It’s all there in the title: Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901). Impressive, then, that Thomas Mann—who wrote this book in his early 20s, which is really amazing, it does not feel like a young person’s book—keeps things as suspenseful as he does. Buddenbrooks is a page-turner, especially if you are someone whose response to growing up with the values of work, thrift, responsibility, and shame was to flee into hysteria (i.e. me).
Mann is the novelist of hysteria (see Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain for further examples). I mean hysteria in the Freudian sense, not the ordinary one of shrillness or lack of control. Freud defined hysteria as one of three kinds of neuroses (along with phobias and obsessions). Neuroses arise from the contradiction between what we unconsciously want and what we consciously know (through acculturation) we should not want. Neuroses are psychological conflicts. Every “normal” functioning person is neurotic to some extent; neuroses are not psychoses, Freud’s name for severe mental disturbances like schizophrenia in which the sense of a conscious self is gravely threatened or even absent. Neuroses aren’t for “crazy people”; they’re for us.
Neuroses make themselves felt in various symptoms. The hysteric’s symptoms are bodily, unlike those of the phobic or the obsessive; theirs, by contrast, are mental, for example, a compulsion to count to a certain number before doing something, or the need to berate one’s self after thinking something, as if thoughts were actions. The hysteric is plagued, above all, by anxieties over bodily integrity. Hysterical symptoms—to name just a few: otherwise inexplicable loss of voice, loss of feeling in limbs, phantom pains, the conviction that one is having a heart attack—are compromise formulations. They are ways of speaking that circumvent more straightforward but prohibited/dangerous speaking.
One of the aims of psychoanalysis or Freudian-inspired psychotherapy is to turn body into language. When we can tell a story to ourselves about ourselves—when we can acknowledge what previously felt shameful or unavowable—our hysterical symptoms disappear. You can say a lot of things against Freud, but you have to credit that he took hysterical symptoms seriously. Where other (mostly male) physicians said to these (mostly female) patients, “There is nothing wrong with you, snap out of it, stop malingering,” Freud said, “There is nothing wrong in the patient’s physical reality. But there is something wrong in their mental or psychic reality.” Distinguishing these two kinds of reality is perhaps the most consequential idea of psychoanalysis. Hysterical symptoms are real—a sign of great unhappiness, of desires so unavowable to the person and her society that they can only come out in damaging form.
Why am I talking about Freud so much? Mann loved his German intellectual tradition, and Freud is part of the background of his breakthrough book, though less obviously so than Schopenhauer (referenced directly), Wagner, and the Nietzsche who first adored and then repudiated Wagner. Mann’s later books would grapple with this tradition even more obviously: I think Doctor Faustus is the ultimate example, though I’ve never been brave enough to read it. (The musical sections of Buddenbrooks were quite enough for me.) Freud is the least overt of Mann’s intellectual inspirations in his debut novel, but the more intriguing for that, plus he’s the one who means the most to me.
Strikingly, the novel’s hysterics are all men (in the language of the period they would have been called neurasthenics, hysteria being then, as, alas, now, characterized as a “female malady”). Who are these men? They compose four generations of a grain merchant family in an unnamed north German city that everyone knows is Lübeck, in the years 1835 – 1877. Politics matters in Buddenbrooks, but it’s kept to the background—the failed revolution of 1848 is presented as a joke, the unification of Germany under Bismarck is important only for how it affects business and the changes it brings to state education. Instead, the novel foregrounds mental and physical health. Importantly, both are governed by rigid ideas of duty and propriety. (Buddenbrooks is the most Lutheran novel I know.) The first patriarch is Johann Jr.: that suffix denoting unbroken lineage, though the novel in fact begins with a significant change: newly wealthy, Johann and his ménage move into a home that used to belong to a powerful but now bankrupt merchant family, a scenario that will return when a more unscrupulous, energetic, and prosperous merchant eventually takes over the home from the disintegrated and dispersed Buddenbrooks. (Mann, never light with his symbolism, has the new occupant renovate the crumbling outbuildings that had once housed the Buddenbrook firm into a successful retail development. The only thing that never declines in this book is oligarchic capitalism.) Johann, Jr. of course never learns of these events: he unproblematically carries off his belief in the family’s probity and success—these being synonyms in the novel’s worldview—even cutting off his son from a first marriage because he disapproves of the young man’s way of life.
Johann, Jr.’s son by his second marriage, naturally also named Johann, but known to everyone as Jean, a nod to the elder generation’s Enlightenment-inspired Francophilia, is the most conventionally successful figure in the book. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he raises four children: Thomas, Christian, Klara, and Antoinette, known as Toni. As a leader of the community, Jean soothes the brief unrest of 1848 and thrives in business. He grooms Thomas to take over the firm, ignores the niggling reality that he has no idea what to make of “feckless” Christian, vaguely approves of but mostly ignores Klara’s piety, and pushes Toni into marriage with a promising businessman she does not particularly care for by reminding her of her duty to the family. He later regrets this decision, if not the beliefs behind it: the man proves a fraud, and Jean extricates Toni from the marriage (allowing Mann to showcase the northern German states’ comparatively liberal divorce laws), though at the cost of public shame Toni will spend the rest of her life combatting. Always preoccupied with his appearance—something that matters so much in the novel: it is paramount to these characters that they look presentable and decent—Jean dies of a stroke that fells him while he completes his morning toilette.
