I am of the opinion that sadistic and masochistic impulses exist within everyone, but that often one or the other is more pronounced. What is interesting about these impulses, however, is that people are generally more comfortable with accepting, or acknowledging, the pleasure they experience as a consequence of their own pain than they are the pleasure gained from the pain of others. This is, you might argue, because the former is more socially acceptable; to enjoy being hurt, even to an extreme degree, does not suggest a kind of moral failing. Sadism, on the other hand, strikes us as sinister; it is linked in our minds to morally [or at least legally] impermissible activities such as murder, and is therefore deemed incompatible with a civilised society. Yet this does not mean, of course, that the pleasure ceases to exist, simply that we – the so-called civilised – endeavour to disguise it, we seek to mask it under the guise of curiosity, science, progress, righteousness, etc.

As someone who finds the suffering of others difficult to stomach I consider myself to have a very weak sadistic impulse, and yet one of my earliest memories is of playing maliciously with a small fly. I was on a bus and it was raining, and this had caused condensation to collect along the bottom edge of the window. When I spotted the fly I, almost absentmindedly, pushed it into the pool of water. Then I waited, allowing it to struggle. After a while I extricated it, only to push it back into the water at the moment at which, I imagined, it believed itself to be saved. I repeated this manoeuver until the fly stopped moving. And at this point I felt ashamed. Did I, however, feel ashamed because I had killed the fly or because I could feel society’s disapproving gaze burning into my back? Was I judging myself or was I scared of the judgement of others? Was my shame not, in truth, the realisation that I had allowed the mask to slip, that I had, in my naivety, allowed the ugly black cat to poke its head out of the bag?

Having read The Torture Garden, there is little doubt as to how Octave Mirbeau would have answered these questions. First published in 1899, his short novel opens with a group of men – who, owing to the private nature of their meeting, feel as though they have the freedom to express themselves without inhibition – discussing our – human beings – preoccupation with violence and death. Murder is, one of the men claims, ‘a vital instinct which is in us all.’ The reason our society has not descended into bloody anarchy is because we indulge this instinct – which is natural – by giving it ‘a legal outlet’, via war, colonial trade, hunting, etc. While this might strike some readers as being a drearily negative or cynical view of humanity, as someone who is drearily negative and cynical myself I was furiously, albeit metaphorically, nodding my head throughout.

However, not everyone indulges this impulse by means of actual physical violence. In some it finds an outlet via what Mirbeau calls ‘counterfeits of death.’ For his characters these ‘parodies of massacre’ are found in places such as the fair, where people shoot with ‘rifles, pistols, or the good old crossbow at targets painted like human faces’ and others hurl balls ‘knocking over marionettes ranged pathetically on wooden bars.’ In the present day one sees analogous behaviour in those who play unpleasant video games which involve butchering computerised civilians. It is, I believe, also the reason that many are so drawn to certain kinds of horror film, the torture porn genre in particular. Indeed, I have often had arguments with a friend of mine about this, a friend who watches and re-watches titles like Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel, and so on. He is, in my opinion, undoubtedly deriving pleasure from these staged dismemberments and murders, precisely from these elements of the films, for what else do they have to offer? If he was disgusted – which is what I would consider a healthy reaction – he would avoid them, as I do myself.

“Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will always see that word: murder—immortally inscribed upon the pediment of that vast slaughterhouse—humanity.”

While the discussion of these ideas is engaging, one does, after a while, reach a point where one yearns for some kind of narrative momentum. Fortunately, Mirbeau appeared to recognise this, and at the right moment introduces the character of the man with the ravaged face, whose story accounts for the rest of the novel. In this way, The Torture Garden’s opening section is a false beginning, is a kind of philosophical prologue that could be skipped, but which, I would argue, enriches what is to follow. The man, who isn’t named, is described as having ‘a bowed back and mournful eyes, whose hair and beard were prematurely grey.’ The ravaged face and prematurely grey hair is significant, because it suggests that something may have happened to age him, some distressing event that has impacted upon his physical appearance. This provides the book with some necessary mystery and excitement and motivates the reader to continue, for of course you want to find out exactly what occurred.

It is the man with the ravaged face who first brings women into the discussion. To have neglected them is, he claims, ‘really inconceivable in a situation in which they are of primary importance.’ This situation is, remember, our preoccupation with, and tendency towards, violence and murder, sadism and torture. His argument is that women in particular derive from these acts, or from the observation of these acts, not merely pleasure but a sexual pleasure; he, in fact, compares the actions of murder with those of sex, where ‘there are the same gestures of strangling and biting—and often the same words occur during identical spasms.’ One can guess, on the basis on this argument, that it is specifically the man’s experience with a woman that has changed him. Indeed, he confirms this himself a little later: ‘Woman revealed crimes to me that I had not known!—shadows into which I had not yet descended. Look at my dead eyes, my inarticulate lips, my hands which tremble—only from what I have seen!’ The name of this woman is Clara, and she is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature.

She is introduced as an ‘eccentric Englishwoman,’ who ‘talked sometimes at random and sometimes with a lively feeling for things.’ Yet despite the man’s intention to bed her she remains ‘impregnably virtuous.’ At this stage one considers oneself to be in familiar nineteenth century literature territory. There is the caddish gentleman with the ‘awkward past’, and the pure, but, one assumes, eventually willing, object of his desire. However, as already hinted, as The Torture Garden continues Mirbeau confounds your expectations, and makes of the woman the aggressor, the ‘villain’, and the man the love-sick, silly slave. Indeed, at one point Clara is compared to the dum-dum bullet, the notorious expanding ammunition that was designed to cause maximum damage in the intended target by creating a larger entrance wound and no exit wound.


