I’ve always found the plight of the panda both moving and somewhat amusing. It truly is an animal not made for these times, an animal not meant to endure. It can’t eat, can’t procreate; it almost seems as though it wants to die. Its situation is made sadder by the fact that at some point it must have flourished. Anyway, whenever I think of pandas, or when I see one on TV or something, I am always put in mind of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. It is a novel that deals with a family that were once prosperous, but that, like the panda, are ill-suited to the times they eventually find themselves in; the Makiokas are a family tied to archaic systems, ways of life, and values. This is why the novel packs an emotional punch, because there is something horribly inevitable about the fate of the characters, about their increasing irrelevance and ultimate insignificance.
Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is often grouped together with books like The Makioka Sisters under the heading of novels about decline. However, as a novel about decline Buddenbrooks isn’t particularly thought-provoking, and it certainly doesn’t deal with the subject as inventively as Tanizaki. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that Mann was all that interested in it as a subject, despite subtitling the work the decline of a family. Buddenbrooks is a family saga, spanning many generations, and therefore decline is a consequence of the natural passing of time, is of the kind that you would expect from any similar novel of significant length; the decline experienced by the family is the kind that comes to us all, through old age, failing energy etc.
“The Ladies Buddenbrook from Breite Strasse did not weep, however – it was not their custom. Their faces, a little less caustic than usual at least, expressed a gentle satisfaction at death’s impartiality.”
To return to The Makioka Sisters as a comparison, in Tanizaki’s novel the change in fortunes has already occurred prior to the events being described, the Makioka’s heyday has already been and gone; it is what gives it its elegiac atmosphere. Everything in Tanizaki’s world is coloured by this change in fortunes. But that is not the case with Buddenbrooks. In Mann’s novel the fortunes of the family ebb and flow; there are successes and failures. Both The Makioka Sisters and Buddenbrooks are concerned with values, ways of life etc that are not relevant to us [or most of us] now; they are both novels that focus on disappearing worlds, but Mann’s novel simply recreates that world, rather than saying anything meaningful about why it disappeared/is disappearing. The Makiokas are out of time, but the Buddenbrooks, for the most part, are very much of theirs.
So while the subtitle is not exactly misleading, because it is literally true, it might be considered unfortunate for it seems to dominate the thoughts of readers and reviewers, meaning that they overlook what are, in my opinion, the more engaging aspects of the novel. What I was far more taken with were the fascinating, and often moving, things that Mann has to say about family and class and the world of business. The patriarch Johann Buddenbrook is a merchant, and a successful one at that. He is also exceedingly bourgeois; he believes in the overriding importance of the family and the reputation of the firm; he believes in the entitlements of his class and position, in the absolute nature of social hierarchy. It is possible, then, to view the Buddenbrooks as intolerably snobbish; they, it is fair to say, have a very high opinion of their worth and standing.
For me, it is these attitudes that dominate the novel and the characters, and that, in some cases at least, ultimately leads to their unhappiness. Take the issue of marriage, Johann admits near the beginning that he didn’t chose his wife for love, and he passes on the idea that marriage is a duty to the family to his children. Tony, his daughter, is the one who suffers most in this regard. In one of the finest sections in the novel she is pursued by a suitor, Bendix Grunlich, who, in her own words, she cannot stand. She rejects Grunlich numerous times, but he refuses to take no for an answer and essentially gangs up on the girl with her father in order to force her to submit. Johann sees the match as a good one and appears to be unaware of how grotesque his behaviour is. Yet to be fair to him, while it may seem unfair to us now, in the 1800’s and amongst the appropriate classes marrying for commercial or social reasons was not out of the ordinary. In any case, Tony relents, taking pride in her submission, in doing something for the family. In one poignant scene she makes a note of her engagement, before she has verbally accepted Grunlich, in the old family ledger where the history of the Buddenbrooks is recorded. In another, as she is about to be driven away with her husband she jumps out of the carriage, throws her arms around her father and asks him, are you proud of me, papa? The tragedy is that Tony is worth so much more, she is a lively, vivacious and charming girl, yet she is categorically her father’s daughter, she is, fatally, in terms of her own happiness, a Buddenbrook; Tony is incapable of compromising on what she thinks is due to her, in word and deed, as a member of that distinguished family.
