music

DEATH IN ROME BY WOLFGANG KOEPPEN

I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.

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[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.

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MIXTAPE: HIP HOP HIGHLIGHTS

I’m fully aware that my audience, what little audience I have, is probably not teeming with hip hop fans. For most people, and certainly for most book lovers, serious literature and hip hop do not sit comfortably beside each other. I have spent long enough trying to convince the naysayers that rap music, good rap music, ought to interest anyone with a love of language, with so little success that I won’t bother to reiterate those arguments here. All I can say, really, is that hip hop is a big passion of mine. It moves me [maybe being a working class kid has something to do with that] and intellectually engages me in profound ways.

This is not a definitive list [there are plenty of great songs missing], and it isn’t meant to be a rundown of the most important hip hop tracks [how could it be with no Rakim or NWA or Wu Tang?]. My intention is simply to showcase some of my favourites, and to hopefully introduce the receptive few to one or two that they may not have heard before.

1. Hip Hop by Mos Def

Mos Def’s ode to the genre is probably a great place to start.

2. NY State of Mind by Nas

Nas’ Illmatic is my favourite album. This is the opening track [if you ignore the skit that precedes it]. Some have interpreted the line “with the pen I’m extreme” as an admission that Nas, to paraphrase Jay-Z, scribbled in his notepad and invented his life. Being ‘for real’ is bafflingly important to many artists and fans of the genre. I would suggest having an imagination is a much greater boast.

3. It’s All Real by Pitch Black

The words ‘Produced by DJ Premier’ are pretty much a guarantee of quality.

4. The Survival of the Fittest by Mobb Deep

Gangster rap. Or whatever you want to call it. Drug dealing, guns, smoking dope, and murder. All of those are present in Mobb Deep’s lyrics. However, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. There is something cinematic about the best gangster rap, something appealingly visual. Take these lines from Shook Ones II:

Your crew is featherweight
My gunshots’ll make you levitate
I’m only nineteen but my mind is old
And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold

My gunshots will make you levitate? Great image.

I chose this track, however, because of Havoc’s weird, minimal production. Gives me chills.

5. Let Me Ride by Dr Dre

Lyrically many of Dre’s records are appalling. Indeed, some of them are simply indefensible. Musically, however, he is a genius. His G-Funk era work is still unsurpassed.

6. The Stakes Is High by De La Soul

Almost the antithesis of Dre. Produced by J DIlla, this is my favourite hip hop track. My favourite lyrics too:

I’m sick of bitches shakin’ asses
I’m sick of talkin’ about blunts,
Sick of Versace glasses,
Sick of slang,
Sick of half-ass awards shows,
Sick of name brand clothes.
Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks,
Cocaine and crack
Which brings sickness to blacks,
Sick of swoll’ head rappers
With their sicker-than raps
Clappers and gats
Makin’ the whole sick world collapse

7. SpottieOttieDopaliscious by Outkast

Less G-Funk and more, um, just plain funk. This isn’t really a hip hop track, but it’s too great to exclude.

8. Ebonics by Big L

Big L gives us a rundown of slang terminology.

If you 730, that means you crazy
Hit me on the hip means page me
Angel dust is sherm, if you got AIDS, you got the germ
If a chick gave you a disease, then you got burned
Max mean to relax, guns and pistols is gats
Condoms is hats, critters is cracks
The food you eat is your grub
A victim’s a mark
A sweat box is a small club, your tick is your heart
Your apartment is your pad
Your old man is your dad
The studio is the lab and heated is mad

9. Liquid Swords by GZA

GZA has better metaphors and similes than 90% of novelists. I’m serious.

“I flow like the blood on a murder scene.”

“Your lyrics are weak like clock radio speakers.”

10. They Reminisce Over You by Pete Rock & CL Smooth

Like DJ Premier and Dre, Pete Rock is one of the truly great hip hop producers.

11. Check The Rhime by Tribe Called Quest

This narrowly beat out Award Tour.

12. Check Yo Self [Original] by Ice Cube

Every hip hop fan has heard the remix, which samples Grandmaster Flash, but the original is far superior.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

13. Fasers by King Geedorah

King Geedorah is Viktor Vaughan who is actually MF Doom. Doom is a metal-mask wearing MC who is of the most inventive lyricists in hip hop history.

