Monday, 6 May 2013

Perspectives on Buddenbrooks

The (white) house on Mengstraße, from the Marienkirche.
Time flies. And it's already nearly four weeks since my departure for Lübeck. But the end of that trip was not the end of the story.

Quite apart from anything else, there was still my reread of Buddenbrooks to complete. And completed it has been, with the benefits of insights gained from a variety of sources.

I was about to say that my first reading of it, back in 2001, was flawed. But that's not the case. It was a face-value reading and I loved it as such.

But whereas my subsequent readings of Thomas Mann fed a view that it was a straightforward novel, a reappraisal leaves me thinking quite differently.

Long regarded as being close to an historic record of life in 19th century Lübeck, it's far more than that. I touched, in an earlier blog, on some of the themes, and particularly that of coming modernity. But as my background reading widens, it's possible to see much, much more in it.

It is a novel of layers. There's nothing wrong with reading and enjoying it as a straightforward family saga, but it has a lot more going for it. And a great deal of that is related to philosophical ideas of the time.

The title - or more accurately, the subtitle – is crucial. It charts the "decline" of a family. And it certainly does do just that: the business, the political influence and the reputation and status, built up over generations, are whittled away.

But the interesting question is why the decline occurs and whether, indeed, Mann meant it simply to represent something negative, which is how we tend to automatically interpret that word.

The Buddenbrook family does not simply decline: what happens is a metamorphosis.

The change, simply, is that over three generations, introspection and philosophical and cultural awareness develop.

We open with old Johann presiding over a housewarming party on Mengstraße. A merchant with little thought for intellectual matters, he has brought his house to its highest point.

Yet even as he himself nears death, he is starting to look around and question.

For his son, also Johann, such questioning takes the form of religious piety - something that the father lacked.

 But in his the younger Johann's sons, that changes again. First, the younger of the two, Christian, sufferers from childhood fears and panics and doubts that turn, as he grows, into self-indulgent and ill-disciplined self obsession.

Later, the older son, Tom, who has taken over the business, also finds himself grappling with questions about the very meaning of his existence. Indeed, at the end of Tom's life, we have an episode that is little other than existential angst.

And then finally there is Hanno, Tom's son, whose own, juvenile philosophical internal discussion leaves him, at 15, with a death wish as he views what he believes to be the utter pointlessness of life.

Only his own music - and hearing the likes of Wagner's Lohengrin - gives him a feeling of any meaning.

There are a number of things going on here, and many of them are reflections of the influences, philosophical and artistic, on Mann at the time, and more widely, of 19th century German philosophy and art.

We have moved by stages from an essentially simple internal life to a complex one in those three generations. This is the root of the decline from 'vitality' - a Nietzschian idea - to one of philosophical and artistic contemplation and action, which itself is in keeping with Wagner's post-religious belief in the centrality of art to human life.

At its most simple (as I understand it, in other words) Nietzsche's idea of vitality is about being energised and lively - without introspection. The conflict occurs when you have that internal growth, which is desirable, but which diminishes the vitality.

In Nietzchean terms, vitality was represented by the blonde, blue-eyed archetype: it's was not created by or unique to Nietzsche, and while we know where it went, he did not use it to represent some idea of racial perfection.

But this explains to us what Mann means, in the late stages of Buddenbrooks, when he represents the fellow pupils that Hanno and his equally intellectually inclined friend Kai are isolated from as being blonde and blue-eyed.

It's so easy to think now that this is so much bunk, but it makes great sense. From a personal perspective, I see how my own immediate family has 'declined' as each new generation has explored the same issues more and more.

My father came from rural, working-class stock, but moved beyond that - including simple, rural religious belief - into the clergy. It's probably fair to say I've gone further still in terms of the 'philosophical life', and certainly the artistic one.

It's a pattern that is partly reflected in the declining size of families.

We know that, when women have educational and career opportunities (internal growth), the birth rate declines - in Karela in India, ensuring this is the case for women has resulted in precisely such a decline in population growth to some 40% below the national average, with concomitant declines in infant and maternal mortality, and rises in life expectancy.