Before continuing it is worth noting that there is much in the novel about deceit, about people seeming to be, or acting as, something that they are not. Clara is an example of this, of course, but there are many others. The man with the ravaged face, for instance, first meets her in the guise of a scientist, which is simply a cover for leaving France, where he has disgraced himself. Furthermore, the men who open the novel are said to ‘present only lies to the public.’ Indeed, The Torture Garden is, amongst other things, a political satire and the idea that powerful men are not honest about who they really are is frequently touched upon. On this, there is a fairly long section which features Eugene, a corrupt politician who is intent on getting to the top by any means necessary, but who the narrator threatens to expose by revealing to the public his true character. In contrast to man, nature is said to be only and always itself, for it lacks ‘the ability for improvisation.’ This appeal to nature reminds one that earlier in the novel the murderous impulse was deemed natural. Yet I don’t think that Mirbeau was necessarily advocating indulgence of this part of ourselves, rather simply pointing that we are constantly engaged in subterfuge, in running away from, or disguising, who, or what, we are.

I wrote that Clara is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature and have perhaps not fully backed up this claim so far. For the man with the ravaged face she is a ‘monster’ and it is her behaviour in China, where she attends and revels in various tortures, that justifies this description. I don’t want to linger over the barbaric acts themselves, not least because reading about, and revisiting, them makes me uncomfortable. What is important, in relation to Clara, who is a devout sexual-sadist, is that she finds them beautiful, sensual. To some extent I can understand this, for torture is a concentration upon the body, it is working upon the body with almost loving, but certainly intense, attention; it requires an understanding of the body, and a theatrical, quasi-artistic, approach to murder. [Take the torture of the bell, which involves placing a man inside a large bell and ringing it until he dies]. In any case, how should one understand this woman? Is she natural, uninhibited humanity? She says of herself that she is not a monster, or at least no more than the tiger or the spider is.

There is much more to The Torture Garden than I have touched upon here, and much more that I would like to discuss, but this review is in danger of becoming monstrous itself. I do, however, want to point out that the novel is not quite as heavy and intense as I have perhaps made it sound. I mean, certainly large parts of it are, but there is humour too. For example, in one passage a man who kills a young boy by fracturing his skull is outraged at being sent to prison: ‘They dragged me before some judges or other, who sentenced me to two months in prison and ten thousand francs fine and damages. For a damned peasant! And they call that civilisation!’ Later the same man is asked why he kills black people: ‘Well—to civilise them—that is to say, to take their stocks of ivory and resins.’ Ok, so it’s a dark humour, but it made me laugh anyway; and they are precious to me, those sniggers and smiles, because, although I agree with Mirbeau almost completely in his opinions and ideas and conclusions, I also believe [or have deceived myself into believing] that life isn’t only baseness and vulgarity and violent, barely restrained, impulses, that it provides less alarming enjoyment too, such as a well-written book and a few pissy jokes.



I plod through life in a disgraceful manner, it is true. I approach every day as though it were a Sunday afternoon in midsummer. Even in relation to my writing, which I would like to one day make my career. So many times I have been encouraged to grab the tiger by the tail, and I agree that it would be in my best interests, and yet I never do. Instead, I gently rub its nose and admire its whiskers. In this way, many opportunities have passed me by, and I have watched them, sleepy-eyed, as though I was sitting on a warm and pleasant riverbank, and they were slow-moving sailing boats. For this reason, I have always related to Robert Walser’s protagonists, but especially the ‘layabout’, ‘good-for-nothing’, ‘hopelessly indolent’, but amiable Robber.

The Robber is a young man who, we’re told, is exceedingly poor and only able to live by virtue of the charity others bestow upon him, such as the money given to him by the Batavian uncle, and the attentions of a number of well-meaning women. In this way, he is very much like Simon, from The Tanners, who, early in that novel, is allowed to stay in an apartment beyond his means by a landlady who takes a particular shine to him. It would be tempting, in light of this, to see both men as ‘users’, as the sort who will gladly take advantage of others, and while that might be literally true, there is certainly no sense that they do so with conscious deliberation or, if you like, malice aforethought. Simon and the Robber are dreamers and drifters, rather than arch manipulators; there is something naïve, soft and kittenish about them, and so it is no surprise that people often take it upon themselves to look after them, to indulge them, in the way that one would a stray but friendly little animal.

For me, the Robber’s dominant character trait is a kind of gentle frivolity, lightheartedness or lack of seriousness. For example, when he finds out that Rathenau, a German statesman, has been assassinated he claps his hands;  he is, moreover, enchanted by unkind looks and delights at not being able to gain the esteem of gentlemen. From my experience, readers tend to find this precious otherworldly-ness, these quirks, either aggravating or charming. I cannot, of course, influence how any particular person will react, but I would argue that there is more to the Robber than mere whimsy, or silliness, although I suspect he would value both of those things. He is, without question, an genuine eccentric, someone who is not entirely sane, and, as such, he is rather vulnerable – Walser points out that he does not have any friends, for example – and this makes the flightiest of his flights of fancy touching.