“Thomas Buddenbrook’s existence was no different from that of an actor – an actor whose lfe has become one long production, which but for a few hours for relaxation, consumes him unceasingly.”
The Buddenbrooks are ruled by their sense of duty and honour, their conventionality. To a certain extent, the book reminded me of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In that novel the advice appears to be that it is not always wise or prudent to forsake the solid, the familiar for the glittering and exciting. In Mann’s novel the message isn’t clear; it is not obvious where his sympathies lie, but he often contrasts the conventionality of the strongest members of the family with the impulses or character of the artist or the imaginative or romantic [in the Brochean sense] person. Christian, for example, is lambasted, by his brother Tom in particular, for being a buffoon, for shaming the family by taking up with actresses. Poetry, novels, romance are all things that are described as youthful folly, as the kind of things you engage in briefly before settling down; and Tony gives up the one genuine love of her life to fall in line with family policy. Ultimately, the Buddenbrooks have no freedom, even though that is mostly a self-imposed state of affairs.
Tom is the epitome of conventionality, the poster boy; his immaculate manners, his refined bearing, his diplomacy is a large part of what defines him. After a while he comes to dominate the narrative, and the family itself. His rejection of Christian, his antipathy towards him, is based entirely upon what he sees as his brother’s tactlessness and inability to understand what their status as Buddenbrooks demands. In one scene towards the end he flares up at him because he wants to marry someone of low-birth; Christian accuses him of lacking feeling or empathy. What is most interesting about Tom is that he chooses for a wife one who is artistically inclined; yet, tellingly, he does not love her for her passion, or appreciate it in-and-of-itself, but rather he sees it almost as a charming, albeit inconsequential, decoration, like a lovely piece of jewellery. One of my favourite passages in the novel is when Tom’s wife accuses him – patronisingly, arrogantly – of having no musical feeling, of only liking the most easily-digestible, populist tunes. Tom responds with incredulity, for he cannot comprehend why he is being disparaged for enjoying music that he finds stirring or gently moving. To put this in a modern context, Tom likes Angels by Robbie Williams and his wife likes Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You Black Emperor.
This tension between the conventional or bourgeois attitude and the imaginative or artistic is greatest when Tom has a son. Hanno is even more precious than his mother, even more sensitive and dreamy. For Tom Hanno is too indulged, too coddled and, most alarmingly, too feminised by his wife and nanny/governess. Tom laments that his son isn’t more active, more manly; he sees art, he sees expressions of feeling in fact, as womanly. Hanno is, in this sense, not a true Buddenbrook; he is not, as far as Tom is concerned, a model son, is not the kind of son he had hoped for. The ideal son would be one who is reserved, but strong and proud; he would grow up to be a merchant, and one day take over the family business. What Tom gets instead is a sissy who loves music; because of this both the father and the son suffer. Perhaps Mann’s ultimate aim was to show how hard it is to be an artist, or to be unconventional, in bourgeois society, but more movingly, more interestingly, Buddenbrooks reminds us how most families consist of a bunch of people who are very different personalities, who, because they are tied to each other by this incredibly strong bond, have to try and rub along, have to try and understand each other.
In terms of style, Mann wrote in a relatively simplistic manner. The sentences are short, the language not very difficult and, unlike both Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, there are no long philosophical passages. One of the things that Mann’s work is most often criticised for is how detached, how arch and ironic, the narrative voice is. Mann tended to write as though he had a wry smile on his face; he made it abundantly clear that his characters are characters, not in a meta or post modern way, but by making sure that, like Dickens, his third person impersonal narrator was always a presence in the text, offering droll asides etc. Having said that, Buddenbrooks is Mann’s warmest work; it is the closest he got to producing characters that we believe in, that we fall in love with, that don’t exist primarily as ciphers. This is a truly wonderful book, which confirms that Thomas Mann was one of the great geniuses of world literature.