As the novel turns its attention to the third generation, it ramps up its theory that hysteria is the primary evidence for societal decline. Christian, who cannot settle to work, and might have been an actor or artist of some kind had he lived in a different family (he is a raconteur par excellence and either a good sport or a ne’er-do-well depending on your take), suffers life-long phantom pains that he talks about at length to anyone who will listen (always concluding that they can’t be described), before ending up in a sanatorium. (He’s “like someone delirious with fever … He has a regular mania for dragging up the most insignificant things from deep within him and talking about them—things that a reasonable man doesn’t even think about, doesn’t want to know about, for the very simple reason that he is too embarrassed to share them with anyone else.”) Klara, always frail and increasingly pious, marries a preacher from Riga; their brief marriage seems happy enough, but she dies of TB before having any children (worse, from the family’s point of view, the preacher keeps the dowry). Thomas, the “good son,” leads the family firm, works nonstop, becomes a macher (the high point of which is his election to Senator), and makes a good living, though never quite to his father’s heights. He encourages Toni to remarry to a Bavarian businessman, an amiable drunk from whom Toni recoils after she, almost at once, delivers a stillborn child and discovers her husband sexually assaulting the maid, leading her to a second divorce. Thomas’s own marriage, to a Dutch schoolfriend of Toni’s—the imperturbable and musical Gerda Arnoldsen, my favourite character, surely symbolically though not actually Jewish—is meant to assert his independence from his milieu (the Buddenbrooks are resolutely unmusical), but he is too in thrall to that world to know what to do with her. She cheats on him, if not with a lieutenant she plays duets with then with music itself.
Thomas doesn’t particularly care about his wife’s literal or metaphorical infidelity: he is preoccupied—obsessed, really—with surviving his responsibilities. Mann’s descriptions of the mask Thomas puts on when he goes out into the world, and the slackness that comes over his body and mind when he can be alone, are harrowing:
How almost unrecognizable his face became when he was alone. The muscles of his mouth and cheeks, usually so disciplined and obedient to his will, relaxed and slackened; the alert, prudent, kind, energetic look, which he had preserved for so long now only with great effort, fell away like a mask and reverted to a state of anguished weariness; his dull, somber eyes would fix on some object without seeing it, would redden and begin to water—and, lacking the courage to deceive even himself, he could hold fast to only one of the many heavy, confused, restless thoughts that filled his mind.
Thomas dies after a disastrous visit to the dentist (there are some terrible scenes in this book with the incompetent Dr. Brecht, who needs to talk himself into the terrors he inflicts on people’s mouths); he his only 48, but had become an old man, increasingly an object of scorn in the community.
Toni’s daughter, Erica, comes to an unhappy end, too: her own marriage ends in shame when her husband is imprisoned for insurance fraud (it is suggested that he has only done what others do all the time but has been made an example of because he is a parvenu). Thomas and Gerda’s only child—the family line’s increasing effeteness indicated by how few children are produced by the third generation—is at the center of the book’s final chapters. Hanno is a delicate child. His teeth, in particular, are always giving him trouble, causing fevers and having, excruciatingly, to be pulled. I take the novel’s depictions of bad teeth as a symbol of the family’s increasing inability to consume, to prey, to swallow—to be businessmen, in other words. Hanno loves music, though he’s no prodigy. What he loves is wallowing in neo-Wagnerian improvisation, a further indication of effete inability. Not only is he artistically inclined—a sure sign of decline, in this novel—but he cannot master that either. There are, however, no prodigies or geniuses in the book; the only “healthy” models of artistry it offers is to treat it as a joke, like a friend of Johann, Jr, who is no poet, but rather a versifier, good for a tasteful toast to a hostess. Poor Hanno is abruptly dispatched by typhoid, an all-too physical disease that nonetheless has a psychological component, for the feverish teen is happy to give up the fight and be taken into a beyond that he has always longed for.
At its end, the novel leaves us with its women—not Gerda (she glides back to Amsterdam to play music with the only man she has really ever loved, her father), but Toni and Erika, and some cousins, and a wonderful bit character, Theresa Weichbrodt, Toni’s former teacher who has remained a family friend, a retainer of sorts, all these years. This ending makes sense, because although the novel focuses on male characters I think it is really a novel about women—the most interesting characters are female, even though they are all minor. On the one hand, the novel denigrates femaleness—the men are increasingly effeminate and hysterical, and that’s a sign of their decline. But on the other, it almost unwillingly upholds femaleness—the women are the ones left standing, and even though their roles are limited, they are the ones who actually uphold the core Buddenbrook values of decency and duty.