14. Things Done Changed by Notorious BIG

It took me ages to get into Biggie. I just could not let his friendship with Puff Daddy slide. I mean, fucking Puff Daddy? Anyway, eventually I got over it. Things Done Changed isn’t glamorising violence, it is more of a lament.

Back in the days, our parents used to take care of us
Look at em now, they even fuckin scared of us

I find that oddly moving.

15. Fight The Power by Public Enemy

This runs The Stakes Is High real close as my favourite song. With kids in America being gunned down by a police force that appears to believe that it can murder black people with impunity this kind of music is more necessary than ever.

16. Don’t Feel Right by The Roots

Sex, drugs, murder, politics and religion
Forms of hustlin’, watch who you put all your trust in

For me, hip hop is the only form of music that consistently has something meaningful to say. People can listen to their guitar bands who sing about how some girl with butterfly hairclips ditched them at the local indie disco, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t speak to me.

17. I Used To Love H.E.R. by Common

We’ll end where we began, with another ode to hip hop, although this one is not celebratory, but, rather, reflects on how the genre has changed for the worse.

DIRTY MIND BY PRINCE

Friday 28th November 2014. I am in the pub and Little Red Corvette comes on. One of the guys, an older guy, who is at my table casually says, “no one likes Prince these days.” And immediately I’m like, “what? That’s bollocks. I love Prince!” I look at my friend, who is sitting next to me, and silently plead for some kind of moral support. He shrugs. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Prince,” he says. Obviously this is an outrage. I try to explain that Prince is massively influential, that a lot of modern r’n’b is indebted to him to the point of ripping him off. I cite Drake as an example, and The-Dream. I talk about the great albums, Purple Rain and Sign O’ the Times and Parade. And, I want to talk about another…but…I’m a bit drunk… the name escapes me…it has a black and white cover…I’m pretty sure Prince is in his pants…all the songs are about fucking…

…I never did remember the name, at least not until I was walking home. Then, with the wind and cold aggressively slapping my face, the title of the record hit me me too. Dirty Mind. It’s called Dirty Mind. And it’s brilliant.

The year 1980 must have been a weird, exciting time for music. Punk had eaten itself, giving way to post-punk, which itself was starting to give way to the new romantic movement. Prince straddled all of those genres. When I first heard Dirty Mind I was completely baffled by it, much like I was with another great album released that same year, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. I bought both around a similar time, when I was about nineteen. This is decades after their release, of course. By that time, both were established mainstream artists [even though Talking Heads had long since disbanded], and yet those two albums seemed so inexplicably odd to me. Dirty Mind, especially. I listened to underground hip-hop, and Japanese hardcore, and weird electronica, without batting an eyelid, and yet Prince’s brittle new wave-y funk was a problem. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it. So I kept playing it, and eventually it started to make sense.

The album kicks off with the title track, which, with its stabbing keyboard riff, sounds like eighties work-out music. I’m not kidding. It puts me in mind of people in spandex and headbands, which is probably what Prince was wearing in the video. The vocal, a high falsetto that sounds like a backed-up Mickey Mouse, is even weirder. The second track, When You Were Mine, is, I think, something of a fan favourite. Here, Prince drops the funk that dominates most of the record in favour of out-and-out pop; it sounds, to my ears, like XTC or, closer to home, Manic Monday, the song he wrote for the Bangles. Yet, lyrically it is typically subversive, with Prince throwing out lines like “when you were mine, I let you wear all my clothes,” which sounds somehow simultaneously innocuous and, well, dirty, not only because of the suggestion that this woman was wearing her man’s clothes as part of some kinky sex game, but also because of the probability that she lets him wear all her clothes too [I mean, it’s only fair].

