophical discussion, I will think of it as smudgy.

    1. I fear we may be running the risk of focusing more intently on the metaphor than on what the metaphor was intended - perhaps misguidedly - to represent. But if Gogol could do it, so can we!

      In Wikipedia (yes, I know, I know…) a woodcut is defined as:

      “Woodcut … is a relief printing artistic technique in printmaking in which an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood ... The areas to show 'white' are cut away with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show in 'black' at the original surface level.”

      So, basically, we are left with black and white only (unless we are talking about colour woodcuts). Skilful artists could of course suggest shading by the closeness of the lines - i.e. the closer the lines are placed, the darker the effect. Or they could use varieties of cross-hatching. But manipulation of solid lines, rather than the pressure applied to the pencil, is all they had at their disposal. Dürer did achieve the effect of shading by skilful placement of lines, but if you look closely at the areas that appear shaded in “The Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, these areas are made up of carefully placed solid lines.

      Although, I agree, skilful deployment of lines can suggest varieties of shading, this is nonetheless different, both in technique and also, I think, in effect, from the shading that is achieved by applying different pressures on the pencil. And it tends to put a greater emphasis on the lines themselves: they need to be absolutely precise.

      However, given what you say of Flaubert, we do appear to be reading the metaphor in different ways. Which suggests that it’s a crap metaphor to begin with.

      But it is nonetheless interesting that you describe Flaubert’s art thus:

      “I do not really think of Flaubert as someone who uses shading, but rather strong, clean lines, each line perfectly placed.”

      “Strong, clean lines, each line perfectly placed” is how I’d have described Mann’s “Buddenbrooks”, which seems to me to exhibit perfect clarity and precision of line. For endless varieties of shading (with varying pressures on pencil rather than on careful placement of line!) we possibly need to go to Henry James - especially the late Henry James novels, which seem to lack outlines altogether! So where would Flaubert come on the Mann-James scale? Ach - let’s forget this metaphor: I shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place!

  7. Late James isa great contrast - pure smudge. Even earlier he has minimal interest in sensory detail. Disembodied consciousnesses float from smudge to smudge. Something emerges from the murk - look, it's the Roman Colosseum! Or just a cookie that has fallen on the floor - still, something to see, how exciting.

    I believe we are both putting Buddenbrooks towards the Flaubert side of the Flaubert-James scale, thus our similarities of language. I do not want to make the less sophisticated Buddenbrooks the measure - Flaubert would break the scale.

    Unless I just missed the intricacy in B., which is all too possible. I need someone to explain this leitmotif business. Next time I read Mann I will look at his Cambridge Companion or something like that.