So while it's easy to view the idea of decline in Buddenbrooks as negative, it has a concomitant benefit - personal growth.

It ties in too, with the German idea of bildung, which I'm not going to claim I understand in detail, but seems, in essence, to be the personal quest for knowledge and understanding: growth in the internal life, in effect.

So hence the German Bildungsroman is 'a novel of ideas' - and Mann was arguably the last true exponent of that, taking it right into the post-war era.

All this in turn offers a clearer picture of what the Nazis misappropriated from Nietzsche (and others) and why Buddenbrooks specifically was burnt as a 'degenerate' work of art, on that night in Berlin, exactly 80 years ago this month.

Bildung - central to the German renaissance - was the antithesis of Nazi ideology, while unthinking 'vitality' was its lifeblood.

And it is one of the tragic ironies of history that it was not a disaffected older generation that organised the book burnings in 1933, but students.

But back to the book.

Another aspect is the increasing passivity of the Buddenbrooks by generation, which also corresponds to intellectual/artistic questing.

Old Johann plays the flute - but it is not Mozart that he plays, and there is no indication that he plays with particular fretting for any deeper emotional meaning or as 'art' - the same can be said of the poet, Hoffstede, who delivers a poem at the housewarming.

Rathaus, chancellery & Marienkirche
Yet within two generations, Gerda, Hanno's mother, is playing her violin in exactly that manner: music has become a vital part of her own internal life - and Hanno follows in her footsteps, taking it further.

But while old Johann's son continues the businesses, with moderate success, his increased religiosity reduces his vitality and it doesn't go forward with the same vigour.

Christian is redundant where the family business is concerned, as his introspection has already consumed him. To begin with, Tom makes progress with the family firm, but he reaches a point where it ceases to give his life meaning, and his own existential angst starts to hamper him and the business.

It eventually leads to him reading some philosophy (presumed to be Schopenhauer), shortly before he dies.

By now we have another reflection of vitality - or a lack of it - represented by bad teeth. A fatal stroke directly follows a nasty visit to the dentist for Johann, while Hanno has problems with his teeth from birth.

It's an idea that crops up again in Mann's masterpiece of a novella, Death in Venice (1912), with Aschenbach observing that Tadzio's poor dental state probably indicates that he will die young.

And it works at quite a specific level to illustrate the contrast between vitality and inward growth, when Hanno is rewarded for a series of painful dental visits with a trip to the theatre to see Lohengrin.

But back to the passivity. It reaches its apotheosis in the book with Hanno, who does nothing to defend himself from the bullying of those blonde, blue-eyed types, but accepts in a the manner of a martyr.

Interestingly, Kai - who wants to be a novelist - does strike out to defend his friend on one occasion: an indication, perhaps, of the next stage of development, where the internal life can combine more with the vital one?

In his book, Aspects of Wagner, Bryan Magee points out the passivity of Wagner's characters. While he represents the internal life in a way that no other composer had come close to, he also leaves his characters as being recipients of actions rather than causing actions.

And this is reflected in Buddenbrooks, with Hanno as the ultimate realisation of it.

Mann's characters develop beyond this in his later works - to mention Death in Venice again, Aschenbach almost falls victim to the same attitude, but earns his ultimate 'salvation' by recognising his duty, wrenching himself out of this state and warning Tadzio's mother of the disease bringing havoc to the city.

Perhaps it should be argued that the very search for inward development is the antithesis of passivity?

However, to return to Buddenbrooks, though, from the perspective of my visit to Lübeck.

Such a visit gives a deeper sense of a novel, certainly, but it can also offer specific insights.

For me, the central benefit came from understanding the physical and political make up of the old city itself.

Where the Dom (cathedral) had been built some way away from the Rathaus (town hall), the Marienkirche was built right next to it - and built bigger and more splendidly - creating a corner of  the Altstadt that was the centre of mercantile power and achievement. The court for the whole of the Hanseatic League sat in the Rathaus.