While Prince and his music are both often described as overtly sexual or sex-obsessed, Dirty Mind is the only one of his albums that probably deserves that description; it is, in fact, easily his most consistently filthy record. I guess only you know whether that is likely to be problematic for you. Some people find it discomforting and some just plain silly. I, however, unashamedly love this kind of thing. Indeed, my love for it is at such a pitch that I used to write my own parody tracks, my own odes to carnality, with an ex-girlfriend of mine; songs called things like Sex Graze and [Hit It] Like a Great White Shark. Unfortunately, I no longer have copies of them, so I cannot share them with you. Anyway, Dirty Mind includes a song called Head, which I guess is pretty self-explanatory, and another, Sister, which is, er, about incest. No really, it is. However, the highlight of the whole record, and one of my favourite Prince tracks, is Uptown. It’s the one song on the album, for me, where the lyrics and the music are in perfect sync; indeed, I am going to conclude this review with some lines from it…

She saw me walking down the streets
Of your fine city
It kinda turned me on when she looked at me
And said, “C’mere”
Now I don’t usually talk to strangers
But she looked so pretty
What can I lose,
If I, uh, just give her a little ear?
“What’s up little girl?”
“I ain’t got time to play.”
Baby didn’t say too much
She said, “Are you gay?”
Kinda took me by suprise
I didn’t know what to do
I just looked her in her eyes
And I said, “No, are you?”

Genius.

MIXTAPE: [P]’S BLUES

I must confess, I am no blues expert. Nor am I a fan of all branches of the genre. Chicago blues, for example, I can live without. It is only really acoustic blues that interests me, and even a big chunk of all that I find pretty tedious. If I was to try and nail down the kind of blues I really like I would perhaps call it Delta Blues, but, really, I don’t know what I am talking about. Southern Blues? Country Blues? Yeah, maybe. I was watching a documentary the other day and Chuck D, the rapper from Public Enemy, spoke about the wailing of cats at night; they don’t do it, he said, consciously, there is no decision involved, they simply have to, they feel compelled to. It struck me immediately that that is what I look for in the blues, that is what I feel drawn to; it is the sound of someone compelled to howl into the void.

1. Nobody’s Fault but Mine by Blind Willie Johnson

The story goes that young Willie was blinded by his stepmother, who threw lye in his face, which just goes to show that evil stepmothers are not simply the stuff of fairytales. Nobody’s Fault but Mine is equal parts terrifying and uplifting.

2. Spike Driver Blues by Mississippi John Hurt

Nothing to do with the academy award nominated luvvie English actor. Proof that the blues can be pretty.

3. Preachin’ Blues [Up Jumped the Devil] by Robert Johnson

Probably the most well-known name on this list. Robert Johnson is, of course, said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his ability to play the guitar. In reality, his talent was probably the product of long dextrous fingers and practice, but that doesn’t sound half as romantic.

4. A Spoonful Blues by Charley Patton

Would you kill a man? [Yes I would, you know I’d kill him] just ’bout a…

A song about either sex or drugs. Or both, maybe. Indeed, in the youtube comments section for this song some wag suggests that vaginal openings [his phrase, not mine] look like spoons. Voila. Mind blown. In any case, whatever it is, Charley would do anything for it.

5. Death Letter by Son House

I remember hearing someone a while ago say that the blues isn’t only about agony and hardship, but that it is equally about humour. In fact, the structure of blues songs, he said, is like a joke, with obvious punchlines. I think you can see something of that in Death Letter.

Son House sets up the joke with this:

I got a letter this mornin, how do you reckon it read?

Then he delivers the punchline:

It said, “Hurry, hurry, the gal you love is dead.”

And, yes, you could say that is grim, but it is funny too. It is funny because it’s, like, pretty much the fucking worst news you could get in a letter.

6. Statesboro Blues by Blind Willie McTell

Let’s face it any bluesman whose name begins with the descriptor ‘blind’ is going to be great. It’s just one of the laws of the universe. McTell sings in a nasally whine reminiscent of Bob Dylan; and the tune is a jaunty thing, meaning that lines like ‘My mama died and left me reckless/My daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild’ take on something of a celebratory flavour.

7. Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues by Skip James

As far as I am aware a killing floor is the place where livestock is butchered in a slaughterhouse; so the killing floor, metaphorically speaking, i.e. in terms of this song, would be a bad place. I guess. Of course, Skip may simply have worked in a slaughterhouse.

