by Thomas Mann

This is a difficult entry to begin, because I feel obliged to explain why I haven’t read Thomas Mann’s the first of Thomas Mann’s three classic novels before the tender age of seventy-six. If it had simply been a case of not getting around to something, that would be one thing, But as a rule I manage to get around to everything that I want to read, and I didn’t want to read Buddenbrooks, although I read the other two classics — The Magic Mountain twice — and a good deal else besides. I didn’t want to spend time in a provincial North German city with a pinched bourgeoisie that has no time for unprofitable activity.

What changed my mind was the recent novel about Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, by Jo Salas, Mrs Lowe-PorterBuddenbrooks was the first of many Mann titles that Lowe-Porter translated into English for Alfred Knopf, and I fancied that reading it would allow me to stay closer to a very intriguing woman after I finished the novel. Getting hold of her translation wasn’t a matter of ordering it from Amazon. She has been displaced, in print, by John E Woods, who has retranslated everything for Knopf. I had to settle for a 1938 edition, which actually turned out to be more agreeable to hold in the hands. Because I haven’t posted an entry about Salas’s novel, I want to be sure to mention two interesting facts about Mrs. Lowe-Porter: first, most readers did not know that “HT Lowe-Porter” was a woman until the Times published an obituary in 1963; and Boris Johnson is one of her great-grandchildren.

The earlier translation omits Mann’s subtitle, The Decline of a Family. I can understand why, although the Buddenbrooks do much worse than merely decline — they disappear. The main line of the family simply dies out or leaves Lübeck — that north German city — and in such a way that business failure is not the culprit. The subtitle is misleading, to the extent that the “decline” of a mercantile family is almost always, well, mercantile, but even though the House of Buddenbrooks suffers some losses in the later parts (the novel is divided into eleven), the actual decline is the result of something else. That something else is what must have fascinated Thomas Mann; he would probably not have bothered with the usual wheel-of-fortune story.

Mann presents four generations of Buddenbrooks. (The first Lübeck Buddenbrook founded the firm in 1768 and does not appear.) The span of the story is 1835-1877. The curtain goes up on a housewarming in Meng Street: the family has just moved into the mansion formerly belonging to a faded family, a fact that sounds the unmistakable note of memento mori, which Mann’s irony intensifies by amplifying the extended family’s consciousness of its prominent status. The three children in the house are the novel’s central characters, and they grow into their roles as children do, gradually. In 1835, the family’s second patriarch, old Johann, has retired, but he has not lost the zest of living through exciting (Napoleonic) times. His son, another Johann but within the family called Jean, runs the family affairs now. He is a very pious man, but also an anxious one, always mindful of the risks to which the firm is vulnerable at any given moment. He is not given to laughter and his public character is nothing if not sober.

For the first half of the novel, there would not be much of a story if it were not for Jean’s daughter, Antonie, known as Tony. She seems to be very capricious, right from the start; I found myself whistling “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria.” But Tony’s caprice is confined altogether to her speech. She is not a rebel; she does not get into trouble. Although she has no head for business, her sense of the family “name” and position is really unsurpassed. She marries a man to whom she is not at all attracted because her parents want her to. When he turns out to be a fraud — Jean has been fooled by cooked books — Tony is rescued by her father, but at the expense of becoming a divorcée. In a somewhat rash attempt to bury this scandal, Tony decides that she’s in love with a Bavarian whom she meets on a visit to Munich. This man, Permaneder, is a good, sound fellow, but the match is obviously a very poor one, and soon enough Tony is back in Lübeck with two divorces under her belt — only to endure a third fiasco when her son-in-law is disgraced and imprisoned.

Very gradually, Mann’s attention shifts to Tony’s two brothers, Thomas and Christian. Christian, the younger, is a wastrel. It might be incorrect to dismiss him as utterly irresponsible, but it is painfully clear that hasn’t got a follow-through bone in his body. Christian would be a disgrace to the family were it not that he is such a charming storyteller than the men of “the club” depend upon him for entertainment.

Tom is the good son; of the three, he is the only one whom I should have expected to meet in Buddenbrooks. He is  energetic, ambitious, and disciplined. He seems to have a good grasp of business — the family trades primarily in grain — but it emerges that he has another quality, and the tragedy of Thomas Buddenbrook is that this quality, which he never fully grasps, drives him into the ground. It is, very simply, imagination; his fellow businessmen dismiss it as “vanity.” Tom is aware, to a very unhealthy degree, of his appearance in the world. He dresses impeccably, and he always says the right thing. It is easy for him to know how to conduct himself as a burgher and businessman, but it is also very taxing, because, unlike his forebears, he is not a trader by nature. He is a gentleman. But he goes too far, breaking with tradition by leaving Meng Street for his own establishments, the second one is simply grandiose. The expense fills him with a secret panic, and his family is reduced to plain meals served in an ostentatious dining room.

This is not to say that Tom affects the airs and tastes of an urbane sophisticate. That might have been better for him. Much worse, Tom aspires to be a model bourgeois. And in tracing the path of exhaustion and ennui to which Tom condemns himself, Mann suggests, without ever spelling it out, why this aspiration is deadly. Human beings can aspire to be all sorts of things, from heroes to saints to Don Juans. But, oddly like a sex symbol, a “model bourgeois” is something that, as a result of God-given gifts, either you are or you aren’t; and it might appear to the discerning eye that a reliable degree of unself-consciousness is essential, If you have to try, you’ll probably get it wrong. And Tom unquestionably tries too hard.

A merchant may hope for and try to achieve an unblemished record of business successes, but “who he is,” while it may help or hinder him, is not, and cannot be, an object of his attention. If successful bourgeois nurture hopes of being something else, they are of rising above the bourgeoisie altogether. As Tom discovers, there is no actual goal in bourgeois life. To borrow the Hollywood overstatement, you are only as good as your last deal. (His father understood this.) Having paused to note Tom’s failure to see that a routine of business deals, none of them interesting to anyone but the immediate parties, will not engross the imaginative mind, we can regret his collapsing in the snow after a tooth extraction as a furious waste.  In this regard, Buddenbrooks is a template for the plethora of novels about unsatisfactory if “successful” careers that poxed the Twentieth Century. There is nothing wrong with being a grain merchant. But there is plenty wrong with devoting your life to a pursuit that doesn’t engage you.

In Colm Tóibín’s fictional re-imagining of Thomas Mann’s life, The Magician, the writer tells a friend that he has “just” killed himself off in Buddenbrooks. Why? Because the family had to come to an end. Point taken. My question is whether it wouldn’t have been better if the family had died out with Thomas Buddenbrook. I don’t think that Hanno, as Johann Buddenbrook, Thomas’s son, was called, belongs in the story. Insofar as Buddenbrooks is a tale informed by autobiography, Hanno as an only child makes no sense. Thomas Mann was one of five siblings, and his older brother. Hermann, was the first to establish himself in print. The final part of Buddenbrooks is dominated by an excruciating account of a wretched school day “in the life” of the boy, who seems likely not to amount to anything. This may have been Mann’s way of burying a heap of old fears, and it could have been made into an effective short story. But the impression that Hanno has little in common with his forebears, compounded by his death at sixteen, make it difficult to conceive that he has a meaningful place in the family history.

A question that I am not going to explore is whether Thomas Buddenbrook was a misfit, or whether expectations had been so transformed by the Great Upheaval that the old way of life was no longer possible. While it is true that in the course of the 1800s trading families like the Buddenbrooks were replaced and outclassed by industrialists, I’m inclined to settle for my first impression, which is that the French and Romantic revolutions were very dangerous for non-poets with imagination.