Back Yard Books: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks

Portrait of a woman reading by Lillian Mathilde Genth

Portrait by Lillian Mathilde Genth

I do not read beach books.

I am not at the beach.

I am reading in the back yard.

The back yard is better than the beach.

Clover, squash, bridal wreath, geraniums, tiger lilies, catnip,  peonies, cucumbers, and coleus flourish in our organic back yard.

The wind blew the umbrella off the table so I am sitting in my Adirondack chair.

Witchy and windblown, I read.

I have read several  “backyard books” this summer.  I flew through  Thomas Mann’s fast-paced 700-page classic, Buddenbrooks.

Buddenbrooks was a bestseller in its day.  It is the story of the decline of a German merchant family.

In the introduction to the Everyman edition, T. J. Reed says Mann’s complex first novel is reminiscent of the social novels of  Balzac, Tolstoy, and Flaubert.

Buddenbrooks thomas mannOne can see the resemblance between the openings of War and Peace (which I recently finished) and Buddenbrooks. War and Peace begins with a soiree where the most important people in society meet to gossip and discuss Napoleon’s war in Europe. Buddenbrooks begins with a homecoming party at the Buddenbrooks’ gorgeous house in the Meng Strasse.  The  whole family loves to entertain:  Consul Jean, his wife, Elizabeth, his parents, and their three children (who  grow up to be the main characters), stolid Thomas, witty Christian, and the mischievous girl, Tony.

Mann’s characters converse more lightly than Tolstoy’s, but his characterizations even of minor characters are superb.  Herr Jean Jacque Hoffstesde,  “the town poet, …was sure to have a few rhymes in his pocket for today…”  Herr Gratjens, the broker “was forever rolling up a scrawny hand and holding it to his eye like a telescope, as if examining a painting–he was generally recognized as a connoisseur of fine art.”  Therese Weichbrodt, the headmistress of a school, is described as a hunchback:  she “was not much taller than a table.  She was forty-one years old, but, having never set much store by external appearances, she dressed like a woman in her sixties.”

Thomas is the responsible son who takes over the business.  He is stern and inflexible, but not unsympathetic:  he cannot marry the flower girl he loves; his grain business falters when he is middle-aged;  his soophisticated music-loving wife is out of his league; their son, Hanno, is musical and sensitive; and he is very ill in his forties.

But Thomas has no empathy for others.  He tells Uncle Gotthold, who is a failure and who married a woman of a lower class:

If I had been like you, I would have married my shop girl years ago.  But one must keep up appearances….  You had too little momentum and imagination, too little of the idealism that enables a man to cherish, to nurture, to defend something as abstract as a business with an old family name–and to bring it honor  and power and glory.  This requires a quiet enthusiasm that is sweeter and more pleasant, more gratifying than any secret love.  You lost your sense of poetry, although you were brave to love and marry against your father’s will…Didn’t you know that one can be a great man in a small town?  That a man can be a Caesar in an old commercial city on the Baltic?

Resilient Tony is probably capable of helping with the business, but her career is to be marriage:  that is woman’s lot.  She  falls in love with a medical student, but her father forbids the match; he steers her to a man who looks good on paper. When they learn Grunlich has faked his financial accounts and is in debt, she comes home and gets divorced.  Later she marries a sweet, rather eccentric, badly-educated man of her choice, Herr Permaneder, with no better result.  He cheats on her, and she comes home again with her daughter.

It is all part of the decline of the family.

Their brother, unconventional Christian, loves the theater, going to the club, and back-stage women.   He cannot work, though the family does not understand this. He feels sick most of the time.   He goes to London and South America to escape the family firm, but he never lasts long at a job. He doesn’t see the need to work when the family is so rich.  Later, Thomas cuts off his funds when he learns Christian is wants to marry his mistress.

Thomas’s son, Hanno, dominates the last part of the book:  he grows up hating school, has a musical bent, and a friend who is also artistic.  His father does not understand him.

We hope throughout the novel that the Buddenbrooks will survive.

“You’re making good progress in that,” my family said several times to oblivious me, reading.

“Uh huh.”  I didn’t really hear what they said.  It’s that kind of book.  Utterly engrossing.