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.


I have a saying which is that the greatest trick that man has ever pulled is to convince women that they are free. I’m sure many of you are raising your eyebrows at that. I’m serious though. Years ago men tried to control women by keeping them locked up in housework, in children, in piety. Then we realised that by doing so, although we posses them, we aren’t benefitting from it in the way that we would like. No, what we want, what we have always wanted, is for them to look nice, to leave us alone to pursue our own interests, and yet to give us what we desire when we desire it. For that women needed to be convinced of their emancipation.

This freedom, in my opinion, is a mirage. I believe that women are socialised to exercise their ‘free will’ in a way that most pleases men, i.e. they are taught to be promiscuous, to not want commitment, to be ok with all kinds of sexual congress, to be obsessed with their appearance, etc. Furthermore, they have been taught to be satisfied with scraps of attention, to appreciate the glittery, the sparkling, the bright and blinding; which are all things that men can give them with little effort on their part. Of course, not all women fall for the trick, I’m not saying that, but that doesn’t call into question the entire theory. Just look around you, at TV, at pop stars, and so on. Society is ordered in such a way as to create vacuous, easy, and lovely looking women. And this situation is getting worse, the numbers are growing with each new generation. Take it from a man, someone who has been dating girls for a number of years. I’m not taking the moral high ground here, I’m as bad as anyone; I, too, have benefited.

Remarkably, these ideas, which have played on my mind for quite some time, form the basis of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which was published in 1913. In fact, one character, Charles Bowen, engages in a conversation, about half-way through the novel, in which similar points to my own are raised:

“I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”

“I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.”

“What do you call the weak point?”

He paused. “The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.”

Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”

Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well–doesn’t he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.”

“To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!”

“Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

Mrs. Fairford, sinking back into her chair, sat gazing at the vertiginous depths above which his thought seemed to dangle her.

“YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?”

“Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.”

“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”

“Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture. I’m not implying that Ralph isn’t interested in his wife–he’s a passionate, a pathetic exception. But even he has to conform to an environment where all the romantic values are reversed. Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman’s drawing-room or in their offices? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? The emotional centre of gravity’s not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it’s love, in our new one it’s business. In America the real crime passionnel is a ‘big steal’–there’s more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.”

Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme. “Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!”

I’ve included the discussion in its entirety because it is so fabulous. Reading it was one of those miracle discoveries that you get every so often in literature, when someone articulates almost exactly your own thoughts and feelings.

The focus of the novel is Undine Spragg, a self-centred but very beautiful young woman. She is a poster-girl for the dangers of socialisation; she embodies my, and Charles Bowen’s, ideas about the way that women are raised and taught to behave. Her mother is weak and subservient, maybe even intimidated by her daughter; her father appears to believe that she should have everything she wants, no matter how unreasonable. Indeed, Abner Spragg does exactly what I was talking about at the beginning of this review: unable to engage with his daughter properly he simply throws something shiny or new and expensive her way in order to pacify her. He doesn’t do so for sexual gain, of course, but he is putting in place a pattern of behaviour and creating and re-enforcing an attitude towards relations between men and women that will carry the girl throughout her life. Later, when she starts forming serious relationships, she brings the same expectations to them, which is that the man ought to always satisfy her desires. In these relationships, the male concern is sexual, but they take on the paternal role: they keep their true thoughts and feelings to themselves, they shelter her from business matters, and so on. Undine’s role, both in her own mind and in the minds of the men she encounters, is simply to look beautiful.