There is of course an irony here, since those values have killed the male characters. Of course, women have plenty of experience of living under values that confine, oppress, even kill them; no wonder, then, that they survive, if not thrive. Buddenbrooks made me think about Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”—what happens when something you desire harms you, gets in the way of your flourishing. (Freud made a similar argument, but emphasized the individual over society; Berlant thinks cruel optimism is characteristic of neoliberal precarity, like the internship you want so badly even though it pays you nothing.) Mann’s characters live under the sway of an ideology of probity that both gives them their meaning in life but also kills them.
Mann—or at least his narrator—relishes the irony. In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag fulminated against the “obstreperous irony” of books like Buddenbrooks, which she described as impossible, even embarrassing to the contemporary (1960s) moment. This critique hit me hard when, as an impressionable Young Person, I fell under Sontag’s sway. I agreed, too, with her later claim that irony can lead to laughter so unbridled it leaves one gasping. Now, as a middle-aged reader, I have more time for Mann’s irony. But I’m still not sure what to do with it. It’s easy to see what Buddenbrooks is critiquing: the straightjacket of decorum; ideas of psychological, physical, and financial “health.” But what does the novel value? What is its critique for? When, at the end, the remaining characters wonder if they will be rewarded in the next life with the chance to see their lost loved ones, Theresa Weichbrodt, the former teacher, insists it will be so:
There she stood, victorious in the good fight that she had waged all her life against the onslaughts of reason. There she stood, hunchbacked and tiny, trembling with certainty—an inspired, scolding little prophet.
I can only read this as an at-best bemused dismissal of the woman—her victory against “the onslaughts of reason,” her physical smallness (hinting at fallibility or inconsequence), her similar metaphorical diminution. The “little prophet” can only scold, not thunder. But if the novel makes fun of this viewpoint, while also ending with it, what’s left? I see no Nietzschean transvaluation of values here, no indication that, since all values are contingent, we should abandon the very idea and simply see who and what succeeds. Similarly, returning to Freud, there is no position here that matches the analyst, the one whose task is to help the patient to health (the alleviation of physical suffering by getting to the psychological root of the problem) by helping them to see why they act as they do.
In short, there’s nobody to look to as an alternative point of view, no one who successfully challenges the Protestant merchant ethos. Toni’s second husband, the Bavarian, decides to quit business for a life of leisure, but his physical and emotional grotesqueness (he’s fat and ugly and a lech, if also kind, though I think the latter results more from laziness than genuine feeling) makes him hard to identify with. Toni’s first love, a working-class medical student named Morton Schwarzkopf, at first seems a viable candidate—I definitely wanted him to return and hoped for a late-in-life, gentle reconciliation with Toni—but Mann shrewdly denies this end: it would muck up his portrait of the family as locked into a way of life; there is no synthesis of classes here, no bringing in of new blood to revitalize the old. The novel leaves us at an impasse: the way of life it examines is as impossible as any alternative to it.
This is already too long, so I’ll only mention one of Mann’s most notable ways of representing that impasse lies in his use of leitmotifs, a nod to Wagner, presumably. Epithets and phrases are attached to characters—most often, used by characters themselves. There’s Morton’s phrase “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones,” his way of acknowledging he is not of Toni’s social class, but a kind of passive-aggressive way of marking his absence. There’s Toni’s term “silly goose,” which she describes herself always as having been.
I’ve a hunch these phrases are linked to another of the novel’s interests: pronunciation. Time and again, we are told how characters pronounce their words and expressions, often as indicators of social class, or provincial origin, or of modishness. Perhaps this interest is related to German unification/nationalism, as the novel is set in the decades when Germany becomes a nation and becomes a little more homogenous. But I’m really not sure what to do with this aspect of the novel. It does strike me, though, that the epithets or leitmotifs imply stasis—as if no one ever changes or learns anything. They project consistent identities. Yet this idea contradicts the theory of change, specifically decline and degeneration.
Maybe this contradiction fits a novel poised between realism, even naturalism, and modernism, which might be the kind of novel I like best. Reading Buddenbrooks I thought a few times of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book published about ten years later. The description of Thomas and Toni’s mother—lingering, horrifying—reminded me of Gertrude Morel’s. As engaged as I was in Buddenbrooks, though, I think it’s a lesser novel that Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s breakthrough is messier, no question, and its focus is narrower (in some ways, The Rainbow might be a more apt comparison). But it is consistently more interesting at the level of the sentence. (No slight against the translator, John E. Woods; he’s done fine work, except in turning Bavarian dialect into southern American English, that didn’t work for me.) Mann is more about the big picture, about ideas.
It was that philosophical sweep that captivated me the first time I read the book (in the Lowe-Porter translation). I was only 19 or 20; it was one of the longest, most serious books I’d ever read. I remember loving it, but other than the scene of Thomas’s death I remembered almost nothing about it. Thinking back on it now, though, I believe I was in thrall to the novel’s theories—sensitivity is a sign of degeneration; the failure to work hard and thriftily is a sign of moral failure; such failure will first appear through the body; a weak body is the sign of a weak soul. These beliefs were my family’s, too. Thirty years later, I’m still drawn to these claims, but better able to see what is so damaging about them.
Does the novel see it, though? Even after having spent some happy weeks with it, I can’t tell.