“He resembled the leaf that a little boy strikes down from its branch with a stick, because its singularity makes it conspicuous.”

In this regard, his name is obviously significant, for a robber, like an eccentric,  is someone who has, in a sense, stepped outside of polite, conventional society by virtue of his behaviour. This outsiderness is further emphasised by the lack of steady occupation and also by his interactions with the middle classes. Indeed, class plays a subtly important role in the novel. For example, the respectable Stalder sisters want him to respond to their coquetry, to behave in certain predictable ways, to marry them, but of course he does not, for the Robber is disinterested in, or not familiar with, middle class duties, values, institutions, etc. Furthermore, there are a number of references throughout to narrowmindedness, where Walser, or the Robber, lament that those who are different, or behave differently, are not accepted or are bullied and criticised. Take the teacher with the ‘odd nature,’ who was told she knew nothing of her profession. Only with time and support is she able to become a productive member of society. The idea is, then, not that it is a good thing to be outside of conventional society, but that it is incumbent upon society to make everyone feel included and worthy. Which is, of course, a lovely sentiment.


[One of Walser’s microscripts]

The Robber was Robert Walser’s last novel, and although it was written in 1925, it wasn’t published until the 1970’s. There was, I am sure, more than one reason for this, but it is worth noting, first of all, that The Robber is one of Walser’s microscripts, which means that it was written in pencil in tiny, almost indecipherable letters. I can just imagine how a publisher would react to being presented with such a manuscript. Moreover, the style of the novel is especially unusual. There is, for example, absolutely no plot, and precious little character depth and no development. Indeed, although it isn’t set out on the page in the same way, one might compare it to David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is composed of a series of declarative statements.

Yet perhaps the most trying, or amusing, aspect of the novel, depending on your tolerance level for this sort of thing, is its digressiveness. The first line is ‘Edith loves him,’ and in a conventional narrative one would expect that it would then be explained just who exactly Edith is, who the ‘he’ is, and that there would follow from that some discussion as to the nature of their relationship. But Walser promises ‘more on that later’ and throws in a random reference to a ‘famous’ hundred francs, which, of course, one has no prior knowledge of. And this is not, as noted, a one-off; he does it frequently, relentlessly, so that the story is constantly running down dead-ends [‘that hundred francs will come to nothing at all,’ he later writes]. The effect upon the reader is that it keeps one from ever finding a firm-footing; it is disorientating. As a writer, Robert Walser snatches away the tablecloth and sends all the plates and cutlery flying [but, ah, how beautifully he approached the table].

In 1929 Walser admitted himself to a sanatorium, upon his sister’s urging, and, I think I am right in saying, remained there until his death. With this in mind, there is a tendency to view The Robber as a manifestation of madness, but I think this would be simplistic, not to mention unfair to the author, because it, in a sense, deprives him of credit or complete responsibility for it, it is akin to saying that he wrote it despite himself or that he had no option but to write it the way that he did. I don’t believe that. One must remember that none of Walser’s novels have a strong plot, and they are all erratic, episodic and digressive, to a lesser or greater degree. That was his style. It is, for me, simply the case that The Robber is the most complete, the most sophisticated example of that style; it is what he had been working towards all along. It, in my opinion, expertly, deliberately, captures the stop-startingness, the circularity, the charming meaninglessness of everyday life.


It must be great being a genius. You can do things like try and write a moralistic novel about adultery and the evils of high society and end up with a humane masterpiece on your hands. I’m pretty sure if Tolstoy had attempted to make a nuclear bomb he would have inadvertently cured cancer; he was just that kind of guy. It may be apocryphal but I have read numerous times that with this book the author’s intention was to condemn Anna and her set. Yet, if that is the case, why does Anna Karenina not read like a diatribe, like a dressing down of women like Anna and the scoundrels and fops of high society? Because there was too much love in Tolstoy, too much understanding. He may have wanted to vent his spleen, be didactic, but his intelligence and compassion would not allow it. Not only would a diatribe, a pure condemnation, not have satisfied his intellect, but, because he cared for people, he could see things from all points of view. Yes, there are moments of what you could call judgmentalism, like when Kitty describes Anna as satanic, but [almost] everyone in the book is multi-faceted and everyone elicits some sympathy from the author. Whatever the great Russian’s intentions were, I came away from the book feeling a kind of tenderness, for the characters and for the world at large.

I’ve read Anna Karenina once before and, although I very much enjoyed it, I certainly loved it far more this time around. Maybe the reason for that is that during my first read I focussed my attention too much on Anna herself. Anna – the adulteress, the titular character, and one of the most famous names in literature – is probably the least interesting of the major players in the book. She is, in fact, perhaps only interesting so much as her position, as a woman, contrasts that of her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, as a man. The novel opens with that wonderful scene, where Stiva wakes up in an unfamiliar room, and, as his sleep-fogged mind clears, he gradually comes to the realisation that he is there because he has been thrown out of the marital bedroom. Oblonsky has been caught cheating on his wife with a French governess. However, being a man Oblonsky is not lambasted [except perhaps by Levin], condemned or even all that harshly judged; he is, after not too long a time in the doghouse, forgiven, despite his wife not believing in his future fidelity. Anna, on the otherhand, as an adulterous woman, is forced to flee Russia once her affair comes to light and is shunned by society upon her return.

