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Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family…

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (Everyman's Library) (original 1901; edition 1994)

by Thomas Mann

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Title:Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (Everyman's Library)
Authors:Thomas Mann
Info:Everyman's Library (1994), Hardcover, 784 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

Work details

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1901)

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Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
Before there was The Magic Mountain and before Death in Venice Thomas Mann gained critical acclaim for Buddenbrooks. It is a long, beautifully written account of a declining bourgeois family, that some have suggested was inspired by his reading of Tolstoy among others. While the book has lighter moments it is overwhelmingly bleak. The Buddenbrooks' family success is behind them and there are few of the current and upcoming generations that are up to the task of maintaining the family much less improving it.
When we first meet the family one is immediately impressed by their conservatism and traditional ways. It is set in the 1830s in a northern German trading city and the fine mansion where they live and everything else about them exudes the feeling of haute bourgeoisie. The central characters are introduced, Johann and Elisabeth the father and mother with three children, Antonie (Tony), Thomas, and his younger brother Christian. It is their lives that form the center of the story for the first half of the novel.

With Thomas Mann every detail is important, so as time goes by (and it seems to fly by decade after decade) the background of the changes resulting from both the Industrial Revolution and the politics of the German states is as important as the family social struggles. And struggles they have as the Grandfather dies and the firm passes on to Johann who too few years later passes the firm on to his eldest son Thomas. If there is one central figure in the family saga it is TOny who first marries an older man rather than her young love as her father demands only to see that marriage end in divorce due to the bankruptcy of her husband who (wrongly) assumed the Buddenbrook family would bail him out. I hope you are beginning to get a feeling for the theme of decline.
Buddenbrooks reminds me a bit of Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, a noel about another family who fails to change with the times and struggles to maintain their social standing. Mann's satirical side is borought home often and is best seen in a set piece when the workers challenge the leaders of the Town. The mini-revolt (it pales in comparison to the real revolution of 1848) is defused by Consul Johann while one of the town elders is parodied as he shows more concern for his carriage than anything the workers (who like children should be silent) might have to say.

One of the keenest issues for me is the position of women in the Buddenbrooks family and society in general. That is the lack of standing and choice that they have. This is evident not only in Tony's failed marriages (she has a second divorce before the midpoint in the novel) but also in other female members of the family, particularly Tony's younger sister Clara who is considered unmarriageable until a Minister, Sievert Tiburtius, takes an interest in her. Most woman in this society are prepared for nothing in life with limited choices and the prospect of life as second class citizens.

Throughout the novel Mann develops themes through the use of lietmotifs. These stem from his admiration for the operas of Richard Wagner, in the case of Buddenbrooks an example can be found in the description of the color – blue and yellow, respectively – of the skin and the teeth of the characters. Each such description alludes to different states of health, personality and even the destiny of the characters.
Aspects of Thomas Mann's own personality are manifest in the two brothers, Thomas and Christian, whose find it difficult to live together. Christian is much the free spirit who cannot be happy working in the family firm, the leadership of which Thomas has inherited as the eldest son. It should not be considered a coincidence that Mann shared the same first name with one of them. The influence of Schopenhauer is also present and it is through the brothers that both Buddenbrooks reflect a conflict lived by the author: departure from a conventional bourgeois life to pursue an artistic one, although without rejecting bourgeois ethics. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Feb 22, 2016 |
A fantastic plunge into 19th-century German society. This book carries you along like a comforting drug trip gone just a little wrong, such that you wind up where you did not want to go. Recommended to anyone who likes Anna Karenina or Vanity Fair. ( )
  librken | Jan 25, 2015 |
Buddenbrooks was written by Thomas Mann when he was only 25 years old, but this reads as the work of a much older and more experienced writer. Buddenbrooks explores four generations of the Buddenbrooks family, a family that has everything going for it at the beginning of the book and declines through the 731 pages of this novel. The 19th century German family experiences business set backs, divorces, ill health, and death, all of which contribute to their demise. The family values itself very highly and refuses initially to see the problems occurring, instead relying on their pride in family to carry them along.

