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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 November 2015
The tale told by Thomas Mann in his debut novel ‘Buddenbrooks’ can be essentially quite easily stated: it is the tale of the gradual decline through the nineteenth century of the merchant Buddenbrooks family of Lubeck over four generations. Thus, what follows in this review, whilst mentioning characters and events, does not really reveal details of plot, because the plot –if plot it is – is inherent in the book’s title. (And I am reminded of Henry James’s axiom that character is plot.) So anyone worried about reading further in the fear that I might reveal some critical moment or event need not worry. Btw, this is a review of the Everyman edition and I expand on its advantages and disadvantages at the end of this review.

The decline in the family is well-hidden, gnawing away slowly through poor emotional investment as much as unfortunate economics. Indeed, outwardly, as the century progresses and the generations pass, even the family itself appears unself-conscious about impending failure. Business success allows Thomas, head of the family in the second generation, to construct a plush new home for the dynasty. And yet, recently married, with a new son as heir, and having been elected a senator of the city council, deep down he knows there is something wrong, that fortune cannot always favour the Buddenbrooks. Having moved into his new house, he remarks, “The last few days I’ve been thinking about a Turkish proverb I read somewhere: ‘When the house is finished, death follows.’ Now, it doesn’t have to be death exactly. But retreat, decline, the beginning of the end … I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already, such external signs need time to reach us …”

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the tale told is the decline of the Buddenbrooks family. Yet, however much we might deprecate the style and artificiality of the family’s lives and circumstances, at heart the book tells the psychological progress of this Thomas. A shallow man, to be sure, but a man not always averse to reviewing his own conduct. At the opening of the tenth chapter, Mann writes “In his hours of gloom – and they were frequent – Thomas Buddenbrooks would ask himself what sort of man he really was …” The author then spends the next five pages carefully and delightfully explaining and expiating upon Thomas’s character development, observing everything from his regrets to his gestures to his penchant for fine clothes. It’s a masterful psychological analysis, and means that much of the book would bore those who have not acquired any great experience of the world.

I do not propose to tell how the end of the family’s preponderance in city society ends, but towards the book’s end, with the advent of the fourth generation, music becomes of importance, the love (or inability to love) of which becomes a barrier between Thomas the businessman on the one hand, and his wife and son on the other. All I shall say is that this is where perhaps the explicit autobiographical element in Mann’s tale is most explicit.

I love Mann’s short stories but his novels present a problem. I have already praised Mann’s five-page analysis of Thomas Buddenbrooks, but I do not know whether to praise or groan at whole paragraphs describing in detail the contents on a table or an item of clothing. And never mind the whole paragraphs, even single sentences abound in descriptive detail. For example, having just been told that her husband is bankrupt with all the humiliation that entailed in Hamburg society – “something more ghastly than death” – Mann nevertheless tells us Antonia “sobbed into her batiste handkerchief trimmed with lace and bearing the monogram AG.”

Mann would defend this manner by quoting the patriarch of the family, who communicates to his daughter Antonie the view that “… although the words we speak are more vivid and immediate, the written word has the advantage of having been chosen with great care and is fixed in the form that its author has weighed and considered, so that it may be read again and again to cumulative effect.”

This is a review of the Everyman edition. Its English translation is clearly intended for the American market, employing American spellings and using phrases such as ‘catch my drift?’ and ‘real good’. The character Herr Permaneder hails from Munich at the other end of Germany and the translator conveys the difference in dialect between the Baltic coast and Bavaria by presenting Permaneder’s translated words in the totally inappropriate manner of a Texan drawl: ‘howdy do!’ I had problems too with American slang: when a teacher accused a pupil of having a pony in his book, I had to look up the term to discover (ironically) that a ‘pony’ is an illicit translation.

The benefit of the edition is the relatively short but very perceptive introduction by Professor Reed of Oxford University, who writes that Mann wrote an epic on a personal scale. He points out that if Mann was born in and spent his first eighteen years in Lubeck, he nevertheless sees the city “from the detached standpoint of Munich and Italy”: in other words, Mann had to leave his home to write about it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 April 2014
As it's in the title it won't be a spoiler to say this is a monumental description of the decline of a powerful family over several decades. With deceptive subtlety Mann captures both the evolving society of nineteenth century Germany and the complexity of the characters themselves. One reviewer pointed out that we don't particularly like them but for me Mann did better than that - he made me like them and despise them and feel sorry and angry and exasperated with them.