There is also a contrast in the way that both Anna and Stiva see infidelity, and in the reasons behind their actions. Oblonsky, as he is no longer attracted to his wife, deems it perfectly natural that his eye [and other things] ought to wander; he cheats not because he falls for the French governess but because he has the hots for her; and he does not see anything wrong in that. Anna is different. Anna considers Vronsky to be her first and only love. She finds in the relationship an emotional connection she does not have with her husband; her affair is a grand passion. This is why many readers sympathise with her; people, these days, are concerned less with duty and more with the dictum of following your heart. Anna does, however, think that her actions are wrong; she does not love her husband, but she does believe that cheating, lying, and so on, are bad things; Oblonsky, and Vronsky for that matter, lie without compunction. It is all part of that archaic idea that for a man to err is natural, but that a woman ought to be entirely chaste; that it is expected that a man will give chase, but that the woman ought always to resist and flee. I don’t know if Tolstoy’s desire was to highlight these inequalities but he does so nevertheless. I guess I am less inclined to believe that it was his desire, because Anna’s treatment at the hands of the author is different also. She loses everything, while Oblonsky manages to maintain the status quo, and, as most of us know, Anna does not survive the full duration of the book.

In any case, it is necessary to explain why, although the Anna passages and chapters are by no means badly written, I mostly found her, as a character, disappointing. I have seen her held up as a feminist icon numerous times, principally because of all that following your heart stuff and because she is regarded, in breaking from her husband, and therefore conventional society, as some kind of modern woman. Yet, I actually consider the opposite to be the case i.e. that she is not modern at all, but that she is a throwback. I find her disappointing, and often irritating, because she is so predictable; she is the kind of female character that someone like Balzac would have created, by which I mean a melodramatic woman who loses her heart to a handsome officer and ruins her life; a woman who throughout the book wrings her hands and cries and has fainting fits. Is that feminist? If so, then I have misunderstood that whole movement completely. It is not even true to say that she leaves her husband. She cheats on him, yes, but she doesn’t leave him. She, in fact, doesn’t even ask to be let go; her brother does that on her behalf. Anna, meanwhile, simply sits around weeping and gazing forlornly into the distance; she doesn’t act at all. It is her husband, Karenin, the wronged party, who frees her, despite not wanting to lose her.

While Anna disappointed me, Alexis Karenin is perhaps the best evidence of Tolstoy’s subtlety, fair-mindedness, and psychological complexity. He often seems to be glossed over in reviews and articles, but I think he is expertly drawn. Many authors, certainly around the time the book was written, would have gone one way or the other with the husband of the cheating woman: either he would be an imbecile or a saint. Karenin is neither, although I think I am right in saying that Tolstoy’s original thought was to make him saintly. What I like about Karenin is that he is essentially good, yes, but makes obvious mistakes; he is hugely successful in the business world, but he is artless where his wife is concerned. He doesn’t know how to express passion or even warm emotion, and it is clear that this [along with his ears!] is why Anna disparages him and finds it as easy as she does to wrong him. Indeed, Anna at one stage calls him a machine and says that if he had killed her and Vronsky then at least she’d be able to respect him. She doesn’t respect him though, of course, and this, in the beginning, fuels her feelings of entitlement and allows her to proceed, not without guilt, but with less compunction. Karenin’s way also serves to make Vronsky seem brighter, bigger and, crucially, more in love. It is Karenin’s smallness, his shrinking away from romance and passion, that enables the demonstrative Vronsky to seem all the more passionate and romantic and in love. The irony, the tragedy is that Karenin does love his wife very much, but he is an emotionally humble man who covers his embarrassment with jokes and easy sarcasm.

As well as Anna and Vronsky, there is another important relationship formed during the timeframe of the novel, that of Kitty and Levin. I wrote earlier that Anna is a throwback, but Constantine Levin points towards the future [over the century following the publication of the book literature became increasingly concerned with people like Levin – the introspective loner, the anguished, tortured soul]. Levin is very much a Dostoevskyan type of character [I wonder if Tolstoy ever acknowledged the influence?], he is in conflict with other people and also in conflict with himself; he is on a kind of quest to understand himself. When we first meet him he seems intense, pompous, judgmental. It is interesting that it is pretty much accepted that Levin is Tolstoy, because he isn’t particularly sympathetic at times. Take, for example, what he says about ‘fallen women.’ He compares them to a spider; he says that just as one could explain to someone who recoils from them that they are just following their nature, and that will not make one whit of difference in terms of finding them revolting, likewise he will still be disgusted by these women, no matter how one tries to explain or justify their situation.

One of the potential problems with the book, as time marches on, and people have become increasingly secular and morally laidback, is that readers are more likely to identify with and sympathise with amiable cads like Stiva Oblonsky or the intellectually and emotionally straightforward Vronsky rather than the complex Levin [because we would rather see our own flaws reflected in a character]. There is, I feel, a disconnect between who Tolstoy considered, intended as, his hero [or most heroic character] and who the general public will like and see themselves in the most. Levin is, to a certain extent, the moral or more specifically the philosophical heart of the novel; but arrogance, irritability and moodiness are not, I’m told, attractive qualities. Fortunately, however, Tolstoy breathes life into Levin by making him vulnerable, awkward, self-questioning, harder on himself than anyone else; so while he is sometimes a bit of a dick, he is also kind of loveable or endearing [he is, in fact, my favourite; but then I am a dick too]. Like almost everyone in the novel, he is not fully one thing or the other; his behaviour and attitude changes, he is inconsistent in the way that real people are.