I loved this book. The detail of characterization and the exploration of family history were fantastic. I also loved the themes of entitlement vs. work ethic - sometimes both hard work and a sense of entitlement being balanced in one character, sometimes in contrasting characters. I haven't read much German literature, but I've read a lot of family epics from this general era. This differed in the specifics of money that were always present and the decline of all parts of the family - no one in the family is really successful here. Despite the decline of the family, and the multiple deaths (which by the way are written very convincingly - hit a little too close to home for me), it isn't an unrelentingly dark novel. I found it very readable and captivating. Definitely a 5 star read. ( )
  japaul22 | Aug 26, 2014 |
The German Classic and Nobel Prize winning (originally titled) "Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family" is a novel of epic proportions.

The opening scene takes place in 1835 at the Buddenbrook estate. It’s a formal family dinner party and gathering of the Patriarch Johann Buddenbrook’s relatives and intimate friends including the town’s prestigious doctor, a leading German poet, senator, pastor, stock broker, and several business associates. It is a cheerful, optimistic event with good conversation, imported cigars, and vintage liquor, and abundant food served on exquisite china and silver in lush surroundings of crystal chandeliers, velvet drapes, fine art, and tasteful extravagant decor.

The Buddenbrook family is at it’s prime; they are the elite of society, the family business is thriving, and life is good. But as the grandson Tom cynically ponders many years later when he is the Patriarch and everything seems to be going wrong, “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 plot starts out at a slow pace because Thomas Mann makes quite an effort to familiarize the reader with cultural norms with descriptions rich in detail, and he also does an excellent job of character development. The primary characters are the grandson Tom who inherits control of the family granaries, his sister Tony, and Tom’s son Johann who is expected to follow in his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father’s footsteps.

Throughout the story significant scenes occur involving the various family members and is broken down into 11 parts… each sometimes skipping ahead several years and carrying the reader through 4 generations of the Buddenbrooks to the conclusion in 1877. While Germany is struggling through an industrial revolution, several wars, an economic crisis, and political turmoil, Mann focuses on the Buddenbrooks involvement in their own family struggles; births, marriages, divorce, deaths, the Buddenbrooks 100 year anniversary of being in business, holidays, and vacations... the family dynamics, their accomplishments, and their tragedies.

What makes this book a classic - aside from the realistic plot, the memorable characters, and the great story-telling - is Thomas Mann’s ability to inject authentic social and cultural details. The attitudes of the rich elite, the role women played in society, the tradition of honoring and respecting the elderly, the role religion played in their lives, the disgrace of declaring bankruptcy and shame in criminal behavior, and obligations of family life.

And perhaps a forewarning of things to come in Eastern Europe, the Buddenbrooks anti-semitic attitudes towards Jewish people. Their biggest adversities, regardless of the root cause, always left them pointing the finger at the “contemptible” Hagenstrom family… competitors in business and rivals in society. Whenever a Hagenstrom crossed paths with a Buddenbrook, nasty thoughts ensued.

There are many memorable scenes, but several that made a lasting impression were Tony’s carefree summer holiday at the seaside resort, the violent family argument that took place during the reading of the deceased mother’s will, and the description of little Johann’s typical day at school.

Thomas Mann was only 26 years old when he wrote "Buddenbrooks", but wise beyond his years. He was strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Buddenbrooks has elements of psychology. At a point of darkness and debilitating depression in Tom Buddenbrooks life, he ponders his religion and borders on having a miraculous revelation about the meaning of life. But in the end, it alludes him and he concludes, “Was this message meant for me? I don’t know what it was: I only know it was too much for my poor brain.”

As indicated in the title, the decline of the family is eminent but it is not for me to reveal why or how this happens. Perhaps it was inevitable with the changing times. Perhaps it could have been avoided. Like all family sagas, the combination of diverse personalities, critical events, and defining moments all play a part... or as the old German saying goes, “so ist das leben”. ( )
  LadyLo | Jul 17, 2014 |

I finally made it - even tried the first few chapters in German, but got a bit stuck on obscure articles of clothing and furniture that I wasn't taught in school (apparently a "Vatermörder" is a stiff collar, not someone who has killed their father).