8. Fixin to Die Blues by Bukka White

I’m lookin’ funny in my eyes and I believe I’m fixin’ to die, believe I’m fixin’ to die
I’m lookin’ funny in my eyes and I believe I’m fixin’ to die
I know I was born to die but I hate to leave my children cryin’

Yep. Not a lot you can say about that.

9. Make me a Pallet on the Floor by Willie Brown

Noted more as a accompanist to Son House than a soloist. I love his voice.

10. Catfish Blues by Robert Petway

Apparently very little is known about Petway. There is only one photo available of him and there is no record of his death. We have this song though; that’s enough.

11. Going Down to the River by Mississippi Fred McDowell

There seems to be two versions of this song. One slower and entirely acoustic, and this one. Makes me want to shoot alligators.

12. Canned Heat Blues by Tommy Johnson

With his staggeringly weird falsetto, Johnson sounds like some kind of Morrissey sings the blues novelty act. Canned Heat Blues is about the practice of imbibing a potent and, I would imagine, lethal alcoholic drink made from Sterno. According to wiki: it is said to have become popular during the Great Depression in hobo camps, or “jungles”, when the Sterno would be squeezed through cheesecloth or a sock and the resulting liquid mixed with fruit juice to make “jungle juice” or “squeeze.”

MIXTAPE: WINTERTIME BLUES

Welcome to my new mixtape feature, where I will be compiling and posting themed playlists. Got no woman? No dog? No central heating? Then this is the playlist for you. It is not, nor is meant to be, comprehensive, but here are 17 songs to depress the living fuck out of you this winter.

1. I am the Cosmos by Chris Bell

“Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos,” gulps Bell, in a desperate [and futile] attempt to convince himself of his own importance. This is, for me, a genuine contender for the most miserable song of all time. Bell and his bandmates sound like they are on the brink of collapse; the Beatles-like melody is stripped of all its potential sparkle and effervescence by a performance so sluggish that even Sloths would roll their eyes at it.

2. Superstar by The Carpenters

The Carpenters made a lot of eerily sad music but Superstar is the saddest. It is a song that is either about being a discarded groupie or, and this is my preferred interpretation, about obsessive fandom and being in love with someone who doesn’t even know you exist. The inaccessibility makes the longing even more acute…

Long ago, and, oh, so far away
I fell in love with you before the second show
Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear
But you’re not really here, it’s just the radio

3. On Your Own Again by Scott Walker

“You’re on your own again,” Scott whimpers, and it’s the again that is the real killer. He hasn’t just been forsaken once, this has happened before. And, yeah, it’ll probably keep happening.

4. All Your Women Things by Smog

Poor Bill Callahan has been abandoned and all she has left him is her frilly underwear, out of which he makes a doll…y’know, as a replacement. Aw, come on, we’ve all done it.

5. Stay With Me by Lorraine Ellison

Listen to that vocal, that is a woman on the edge. She’s not asking you to stay, she is tearing at her face and pleading with you.

6. Flirted With You All My Life by Vic Chesnutt

Vic wrote a song telling death to fuck off. Then killed himself.

7. Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor

A song so sad that it reduced Sinead to tears in the video. She’s inconsolable, counting the days and hours since her lover left. Eventually she goes to the doctor, who tells her she “better try to have fun,” and while that is good advice I would suggest that really he ought to have been prescribing some heavy-duty anti-depressants.

8. Tired Eyes by Neil Young

If there’s a better opening line in musical history than “well, he shot four men in a cocaine deal” I haven’t heard it. A song about grief, and death, and the people who simply get lost. Throughout Neil sounds wrecked, and the band don’t exactly play like they are sober either.

9. Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel

Rabbits. Dead ones.

10. Remember (Walking In The Sand) by The Shangri Las

So, like, get this, he made all kinds of promises to me and then he goes overseas and meets some girl and so, like, sends this letter breaking it off with me. What a douche.

11. Only The Lonely by Frank Sinatra

A song to drink and smoke and weep to.

12. Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying by Blind Willie Johnson

Quite frankly, this doesn’t make me sad, it terrifies me.

13. Ne Me Quitte Pas by Jacques Brel

Extreme misery. In French.