The house on Mengstraße is simply across the street from the church. It could hardly be closer to those seats of power and authority and achievement.

By contrast, when Tom decides to build a new house for himself and his family, he moves away from Mengstraße to Fischergrube.

Eventually, the house on Mengstraße is sold too - to Tony Buudenbrook's enduring chagrin, to an upcoming family that she sees as rivals.

And ultimately, the remaining Buddenbrooks find themselves living beyond the Holstentor, outside the old city itself.

Travemünde operates as an interesting contrast to the city.

In general terms, it is somewhere that is closer to nature, yet it is far from immune to internal development.

While summering there to escape the attentions of Bendix Grünlich, Tony comes as close to internal development as possible, both directly in her relationship with Morten, a trainee doctor, and also less directly, in her spending time "on the rocks" in lonely contemplation.

But Tony's opportunities for such reflection are limited by conventional demands to marry well, and she never again comes close to such learning. Indeed, we can read the rest of her role in the novel not simply as comedic, but also as indicative of the restrictive role of the conventions of both Lübeck specifically and the period more generally on women.

Beyond this, food has an interesting, if minor, role to play.

The housewarming that opens the novel is a feast - and one that, straight away, gives the child Christian a serious attack of indigestion.

Family doctor Grabow advises a lighter diet for a while, musing at the same time that such a heavy one is what ultimately sees off most of his patients.

But the earliest sign of Christian's own growing and unhealthy introspection comes a short while later in his panic at imagining choking on a peach stone, and his trouble with swallowing that follows it.

It is not indigestion from good eating that will bring about the decline of the Buddenbrooks, but indigestion of a different, more cerebral variety.

Overall, it's important to stress that all of this is written in a dispassionate and ironic style: it is far from a depressing or po-faced book.

It's also too easy to say that Mann sympathised exclusively with the exchange of vitality for inward growth, with passivity as an outward.

Although there are substantial autobiographical aspects in the novel - it's certainly easy to see Mann himself in both Tom and Hanno - his own dedication to his art, itself perhaps a continuation of the Protestant work ethic of northern Europe, illustrates how he himself always related that art to something other than an apparent lethargy.

There is humour here too. Near the end, as Hanno recalls the previous evening's performance of Lohengrin, is the following: "It was true that the music of the overture was too much for the cheap violins in the orchestra ..." which did make me laugh out loud.

And there are times too when Tony is, in her absolute lack of self awareness, hilarious, although Mann never overdoes the fun he pokes. At the end, she is a tragic figure.

There are issues with translation. HT Lowe-Porter did an immense job in providing the first translations of Mann's work for English-language readers, but it is far from flawless.

In his introduction to his own translation of Death in Venice, David Luke slams Lowe-Porter's work, not least because she also removed things she didn't like.

But some of the flaws are obvious even for someone with a very limited knowledge of the language themselves.

When a character is translated as presenting a meal with the words, "good appetite", even I know there are problems. That is a literal translation of 'guten Appetit'', but it doesn't mean that any more than 'bon appétit' means 'good appetite'. The nearest would be 'enjoy you meal' or even, simply, 'enjoy'.

She also had a tendency to use archaic words where they're not needed, which can give Buddenbrooks a rather older feel than it should have.

Mann acknowledged Lowe-Porter's work, but would never be drawn to criticise her: he said instead that his English was not good enough to allow that.

Hopefully, better translations will come about. And in the meantime, I shall return to my own German studies with greater vigour, determined that one day I might be able to read them in the original.

Buddenbrooks, then, can be read on a number of levels. But digging deeper is a fascinating and rewarding exercise, and helps to emphasise just what an extraordinarily precocious literary debut this was.

• The covers illustrated above are from, top, the Vintage 1999 edition. The second, is a German edition, with the original cover design, which I bought at Buddenbrookhaus.


  1. Excellent to read! I thought Tony a tragic figure indeed, but felt she had come to some self-awareness at the end, when she wishes (against her instinct) that there could be a WiederAufstehung or words to that effect.

    1. Thank you, Mary. I think you're absolutely right.