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When the House Is Finished, Death Follows
on 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.