I put off reading it for a while because it is long and on the heavy side. As classics go it turned out to be not a difficult read and enjoyable though slightly depressing.

Someone made an interesting observation that everything feels like contingency, nothing is inevitable. I agree to an extent. I kept wondering how things could go so badly wrong - there was no reason for it. Surely they had resource to prevent disaster? But eventually I saw a bigger picture. It was inevitable. It was in the characters and the fragility of their position which they understood far worse than they thought. The strokes of luck they suffered from were not unusual in those days. If it hadn't been one thing it would have been another. The decline was almost unbelievable but all the more fascinating because in the end it was totally believable.
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on 11 August 2016
The edition pictured is the original English translation by H.T. Lowe-Porter, not the newer translation by John Woods. The title does not include the second part ('The Decline of a Family'). The ISBN is 9780749386474. I was hoping for the Woods translation, as I had already purchased the Lowe-Porter one, but now that I am totally engrossed and half-way through, I guess I'll have to forego the newer translation. I am surprised by how much I'm enjoying this book! The writing is excellent, particularly the descriptions of the protagonists, right down to their clothing and the state of their teeth ('Sievert Tiburtius was a small, narrow man with a large head and a thin, long, blond beard parted in the middle, so that he sometimes put the ends back over his shoulders.'). A great summer read!
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on 7 February 2017
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on 17 October 2001
Buddenbrooks may look and sound to the prespective reader like a massive challenge, but Thomas Mann's first novel, published when he was 25, is remarkable for many things and not least of these is the ease with which it can be read.
Opening in 1835, it charts the lives of the Buddenbrooks through some 40 years, following the decline of this successful Hanseatic family. But Mann's magnum opus - it was cited on his 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature - is more than that: what it presents is a detailed and complex social view of a changing Germany, particularly taking in the turbulence of the revolutionary period around 1848 to the years after unification under Bismarck in 1871.
From a position of social and economic authority, the Buddenbrooks' confidence and power is overtaken by events around them until they are, finally, reduced to an insignificant echo of a former age. Their inability to move with the times, even though they are not incapable of seeing the changes around them, renders them impotent in the face of passing history.
The only Buddenbrook who survives is Antonie... not because of her flexibility however, but precisely because her childlike petulance and unquestioning faith in the status quo allows her to maintain her arrogant assumptions about the social position of the family and, therefore, her own role within it. And yet this belligerent refusal to move forward is a major factor in the family's decline.
Buddenbrooks also works so well because of Mann's dispassionate portrayal of his characters and their disappearing world. His gentle irony, particularly in terms of dealing with religion, provides the reader with a constant intellectual challenge. And, while it was first published in 1901, this is a book that never feels dated.
A little knowledge of 19th century German history helps, but is not essential to enjoying this absolutely superb novel.
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on 7 April 2011
This is my second reading of 'Buddenbrooks'; I had previously read the translation by Helen Lowe-Porter. The reviewers say that John Woods's translation is more accurate (I can't comment; my German isn't good enough), but it might be worth pointing out that it's by an American, and is aimed at an American audience. This is constantly noticeable (e.g. 'pled' a the past tense of 'plead'; German school students using a 'pony' where English students would use a 'crib') and occasionally it's disconcerting. In particular, from time to time, the book makes play with the various 19th century dialects of German, and, as far as I can see, Woods 'maps' these onto dialects of American English, which I had difficulty with.

So, although it's, apparently, less accurate, the Lowe-Porter translation might give the English reader a less bumpy ride.

Also, it's a pity that neither translation has any notes; a few notes about, say, the meaning of 'consul' or 'senator, or about the political and economic situation would have been helpful in a novel set in a foreign country over 130 years ago. Also a family tree would be helpful!

But enough grumbling: 'Buddenbrooks' is a masterpiece. I still can't fully see how Thomas Mann does it, but the way in which he makes the characters so real and so memorable, and the way in which he involves you in the, declining, fortunes of the Buddenbrooks family is extraordinary. I think it's done by making each carefully selected scene (which may run from a couple of pages to twenty pages or more) very sharp and decisive. Mann usually only tells us the bare minimum about what his characters are thinking, and he tells us nothing at all about what he, the narrator, is thinking; instead, he lets us see and hear the characters as they interact with each other.

For any number of reasons, the English novelist of whom he reminds me most is Arnold Bennett - and, as far as I'm concerned, there can't be much higher praise than that.