In a way, you could call The Custom of the Country a feminist novel, because, of course, socialisation of women, male attitudes towards women, are feminist concerns. However, Wharton is too clever and too deft a writer to fall into the trap of writing a political tract. She appears to be saying it is a great shame that women are kept at arm’s length, are taught and encouraged to be beautiful and little else, but she does not ever really blame anyone for this state of affairs, she is entirely even-handed, and she certainly is no man hater. Ralf, one of Undine’s husbands, is, for example, probably the most sympathetic person in the whole novel; he is shown to be truly in love in with his wife and devoted to his son. Yet, Undine’s and Ralf’s marriage is not on an equal footing either. He doesn’t want to bore her with financial or business matters, while she thinks it his responsibility to ensure her amusement. Crucially, Undine doesn’t want a relationship on an equal footing: she wants to be pampered and spoiled and allowed to do what she likes

Undine Spragg is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It would be easy to see her as a typical conniving, scheming femme fatale, but she isn’t really. What is most interesting about Undine is that she truly believes that she has a right to what she wants, that no one and nothing ought to be able to stop her. That is not the same as a traditional femme fatale, a Becky Sharp, who know that they are bad or that they are doing bad things, and don’t care. Undine thinks she is absolutely in the right; she would be mortified to think that she is in the wrong. There is, in fact, a great deal of naivety and innocence in her. She twice marries the wrong kind of man, not exactly for money as you might anticipate, but because she doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between her desires and money [i.e. that the things she wants cost a lot of money and that money doesn’t simply come to hand when it is called for]. Both men aren’t rich, and yet Undine thinks they should still do all they can to please her and cannot comprehend why they are unable to. She also makes many social faux pas; she does not use society, or manipulate it; she is essentially clueless, but eager to learn. The upshot is that Undine is both monstrous, almost sociopathic, and yet somehow strangely charming, strangely endearing. And, I think, that the sympathy I felt towards her comes from me being a man, because, again, being a man I like, I respond to, beautiful but child-like women, just as the male characters in the novel do.

If this is all the book had to say it would still be a brilliant, forward-thinking novel. However, it raises many other fascinating questions, deals with other engrossing themes, such as money, divorce, family, parentage, duty etc, etc. Perhaps the overriding theme, the one that ties many of the other themes/ideas together, is that of old vs new. Undine’s battles, her disagreements with the grand old families, the Marvells and de Chelles, is indicative of the tension that Wharton sees between old values and new, the old world and the new world. However, Undine is not quite as modern as she may seem at first glance. She instinctively respects these traditional families, although only because she feels them to be important and respected by others. It is Elmer Moffatt, my favourite character in the novel, who truly embodies the new age. Moffatt is unrefined, he has no great name or heritage behind him; he is brash and loud and straight-talking; he is a speculator, a self-made man. He is, in fact, The American Dream.

There is a poignant scene towards the end of the novel, although in order to understand it some explanation is required. Undine has married a French aristocrat, who, albeit titled, and therefore giving the appearance of wealth, has very little ready cash. Undine, needing money for her trips to Paris, arranges for a man to come and view and put a value on some very expensive de Chelles family heirlooms; and Moffatt is the man who comes to buy them. He offers two million dollars, but de Chelles turns the offer down. The Frenchman is incredulous, he cannot fathom why Undine would even have the heirlooms evaluated; there is no question, he says, of them ever being sold. For Undine, however, they are merely objects, which are pleasant to look at but only if they are not taking the place of other, more pressing, desires. Anyway, eventually, right at the end of the book, Moffatt is seen bringing these heirlooms home. He has, of course, bought them. de Chelles and his set, his values, his way of life even, is on the way out.

If I have any criticism to make of The Custom of the Country it is that Undine’s second marriage too closely resembles her first. Consequently, you feel as though it is unnecessary, as though you’ve already been through this already, that Wharton had made the same points previously, and this makes the novel drag a little bit in the final third. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense that Undine would make the same mistake twice, i.e. that she would again marry someone who is seemingly well-to-do, but financially in dire straights, because she would foresee, you’d imagine, that she would find herself in the same position that she so loathed before. I feel as though Wharton could have cut the de Chelles marriage out completely, and if she had done so the novel would have been even more wonderful, more brutal. In any case, this minor quibble about pacing aside, The Custom of the Country is one of the few genuinely great novels I have read this year.