I Can Read: Buddenbrooks

What a piece of work.

If we can believe the blurbist on the cover, this newish (1993), John E. Woods translation of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is close “in style, vocabulary, idiom and tone to the original.” I’ll have to take his word, whether in German or English, for it. The only German I know is, “I expect you to die, Mr. Bond!” But if Mr. Blurb is right, then I have boundless compassion for the hapless novel-readers of 1900 Germany. Thomas Mann, had just given them a glimpse of how depressing novels were going to be in the upcoming disaster of a century.

The wunderkind Mann — he was 25 when Buddenbrooks whumped heavily down on the public — thought the previous century had been pretty much a disaster. He had his reasons. The Manns had a tough time in 19th century Lübeck and Thomas visited those woes on their fictional counterparts, the Buddenbrooks. He guides us from one calamity to the next as we follow four generations of the titular merchant family from 1835 — we meet them at a lavish dinner party in their mansion where guests reminisce about the recent Napoleonic invasion — to late 1870s when a unified Germany is feeling like hot stuff after the Franco-Prussian War, but by which time the proud Buddenbrooks have dwindled to three impoverished women in rented rooms, one brother locked away in an insane asylum, and the family name surviving only in the person of a fey, feckless teenage boy incapable of anything except performing eccentric improvisations on his harmonium and lying in bed hugging his pillow “with lavish tenderness.”

Mann takes particular care in describing the deaths of the heads of the family. Here goes Großmutter:

Elisabeth Buddenbrook lay on her back, propped up on several pillows, and both her quivering hands — those beautiful hands with pale blue veins, which were so thin, so emaciated now — were in constant motion, hastily, impulsively stroking the quilt. Under a white nightcap, her head never stopped shifting from side to side, with the dreadful rhythm of a metronome. Her lips appeared to have collapsed inward, and her mouth kept opening and closing as she gasped for each tormented breath; her sunken eyes strayed about in search of help, resting now and then on one of those around her with an appalling look of envy — they were up and dressed, they could breathe, life was theirs, and yet all they could do was offer one last sacrifice of love: to fix their eyes on her and watch.

That’s one of the gentler departures. Her son dies after a botched tooth extraction, collapsing in the street “splattered with muck and slush.” His son (the harmonium virtuoso), in turn, gets an entire chapter all to himself — a chapter which begins with the foreboding words, “Typhoid runs the following course:…” We, the readers, suspect we are about to get the works from young Herr Mann, and we do.

Even if you are not made of the stern stuff — or the ironic stuff, or the heartless stuff — needed to make it through this epic “decline of a family,” you may want to at least read the opening. The action of the 730 page novel takes place over some forty-two years — but, remarkably, “Part One” — more than a tenth of the novel’s length — describes only a single evening, the dinner party mentioned above. It’s a tour de force, and well worth your attention as a stand-alone novella. No one dies.

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family
By Thomas Mann; translated by a guy named John E. Woods
(Vintage Books USA, Paperback, 736 Hanseatic pages)

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