It is an unfortunate consequence of universal education that the way we are exposed to the greatest works of literature is through prescribed school curriculae. Because no novel, no matter how good it might otherwise be, can be truly enjoyed when one has to finish writing a 1,000 word summary of chapters 12, 13 and 14 on the bus ride into school on a rainy Monday morning in February.
This, I fear, has been the experience of all too many teenage readers of Thomas Mann’s spectacular opus, Buddenbrooks, a staple of German ‘Gymnasium’ literature courses for decades. In one sense, the book does itself no favours, extending across three generations of a family of Northern German grain merchants, most of the Nineteenth Century and 750 pages. Even I, a willing reader well past his teenage years, with no exams to prepare for and no essay to write, found myself struggling at times with its length and degree of detail.
Yet there is so much to be enjoyed in Thomas Mann’s greatest novel. From a purely technical point of view, it is wonderfully crafted prose. Mann possesses that rare ability of writing third-person point-of-view narration so intimately the reader becomes immersed in characters with whom he shares neither gender, century nor social class; but with whom the bond of essential human experience generates a kinship and empathy that moves him to tears. The best passages of writing, as is so often the case in great literature, are bare, sparse, almost haphazard fragments, whose richness lies in that which they do not contain as much as what they do.
From the perspective of a 21st Century humanist, the merchantilist feudalism of the Buddenbrook family, with its disdain for social democracy and elevated sense of capitalist, Protestant morality, is anathema to our modern sensibilities, once we abstract ourselves from the narrative. But that’s just the point: Mann manages to turn you into a Buddenbrook. You care about their destiny and you feel the pain of their inevitable decline; you feel passionately they deserve their seat in the Senate of Lübeck. And you are just as envious and resentful as they are themselves, of the rise of a new generation of more vital, less traditional competitors.
There is not really much to give away in the plot which the subtitle has not already spoiled. Buddenbrooks is about the decline of a family. And yet it is about so much more. Economists and students of business studies will no doubt remember from their textbooks the reference to the ‘Buddenbooks Effect’, in which it is postulated that family businesses (or dynasties more generally) will inevitably decline over the course of a few generations. How this plays out – whether in the person of the hypochondriac Christian and his penchant for the good life, the superciliousness of his sister Antonie, the physical weakness of their brother Thomas, or the latter’s dreamy, timid and unhealthy son Hanno – teaches us not just about economics, but about our own strengths and weaknesses; or own hopes and fears of death; or own hypocritical self-righteousness and sense of family purpose.
Buddenbrooks should not be dismissed as merely a great work of German literature. It is also a damn fine read.