14. No Easy Way Down by Dusty Springfield

Saturday afternoon hangover music. Sad but strangely soothing.

15. Bring Me My Shotgun by Lighnin’ Hopkins

I don’t think you wanna know why he wants that shotgun, folks.

16. Cryin’ In The Streets by George Perkins 

One of my favourite songs. Apparently it is about Martin Luther King’s funeral; that it reduces me, a man who was not even a gleam in his mother’s eye at the time of King’s death, to a gibbering wreck is proof that no matter how specific one’s words or intentions are a feeling is universal.

17. One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong by Leonard Cohen

This song so upsets Old Laughing Len that he starts wailing uncontrollably towards the end.

BUDDENBROOKS BY THOMAS MANN

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.

SPIDERLAND BY SLINT

Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen I was in a band with my best friend. And I was a fucking nightmare. Lou Reed at his most drug-addled and difficult had nothing on me. The truth is that I didn’t really want to be in a band, and I certainly didn’t want to play guitar. I think it may have been Kurt Cobain who once derided musicians who love the guitar, who worship it; he said that these people would never make interesting music. I was pretty much of the same opinion. I hated the instrument. I didn’t want to learn how to play it; I didn’t want to play it at all. I wanted more than anything to make electronic-dance music, but I didn’t know how and so I took my frustrations out on the songs I wrote with my friend. My friend, bless him, liked melody and wanted, it seemed to me, to make pleasant music that extolled the virtues of his girlfriend Julie. I took it upon myself to violently batter those songs, or strip them down to almost nothing; likewise, he took my snarky ill-tempered noise and morbid near-silence, and imposed some kind of structure on it. We were in constant opposition to each other. It was war.

“Fill your pockets with the dust and memories
That rises from the shoes on my feet.”

My reasons for quitting the band are probably obvious. And, in any case, besides my general dissatisfaction, I had become more interested in writing stories or novels, because that was a singular pursuit. However, perhaps the defining moment for me, the one thing that ultimately convinced me to give up music was hearing Spiderland by Slint for the first time. Now, of course I am not suggesting that the music I created was comparable in quality to that on Spiderland, but rather that it seemed be a perfect expression of how I wanted to approach music. Spiderland is gloomy, restless, intense, noisy; the songs seem simultaneously well-crafted and ill at ease with themselves; they are spontaneous and loose, yet tight. There was, I judged upon hearing the record, no point in me carrying on; it was everything I thought guitar music should and could be.

It appears to be impossible to review this record without mentioning how influential it supposedly is, how seminal. But I don’t give a fuck about that; it’s meaningless. Either you’re already familiar with post-rock, math-rock, Battles and Mogwai etc, in which case I would be merely telling you things you already know, or you’re not, and so a list of random names will be entirely pointless. In fact, music criticism, or music reviews, seem pointless to me too, even though, to my shame, I dabble from time to time; you can all go listen to the record on youtube and make up your own mind, and nothing I say will influence how you hear it, or it shouldn’t. I can only really talk about what the record means to me.

What Spiderland suggests to me most of all is what it is like to be a teenager, a time when all your hormones are charging around your body, making you act like a dozen different people per week. It’s a serious, earnest record, in the same way that being a kid is a serious business; being sixteen is no fucking joke. Or it wasn’t for me, anyway. I was irascible, moody, confused, scared. It’s fitting that the band were themselves teenagers; indeed, I read somewhere a few weeks ago that guitarist-vocalist Brian McMahan was, at the time of writing and recording the record, concerned about what it meant to become an adult, and that kind of anxiety is all over Spiderland.

The songs writhe, they explode suddenly, like temper tantrums. [I once nodded off while listening to the song Washer, whose spiralling guitar lines must have lulled me to sleep, only to be woken up abruptly by the howl of noise towards the end]. So, what Spiderland means to be me is a sense of identification. There are a lot of records that remind me of being a teenager, records by bands or musicians I was discovering around that time, like Pavement or Galaxie 500, but it’s a different thing entirely to say that a record encapsulates how you felt, not in words either, which not being your own could never truly capture who you are, but in stereo sound.

What was it Steve Albini once said? Ten fucking stars? Yeah, and then some.