Why Should I Read?...
Thomas Mann, 1901
Subtitled “The Decline of a Family”, Buddenbrooks appears on the surface to be a traditional 19th century novel. It traces the lives of several generations of the Buddenbrook family as they collapse within two generations from the unquestioned merchant princes of
Buddenbrooks was Mann’s first novel (and many would consider it his best). It gains strength from its position on the cusp of the centuries: it reflects not only the traditional story-telling virtues of 19th century fiction, but looks ahead to the symbolic and allusive elements of the 20th. For many readers (including this one) Mann’s later work emphasised the latter at the expense of the former, upsetting the balance which makes Buddenbrooks so remarkable. There is a parallel with Muriel Spark magnificently balanced early work giving way to more overtly philosophical but less artistically satisfying later output.
The result in Buddenbrooks is that Mann is able to present a richly detailed picture of 19th century Lubeck, with characters whose invariably unhappy lives move us, while also presenting a thematically and symbolically nuanced whole. It is a mature perspective with no heroes (although there is at least one out-and-out villain): just recognisable people struggling with their own mediocrity. In its gloomy descent into death and obscurity we can see elements common to great 19th century realists like Zola and Hardy, although without their relentless sledge-hammering which can make reading them so wearing at times. At the same time Mann can remind us of modernists like Virginia Woolf with his interest in the creative process , the passage of time and his symbolic richness.
Buddenbrooks is unique on my list in that I’ve never read the text the author intended: I don’t read German and have had to rely on Helen Lowe-Porter’s rather twee Penguin translation. Since Mann has a reputation as a remarkable prose stylist, that’s my loss.
How has it influenced me?
Buddenbrooks is a novel I’ve admired without wanting to emulate. Mann is, as we’ve seen, perched between the 19th and 20th century, and as a writer I’ve always been much more attracted to the former.
In The Dog of the North¸ Lady Isola and Lady Cosetta act out two different strategies for surviving in a world which is at best indifferent to lone women (in Dragonchaser, Lady Catzendralle adopts yet another approach). In Buddenbrooks¸ Thomas’ sister Tony finds herself with similar difficulties—but I think this is less a case of direct influence and more a question of similar fictional interests.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
If your story is strong enough it can survive a God-awful translation…
Symbolic and thematic richness can add depth to your novel, but it needs to be buttressed by strong plotting and characterisation.
In any culture, social position is important…
…but without money it won’t get you very far. In creating an imaginary world it’s important to recognise these realities