If Levin is the moral or philosophical heart of the novel, and Anna provides the tragedy, it is Kitty who goes on the most admirable journey. At the beginning of the novel she is a socialite; she a pretty young girl, who likes balls and dancing and dresses. She is aware of her attractiveness and proud of it, but she is not conceited. Kitty’s two suitors are Levin and Vronsky; her preference is for Vronsky, because he is elegant and handsome and has good prospects [although her mother does seem to have played some part in her choice too]. However, once Vronsky abandons her for Anna Kitty starts to reassess her feelings, her priorities; she begins, in effect, to mature. She comes to see the balls as a kind of cattle market, as a way of arranging marriages, or more specifically of marrying off daughters. The pivotal moment for Kitty is meeting Mlle Varenka, who is a kind of role model; Varenka is pretty too, but is without ego, and Kitty wants to copy her. Crucially, however, she comes to realise that she can’t be anything but herself; that is her epiphany. One could see Kitty’s story as a journey towards Levin, but it isn’t that to me, it is a journey towards womanhood, towards independence [of thought], towards finding out who she really is.

That Tolstoy was a master of character construction and character psychology I hope to have made clear, but his art extends well beyond that sphere. He was, in my opinion, also the master of detail; he had an uncanny ability to know what to draw a readers attention to in order to elevate a scene, for example, the way that Kitty brushes the hoarfrost from her muff or, while at a ball, how she is danced towards Anna, her partner manoeuvring her so that they evade the ribbons and tulle on the other women’s dresses. Tolstoy was able to give significance to apparently insignificant things, he was able to imbue them with poetry. To my mind, Count Leo was also the master of tempo or pacing; he appeared to understand exactly the right point at which to move on his narrative; when the society scenes are getting dull, the action will move to the country; likewise, if Levin is starting to bore, Tolstoy will look in on Kitty. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Tolstoy was the master of grand scenes. There are numerous grand scenes in Anna Karenina, by which I mean significant scenes that become burned into your consciousness. My favourite is Kitty iceskating; but there is also the wonderful chapter where Levin takes up  a scythe and spends a whole day working his own farm, the mushroom picking with Varenka and Sergius, and Vronsky’s horse race. The horse race is particularly potent, because it foreshadows his and Anna’s fate, it sums up their relationship. Initially, the race is exciting, romantic; Vronsky takes the lead, and appears to be sure to win. Yet he makes a fatal, stupid error and his horse falls and breaks its back. As silly as it sounds, that horse is Anna; Vronsky by pursuing her, by riding her so hard, ruins her and, if you want to be dramatic about it, ultimately kills her.

As I come to the end of my review I realise that I have hardly touched on the novel’s themes. What is Anna Karenina really about? I am sure in classrooms around the world that is what is being most discussed. However, I sometimes think these kinds of questions are irrelevant, especially in relation to very long novels such as this. Anna Karenina has many themes, it is about many things; there is no single standout idea. Yes, to a certain extent it is about adultery; it is about love, it is about the contrast between a superficial attraction and a meeting of souls [or I think that is what Tolstoy himself intended, at least initially], for example, Kitty and Levin vs Anna and Vronsky; it is about relationships, familial and sexual; it is about gender and class; it is about duty [see: the brothers, and Stiva and Dolly, and Anna and Karenin and her to son etc]; it is about death; and so on. But, the genius of the book is that more than being about anything Anna Karenina is a believable representation of something. When reading the book what we are exposed to are thoughts, feelings, mundane moments, and dramatic ones too. We follow a group of people who we care about as they live their lives over a significant period of time. Life, for better and for worse; that, to me, is Anna Karenina.

Here, by the way, is Tolstoy as a young man:


Just look at the glorious fucker.


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.


