Thursday, July 11, 2013

Summarizing Buddenbrooks

What is Buddenbrooks?  In Erich Auerbach’s description, it is “the first great realistic novel [in German, he means], which, despite its complete originality, corresponds in its level of style to the works of the French nineteenth-century realists” (Mimesis, 1946, tr. Willard Trask, pp. 517-8).  I wish more reviewers summarized books like this.  It is what I want to know about a book.

Nevertheless, from here on out I will indulge in a little more plot detail than usual, so potential Buddenbrooks readers of a delicate temperament will want to avert their gaze.  Buddenbrooks is all about temperament.

The novel covers four generations and about forty years, 1835 to 1875 or just a bit later.  Thomas Mann was born in 1875, making Buddenbrooks a historical novel of the domestic variety, merely brushed by larger historical events, most prominently in Part Four when the Buddenbrooks patriarch defuses the anger of a mob of 1848 revolutionaries (“’it’s ‘cause of the gen’ral frenchies,’” 189).  See also Part Seven, Chapter 8, one of Mann’s occasional narrative experiments, in which the wars between Prussia and Denmark (Lübeck is in between) are summarized in a single distant page, more distant than usual:

In late autumn and winter the troops return victorious, are quartered in homes again, and then depart amid the cheers of relieved citizens.  Peace.  The brief peace of 1865 – the future gestates in its womb.  (427)

The Buddenbrooks family owes its fortune in the Napoleonic Wars, a good time for provisioners, twenty or thirty years before the novel begins.  Thus the peak in fortune in the first long scene; thus the decline.  The opportunities of war do not come along every day, and when they do, as in 1865 or 1870, the head of the firm is too risk averse, or, ironically, too committed to the reputation of the firm to prosper from them.

Almost all of the most important characters in the novel – a novel with hundreds of named minor characters – are present at the first party.  I mean the three children, the Buddenbrooks siblings, Thomas, who will take over the firm, Christian, who will flounder about, and Antonie, who will – well, her story is complicated.  The only character of similar importance is Hanno, Thomas’s son, off in the future, the boy with musical talent, bad teeth, and bad grades.  There is a fourth sibling, Clara, whose role is minor.

The four siblings between them produce two (or just possibly three) offspring and a single grandchild among them.  Here is the source of decline – this is a demographically unusual result for well to do Germans of their time.  They have bad luck with their marriages, and with their health.  I was expecting something more along the lines of a tragic flaw to appear in the Buddenbrooks family, or some sort of original sin, something more Shakespearian, or Sophoclean, or Faulknerian, but Mann is after something else.

After all, both he and his brother were children of artistic temperament who had no interest in taking over the old Mann merchant firm, causing their father to dissolve it upon his death.  What looks like a decline from one point of view is anything but from Thomas Mann’s.

Then the question is how, without much of a sense of doom and tragedy, a writer can find any dramatic interest in this material.  So that is the task for the next couple of days.

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