Anyway, the Woods translation did me very well. It's the story of the Buddenbrook family in Lübeck in the 19th century, and how things basically go downhill for Tom and Tony, the son and daughter of Consul Jean/Johann Buddenbrook who built up the business empire, and at the end an account of the childhood of Tom's son Hanno. The history of Germany rumbles by in the background, 1848 and 1871 and so on glanced at in passing; but Mann is much more interested in the family dynamics of the siblings (there's also a disinherited half-brother, a disreputable younger brother and a much younger sister who gets married off to a Baltic clergyman) tied up with continual and increasing worries about money. There are a lot of interesting things in the telling, about architecture, colour and music (this last especially important both for Hanno and his disreputable uncle Christian), and I can see why one might want to come back to it again.

At the same time, it feels like a bit of a literary sidetrack. Yes, it draws in a good way on Middlemarch and War and Peace, but I think that both are better books in themselves, and also both are more satisfactorily linked to the politics of their setting. Mann is perhaps a bit better at engaging our interest in characters who are themselves pretty flawed. At a time when European loved family sagas like this, you can understand that it won him his Nobel prize. Yet 1902 was the year that Joyce graduated from UCD, Virginia Woolf had just wound up her studies at King's College London, and Proust was getting to grips with translating Ruskin. Greater things were around the corner.

I do appreciate, with tinges of regret, the care taken by Woods in translating the various German accents and dialects. Lübeck and Hamburg are close but different; Tony's second husband is Bavarian, and Woods translates him as an American redneck, rough at the edges but with a heart of gold, encountering a much posher set of in-laws. It's hilarious and effective, though of course it introduces a slightly different dynamic; the original Herr Permaneder is actually a proud Central European, always going on about the mountains and the beer of his homeland in nearly impenetrable Bayrisch, and the Munich/Lübeck dynamic is completely different from the Texas/Sussex dynamic. So, while it's very entertaining, it's also a bit of a step from the original authorial intent. I guess it's unavoidable. Certainly, "Why, howdy do?" is a decent enough translation of "Ja, grüß Eana Gott!" and I don't think a translation could be much more accurate without excessive resort to footnotes. ( )
2 vote nwhyte | May 3, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (184 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mann, Thomasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fontcuberta i Gel, JoanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graftdijk, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowe-Porter, H. T.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Molenaar, Johan deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parker, DerekIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quanjer, Th. A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rho, AnitaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosoman, LeonardIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wallenström, UlrikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Woods, John E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Was ist das. - Was - ist das..."
"Je, den Düwel ook, c'est la question, ma très chère demoiselle!"
"And - and - what comes next?"                                                                                                                                            "Oh, yes, yes, what the dickens does come next? C'est la question, ma tres chere demoiselle!"
p. 262: "A businessman cannot be a bureaucrat," he told his former schoolchum Stephen Kistenmaker--of Kistenmaker & Sons--who was still Tom's friend, though hardly his match intellectually, and listened to his every work in order to pass it on as his own opinon.
"Ah, I almost fear that as time goes on the businessman's life will become more and more banal."
p 506: What was Death? The answer came, not in poor, large-sounding words: he felt it within him, he possessed it. Death was a joy, so great, so deep that it could be dreamed of only in moments of revelation like the present. It was the return from an unspeakably painful wandering, the correction of a grave mistake, the loosening of chains, the opening of doors - it put right again a lamentable mischance.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679417370, Hardcover)

(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)

Introduction by T. J. Reed; Translation by John E. Woods

Buddenbrooks, first published in Germany in 1901, when Mann was only twenty-six, has become a classic of modern literature.

It is the story of four generations of a wealthy bourgeois family in northern Germany facing the advent of modernity; in an uncertain new world, the family’s bonds and traditions begin to disintegrate. As Mann charts the Buddenbrooks’ decline from prosperity to bankruptcy, from moral and psychic soundness to sickly piety, artistic decadence, and madness, he ushers the reader into a world of stunning vitality, pieced together from births and funerals, weddings and divorces, recipes, gossip, and earthy humor.

In its immensity of scope, richness of detail, and fullness of humanity, buddenbrooks surpasses all other modern family chronicles. With remarkable fidelity to the original German text, this superb translation emphasizes the magnificent scale of Mann’s achievement in this riveting, tragic novel.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:47 -0400)

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The story of four generations of a wealthy bourgeois family in northern Germany captures the triumphs and tragedies, successes and failures, relationships, loves, and ordinary events of everyday middle-class life.

(summary from another edition)

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