He emerged out of the swamp, to walk into the swamp, or so it seemed, leaving nothing but his dirty footprints, mud-stain, bog-stain, on carpets and floors. He was mad, or else everyone except him was mad. He remained calm – no: sullen – in the face of that madness, and threw everyone off. Some doubted his madness and believed in their own. He came looking, as others came looking after, for him. He found nothing, as they found nothing; for there is nothing. He circled nothing, circled empty space, and everyone was hypnotised by that circling, so that they didn’t notice how they’d been pulled into the circle itself, and how the circle expanded until it became a wrecking ball. The day he came back it rained buckets, not as portent, no, but to show that this city would not raise an eyebrow and would not be diverted from its own normal course due to the arrival, or return, of such as him. No, he wasn’t in control of the weather, at least. Or if he was he’d brought on the rain five years earlier, in leaving, rain like tears of relief, like my own tears that day. So he came back, and so it rained; came back like from the dead, bringing death. He’d tried to be better, to be clever, and found that he was worse and more stupid than anyone here, these people who he had rejected, had attempted to leave behind. So it was retribution, or corrective punishment, when Lily was taken; it was the north twisting his ear, caning the back of his legs, for running away. There was a while when he looked as though he might outrun his own nature, when he began to build and fortify the fence; his brother acted as his press officer then, and poured eagerly into my ear reports of his progress abroad, as though he was Achilles taking Troy; with the arrogance of Achilles, no doubt, and the preening of Paris. He prospered; aye, he prospered in that interim time, before he was blown back here as though by Aeolus’ winds. And, if you believed him, what greeted him as he stepped off the train was a multitude of miseries, like a welcoming party or homecoming guard of honour. No, it was he who brought his denizen of demons. Within weeks we were a city besieged, I tell you, by Poles and Slovaks, Pakis and Blacks. A coincidence? In every dark corner a darker, uglier face; he returns and the city becomes a Boschean hell. A coincidence? No, he stealthily led his legion beyond the walls of the Citadel, and there they set up camp. And before too long we were a populace possessed; a once peaceful people infected by the ogre-blood he had introduced. He circled nothing, I tell you, while our city burned. While everything seethed and writhed he looked on blank and calm, with sullen bewilderment, even while his self-created hell swallowed him up, while the demons and the possessed, for which he was responsible, ate him, and his kin, alive. And it was his choice; he came home, mark that. He came here: the place, I am under no illusion, he abhorred and was so intent on leaving permanently behind, dismissing forever from his mind. The north, this city, yes, those too, but more than anything: home, or not-home. Aye, he chose to come not-home, and yet quite shuddered at the prospect, no doubt, and, once here, continued to shudder and wince and, in private perhaps, claw at his face and curse the curse he undoubtedly felt he was under; except he was the curse, of course. And it wasn’t he who told me, no, he had his brother announce that the prodigal son was to return with his tail tucked between his legs. He couldn’t even tell me himself, not out of shame, a filial feeling of having let me down, but out of arrogance and anger and bitter disappointment. Not that I expected otherwise, no, I did not expect a humble plea for help or motherly affection. I had received no word from him for five years, except through the agency of his brother, would never have heard otherwise. He had become a myth to me, some strange creature far removed from my experience of the world, who existed only in his brother’s fairytales and was therefore of no importance to me except to serve as some cautionary parable. So why did he come back when to come back was so objectionable to him? Because, for all his so-called intelligence and maturity, he couldn’t smell crazy cunt even when it was under his nose, that’s why; or, because, like most of his sex, he couldn’t turn up his nose at any cunt, no matter how clearly crazy. Of course, that’s not how it was told, first to the brother, then, like flotsam moving on the currents of a river, from him to me. No, it was much more poetically put; it was, to hear it from my youngest, who’d had it from the lying lips of his brother, a veritable Greek tragedy, which cast him (my eldest son) as an unfortunate Agamemnon, and me and the north as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. But it took so little reading between the lines to see the truth; strip away the bombast, the melodrama, and there is my naked son, cowering and cunt-compromised. That he would not have had it that way doesn’t make it any less so. No. As he, in his severe self-pity, would have it he who never experienced any stability or normality – in his childhood situation, by way of his mother – subconsciously sabotaged himself. Ah, see, it was his malevolent mother who unbuttoned his flies and whipped out his perky prick and burrowed it deep in some slut’s slit – against his will, mark that – and brought him low. Not only his mother, but the north; we, in tandem. He sabotaged himself, we are to believe, because stability and comfort and loving-goodness made him panic, not having ever had any from his mother, nor the north; we, the north and me, sowed these seeds of self-destruction in my sad and sorry son, he merely, unwittingly, acted out the script we had written. So that he lost his lover, and his slut, and hobbled not-home with his trousers round his ankles. But he was not contrite. Sullen, aye, but contrite? No. To look at him, you’d not think he had taken all, had endured all, that a human heart could take and endure, which is how his brother had told it, the impression, in his epic re-telling, he had given of this courageous, ill-fated man, a man haunted by hopelessness and fallibility and, not ego, but, rather, the sins of his Machiavellian mother; a man who had stared into the depths of his bruised soul and found lurking there, no, nimbly moving from tree to tree, doing its best to hide, with only its head peering occasionally around the trunks of those close-standing trees, the evil gargoyle image of his mother. Yet how well he kept it hidden, this anguish, this internal sturm and drang. Docile? No. Say, sullen; but more than anything: closed. At least to his gargoyle mother, who, so his little brother said, he cast as something like the Iago of the piece, who was off-stage, yes, but still whispering hate into his ear; and yet it was he who hated, not me. No, I claim no hate; suspicion, yes, and fear, but not hate. He hated, in that passive aggressive manner so particular to him, by being in my presence so sullenly unresponsive, so unanimated, while pouring pestilence into the ear of his brother; he Iago, ironically. And