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Kirk Houghton

Author of The Dividing Lines and Bad Things to Good People

Kirk's Book Reviews

Kirk's Book Reviews

Review of Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

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Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a FamilyBuddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Has there ever been a more sweeping snapshot of the German nation that emerged from the uncertainty of the post-Napoleonic order to plunge the world into conflagration one hundred years later?
Written at the beginning of the twentieth century, Thomas Mann is conscious of writing an extraordinary tale of transition and momentous social upheaval without condescending to present it as a parable for the fin de siècle age. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he puts the excess nationalism to one side and takes a step back from pontificating about the future direction of Europe to focus on what all good novelists do – write an epic tale across the generations with endurable characters. Those sagacious and humane protagonists that often ask too much of a reader don’t plead for recognition here; likewise, the cads and mediocrities don’t want your sympathy. Only the powerful women at the heart of the family stand out for their wisdom and resilience.
Indeed the main controversy of this book was that it didn’t write a national narrative for the Bismarckian Conservatives who saw Germany’s future as the ascendant world power. The Social Democrats that ended up with a majority in the Reichstag are also left in the footnotes. Mann is not concerned with ‘weltanshauung,’ or the plight of workers or the vicissitudes of the global market. There’s no sycophantic homage to the Kaiser, no claims to predict Germany’s ‘place in the sun’, and little attempt to get carried away with the remarkable achievement of the Deutschland that appeared on the world scene in 1871.
Instead the Buddenbrooks are a family of merchants obsessed with their heredity and proud business traditions – the type of parochial, bourgeois institution that thrives on cross border trade, liberalism, and the prestige that comes with social status.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century we are treated to a family dinner where the senior members apologise for their excess use of the German tongue. Around this time, French is still the lingua franca of the middle class Hanseatic families that dominate the town. Fast forward to the late nineteenth century and the Prussian nationalism that intoxicated powerful elements of German society is now in the school classroom. It may be Mann’s one lapse into personal commentary on the times, but it’s subtle, nonetheless, and without pleading.
It’s often said the best books write themselves – a cliché I’ve used in the past. But Thomas Mann, like all good novelists, asks many questions without feeling the need to offer solutions. His concern is to describe what he sees and note the changes over the generations.
If you want to read an epic story of honour, scandal, decline and fortitude, then this novel has all the universal themes you already love in Literary Fiction. For all those historians fascinated by this era of European history, Buddenbrooks will bring agency to all those books you’ve read about German GDP growth, war, class stratification and mortality rates in the 1800s.
Fans of John Updike and Naguib Mahfouz should definitely have this resting on their bookshelves.

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