So, if you like the novels you read to be long and heavyweight, this is one which you should not miss.
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on 16 July 2014
I loved this book when I first encountered it as a university student on my German literature course. I think it's a tribute to the book that I ploughed straight through it in the original language and over the years I have re-read it several times in this way. I decided recently on a whim to try an English translation to see if I had missed anything significant. I enjoyed it but in a kind of "low fat" way. I prefer the original but this is probably me being a totally pretentious snob. In either language, it's a great read and humbling that Mann was so young when he wrote it.
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on 24 August 2013
This epic novel spanning four generations of the Buddenbrooks family is a non-put-downable delight to read. Thomas Mann's insight into the frailties and strengths of the human character and his astonishing ability to demonstrate these in his characters will have you burning the midnight oil night after night until you reach the very end.
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on 8 June 2010
I agree with a lot of what has already been said about this book - it is a mesmerising saga of a 19th century North German merchant's family, which definitely has the feel of an autobiography (online tourist sites in Lubbeck say it is exactly as described in the book, down to the internal details of the author's family house). It is vivaciously and dazzlingly written (in this translation which I read, the slightly old fashioned, even sometimes unfathomable turns of phrase just make it more believable). The details of ordinary life - clothes, food, customs, townscape, etc - are just astounding. The physically compelling portraits of all these odd people are brilliantly done, and the great set pieces in the landscape room - house warming, Christmas eve, etc - the deathbed scene, etc are just wondrous. Mann is a writer of genius, of that there is no doubt. However, it is just a saga about rich people trying to stay rich, and not always succeeding.There is very little compassion in the story. The workers, even professionals, are patronised, as are poor relations, while the family members, and their wider circle of competing families tend to be eyed with unease or contempt. I am not sure there is any ground for thinking this contempt is based on some sort of pseudosocialist analysis of bourgeois society (or money making of any sort) - it seems be personal to the author, whose isolation I suppose Hanno represents and explains his coldness to everyone else. Perversely, I feel most sorry for Tom, struggling with his own contempt for those around him. But it remains just a brilliantly written saga, without the bite of Dickens or the sweep of Scott. Well worth reading, but I doubt if there is much beyond the period detail - and the brilliant prose, which is well served by the translation, and without which it would deserve 3 stars only.
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I bought this novel around the time of my first visit to Hamburg (the author was born up the road from there in Lubeck, and this novel is set in a lightly fictionalized version of that town), but it remained on my shelves - to my prejudiced eye, weighty, forbidding and Germanic - for more than twenty years, until I took it down prior to another visit to Hamburg last week. Part of my vacillation was due to the knowledge that it was a book which was explicitly cited as the main reason its author was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929, and that he was only 27 when it was published in 1901. Having read it, I now realize all that trepidation was entirely misplaced.

This is a beautifully-written story about memorable, distinctive characters in a family whose world changes irrevocably over the course of four generations. The family is part of the Hanseatic bourgeoisie of 1835-77; there are historical events such as the establishment of the German Empire which take place in the background, but the tight focus on the lives and relationships of the family members draws out universal observations about human frailties, strengths, ambition, hope and disappointment which make the setting almost irrelevant. The reader feels part of the family too, and moved by their experiences. Here, for example, is part of the account of the first meeting between a woman and her future mother-in-law [p227]:

'Her face was white and a little haughty, but she bowed her head as the Frau Consul with gentle feeling took it between her hands and kissed the pure, snowy forehead. "Yes, you are welcome to our house and to our family, you dear, beautiful, blessed creature," she said. "You will make him happy. Do I not see already how happy you make him?" And she drew Thomas forward with her other arm, to kiss him also.'

Elsewhere, the author penetrates beneath the surface with his acute observations of life, such as these about the games of a carefree four-year-old [p342]: "[They] command the pure, powerful, glowing, untaught, and unintimidated fancy of those blissful years before life touches us, when neither duty nor remorse dares to lay upon us a finger's weight, when we may see, hear, laugh, dream and feel amazement, when the world yet makes upon us not one single demand; when the impatience of those whom we should like so much to love does not yet torment us for evidence of our ability to succeed in the impending struggle."

We find ourselves nodding in agreement with his thoughtful analysis, and caught up in his affection for his characters which are so carefully created over the course of this epic (but never dull or overlong) narrative as to be almost real. Although the changes in their lives are unfortunate, they arose our sympathy because we feel we know them - or people like them - in our own families and acquaintances. A delightfully rich reading experience, which I really can't recommended highly enough.
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