I, yes, rudely stamped, deformed, disfigured, and deathless, but not hateful, although I have every reason to be. What reason, has he? He who left without a word, and lived without a word for five years. He who sought his glory abroad, who puffed himself up, when he thought victory assured, and looked down upon the mother, the place, he’d used as the motivation to better himself. What reason? Was it the realisation that the land he’d claimed, the spoils he’d claimed, weren’t ever really his? That what you steal, what you appropriate, does not ever truly belong to you, even if you never relinquish it? Someone should have told him: you are wretched with or without possessions, because you are you, regardless of your university education, your high-flying job or your pretty perky-titted partner, you cannot outrun yourself, even if you outrun your mother and the north. But they didn’t, or if they did he paid it no mind. And so, unwilling to blame himself – the real villain of the piece, mark that – he blamed the two things he’d so thoroughly rejected, the two things more removed from him than anything else, and did it convincingly. Someone should have told him: the fence you erect around yourself and your new life, in order to keep your mother and the north out, is pointless when the real threat to yourself is the one who erected it. He fenced himself in, and, in doing so, frustrated and enraged his enemy (himself), because suddenly everything (except the mother, the place) outside, everything beyond the fence, became more important, more necessary, more tempting, more alluring; and so he burrowed deep in some slut’s slit in order to claw, to dig his way out of the trap he had set, the prison he had built for himself. Yes, stability may have made him anxious, may have made him panic, but not because he who had never experienced stability couldn’t cope with it, as he claimed via his brother, but because it was only when he’d agreed to forsake all others, to settle in one place, to every day accept responsibility, in private and in public, at home and at work, that he realised how little excitement there was in that. So he burrowed deep, made a bid for freedom, with the only tool at his disposal; only, being a man, he didn’t actually want to escape, not completely, no, he simply wanted to be able to come and go as he pleased without consequences. And that may even have been possible had he been able to smell crazy cunt in front of his nose, but he could not, not until after he had had it and the slut had revolted, with the volatile, immolating, retributive fury of a crazy slut who has been treated like exactly what she is. Oh then he could smell it, certainly, when it was too late, when the whole infrastructure of his comfortable life had been torn down and set on fire. So, as much as he abhorred the place, he returned, because only here could be find a sympathetic ear (his brother’s, not mine), someone naïve enough to believe his cowardly lies and embellish and spread them, someone who believed entirely in his heroism; he returned, not merely out of financial necessity, as he claimed, but for that, for a credible, gullible, audience; and for revenge, let’s not forget that. He sought revenge against his mother and this city, because only in seeking revenge could he fully convince himself and his audience that what he said and thought about his gargoyle mother and his (yes, his) city was true, that without the desire for revenge he would be revealed as a charlatan. To his (little) brother he was extraordinary, be it in victory or defeat; or not-defeat, never defeat, because even though he appeared to have been brought low, even though it looked like he had lost all, and had come back, and filled his (his brother’s) ear with melodramatic psychobabble dressed up as high tragedy, I’d say he (his gullible brother) saw not real defeat in it, but a temporary, even necessary, regrouping of mental forces, a mere episode, one small, yet still engrossing, segment of his (his elder brother’s) tapestry of war and ultimate victory. Aye, he was, I think, in his eyes a sort of Zeus, a powerful, and sometimes gloomy, god of sky and thunder; which makes me a kind of Cronus, a child-eater. (Aye, and now banished to, and chained up in, the cave of Nyx; dreaming and prophesying). The perfect partner, the slut, the job, the swanky apartment: all were lost. (And Lily, too, later). And he a hero, still? Yes, it seemed so. His losses were heroic; when really it, the situation, could have, or should have, been, for him, for his little brother, like seeing his father bested in a physical confrontation. The scales ought to have fallen from his eyes, as he (his elder brother) fell. Yet, I’d say his admiration for him was never compromised, in fact he gained from his fall, which for him wasn’t a fall but a regrouping, a greater mystique, a quixotic gloss. Even the slut escaped the youngest’s ire, for she was necessary too, she was part of the fabric of his epic tapestry, the heroic narrative; she, with her madness, her looseness, her excoriating temper, was equally quixotic. (That some dangerous, and exotic, knickerless lass should want to ruin his brother was, doubtless, exciting; it screamed: femme fatale). My son never saw the slut, he never saw the lover neither; and wouldn’t have seen them even if he had stood in front of both, no, he would have seen the character, the part they had been given to play, the role they had been assigned. Believe it or not, my son saw no malice in his brother, no callousness; he exonerated him on the basis of the psychobabble he had been fed, while simultaneously elevating him to ever greater heroic heights in the epic narrative he was feeding himself. So, no, he saw not a flawed unfeeling man who had shlupped some slut out of boredom or vanity or that male need for distraction or novelty and then discarded her as though she was no more than what she was; he did not see an ignoble sordid soul who, although already attached, had pursued a crazy cunt, not yet knowing how crazy she was, and bedded her without bad conscience. No, he saw no evil in him, spoke no evil of he who had never laughed nor flirted with her (his slut) because he didn’t need to, because it wasn’t required, for she asked for no effort from him, no narrative, no promises, nothing other than to not be forced to acknowledge what she was. She knew, of course; of course, she knew what she was and what he was too, and how much of nothing they had, how little of lasting worth, but she needed to be able to convince herself in her quiet moments that they understood each other, that they were both the same and that they met each other’s needs, at least. So when he turned her out, literally turned her out of the hotel room 3am one morning as though she was his whore, not merely his slut, when she realised that he hadn’t sought in her what he found wanting in the other, that the other did her duty, that she satisfied just as well as she, she vowed vengeance and immediately put her plan into practice with the reckless enthusiasm that only a woman who has been given the means, the opportunity, to make another woman unhappy is