Thomas Mann
Painting - Young Man and Skull, Detail by Paul Cézanne (1898)
Young Man and Skull, Detail · Paul Cézanne ( 1898)
Oil on canvas · 130 x 100 cm ·Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

“Bankrupt – that was more dreadful than death, that was catastrophe, ruin, shame, disgrace, misery, despair.”

Buddenbrooks is a deeply compelling chronicle of three successive generations of a merchant family in the hanseatic free town of Lübeck. Set between 1835 and 1877, during the time of the German Confederation (1815-1866) and early German Empire (1871-1918), and following turbulence of the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, the shift between medieval traditions – coats of arms, drawing rooms, guilds, landed aristocracy, powdered wigs, feudal lords, dowries – and industrial modernity – streetlights, corporate mergers, trains, stock markets, bureaucracy, steamships, international trade – provides the backdrop against which Mann allows gradual inspection of the individual members of the Buddenbrook family.

“Often, the outward and visible material signs and symbols of happiness and success only show themselves when the process of decline has already set in. The outer manifestations take time - like the light of that star up there, which may in reality be already quenched, when it looks to us to be shining its brightest.”

The spirit and brigthness of enlightenment sweeping through Germany’s patchwork of nation states throughout the 19th century contrasts against this aristocratic family’s gradual, slow, but ultimately unavoidable decline – an outcome already sketched out in the title of this work. In their own way, the individual family members try to prolong this process of decline, to break away from it, to even reverse it, or at least to maintain the status quo – keeping up appearances and grasping to priviledges defined by their class, and bearing the burden of their forebearers’s expectations and traditions.

“Did we not, at the very moment of birth, stumble into agonizing captivity? A prison, a prison with bars and chains everywhere!”

A central theme is the continuous confrontation of an aestethic (most prominently, virtue of a passion for music) versus a practical (most prominently, merit of an enterprising spirit) outlook on life.

“The sad thing is that one lives but once – one can’t begin life over again. And one would know so much better the second time!”

Singularly absurd character portrayals (amongst others, a bavarian buffoon, an incapable marriage-impostor, and a hypochondriac whose nerves are too short on one side of his body), and, not one, but two of the most horrific scenes involving an equally bizzarre town dentist provide a diversion from the grim, foreshadowing substance of this book.

A marvelous, elegant classic!

“But this bitter feud with my own brother, with your eldest son, is like a hidden crack in the building we have erected. A family should be united, Father. It must keep together. A house divided against itself will fall.”

Small sketch - Book Review - Buddenbrooks
© 2024 Camillo Visini