capable of. No, my youngest son saw no malice in the slut, or at least apportioned no blame to her, for these things had to be, had to happen, so that the brother could come back and regroup his mental forces, and so that he (my youngest son) could be his audience, his collaborator, his confidant, his champion, and his messenger too, so that he could pass on to the mother the tall tale of a man who had looked deep inside himself and been stricken, panicked by the ghostly presence of his parent and the north, a mother and a city, let’s not forget, that had at no point pleaded nor prayed for his return. I would never have prayed nor hoped for his return, not even in my weakest moments, because I knew that if he did there would be no good in it. I thought: let him ruin, and spread his bad luck, his hurt, elsewhere, and, if I must record them at all, let me record the tremors from here, with him there, anywhere, away. My youngest son would be his champion, and his victim; aye, that I knew. And so it proved. He came back death-faced, bringing death. How could he? If he had had a slip of sense, a modicum of goodness, he would have known himself and stayed away. I lost, not he. They lost; all lost, except he. He endured, sullenly. Would that I had never pushed him out into the world. Let me not be accused of hate, for I don’t hate. Never hated. I don’t hate him, I fear him. Within weeks of his return I saw orgres on every corner, demons in dark places. It was an invasion, don’t believe otherwise. And he was at its head. Not that you’d have known it to look at him, not that anyone would have believed you. Did he control the demons? No, I don’t believe so, simply that he loosed them upon us. A coincidence? No such thing. Aye, it would have been better for us all had he never been born; for his brother, his mother, his lovers, his sluts (don’t presume that there was only one). And for his daughter too, who, having sprung from the loins of such as he, never stood a chance. Tragedy and misery, like twin dark-coated dogs, stalked her heels from her first breath, ever gaining ground. As father, lover, brother, son: he failed, he fucked-up. If he had one true talent it was for engineering endings, for full-stops. I don’t say that he always profited by them, all those endings he engineered; no, for he made also an end of the comfortable life that he had worked for, strove for, that he had rejected the north and his family for, when he threw, with such serenity, with perfect poise and composure, as though she was not even worthy of his anger, his slut out of that hotel room at 3am. Profitted? No. He was the bad penny in his own pocket, too. Aye, when you court chaos you may find that you cannot control that force and that it may do for you too, in doing for others. She did not rouse his temper when she woke him from his drunken and dreamless sleep that early-morning, armed with an accusation she expected him to deny; that is how deep his disdain ran. No, he merely threw her out, or, not even that: he told her to leave, without once raising his voice or displaying any hostility or ill will, as though he spoke in a sleeping state still. He did so without even getting out of bed, like a decadant young lord dismissing from his presence an incompetant servant. Would she have credited his denial? Maybe not, but she expected it in any case, out of politeness perhaps, or to prove his continued commitment to the status quo. But he neither affirmed nor denied the charge; it didn’t register with him at all. And to think she had spent all evening choking it back; while mounted and bucked she put in from her tongue, into her cheek, to let her low moans pass unobstructed. Of course, from the very beginning she could not have discounted the possibility, even the likelihood, that there was someone else, someone other than herself and the full-time lover. She knew that for a man relationships are a sliding-scale arrangement, that what you ask of them is precisely what they give. And she asked for very little, thus giving him more to spend elsewhere. Likewise, she knew that a man’s commitment to fidelity is like a hymen, that its strength and importance exists more so in the mind than in reality, and that once prodded it is shown to be thin and easily broken. So she could not have convinced herself that she was the only one to pass through that gaping hole. Yet, she tried, because she had to, because the alternative was to acknowledge what she was. And so she sought a denial from him, one that, if it was given, she would not truly trust in, but which was necessary to preserve, to keep going, the small fire she warmed herself on during her quietist moments, when the cold wind of doubt and self-loathing swirled about her. But he didn’t deny it, mark that. Oh no he did not deny that he had others like her, or at least one other. Nor did he confirm the truth of the charge; he would not even entertain discussion of that subject, because, in his bloodymindedness, he would not pay to this girl what he owed to his lover. He accepted that she (his lover, his partner) was entitled, should she ever enquire or accuse, to an explanation, a confession, an admittance of guilt, or at least a carefully constructed lie. That was his duty to her, or more likely his duty to himself and his self-interest; but with his slut he felt as though he had no duty whatsoever and, importantly, no long-term vested interest; and so he acted accordingly. Aye, he told her to leave and then went back to sleep. And she, while he lay once again drunk and dreamless and unfettered by conscience, had those hours in which to work her art unchallenged. Did she hate him? I don’t say that, no, though perhaps she had reason to, in her own mind and her own way. I don’t believe she would have hated him, not even when he threw her out of the hotel room at 3am and she contemplated the prospect of walking, unescorted, home. Yet, as my son, his brother, saw it, told it, she was, as she left the hotel, a raging Dido, beating her breast and fixing to throw herself onto a pyre; in the icy early-morning air, he said, she walked with crisp steps, conspicuously unaccompanied. She did not flag down a taxi cab, nor call one. No, she went forth with crisp steps, mouthing her threats into the icy air, under an early morning sky that hung over her head like a large bruise. The streets, he said, were not empty as, here and there, Shades slouched in shadows; and some – the youngest, the most lost – stepped slowly, forlornly, forward, come from the strange houses in which they had slept. But she in her agitation did not see them, he said. She, in chaos of mind, with all her elements convulsed, moved dark and jarring with perturbed force. But she did not hate him; he had dismissed her so nonchalantly and yet she did not hate. If she ever did after, she did not yet. No, she loved him, despite never having loved him before. Aye, suddenly she loved him with an intense and perilous passion, with a great and furious anger that struck hard at her heart and ignited her eyes and her terrible tongue. No, she loved, not hated, though she would have had him whipped to death, he said.