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The fact to which these books attest, that interest in and respect for the work of Thomas Mann has not abated since his death over thirty years ago, also leads to the conclusion that the appeal of his novels must have had and still has a broad base. Since Buddenbrooks was only recendy transformed into an elaborate and lengthy television series, the popularity of this book, published in October 1901, which was very quickly established among all kinds of readers, has patently persevered, even though the urgency of the historical situation Mann describes has all but been obliterated by the recurring catastrophes that have marked the course of the twentieth century. Therefore, Hugh Ridley's guide to an appreciation of the novel, addressed to readers about to encounter the challenges of the twenty-first century, comes opportunely. It is, it must be noted, a scholarly work, clearly intended for students of literature who are assumed to be knowledgeable in matters of critical terminology. Ridley's study of Buddenbrooks begins with an eight-page "chronology," juxtaposing lists of events in the lives of Mann's ancestry and his life, literary events, and historical events in these eras. There is also a brief "chronology" of Buddenbrooks itself that pertains to the novel's structure and does not constitute a plot summary; nor is one to be found gratuitously elsewhere in the book, which, according to its author, might better be read as a "short introduction" prior to reading the text on which it is based.
The overview that Ridley provides on the basis of an intimate acquaintanceship with Buddenbrooks and the literature that has evolved pertaining to it concerns basically the issue of the kind of novel Thomas Mann set about writing, involving characterization, narrative style, genre, and the issue of its reception, together with its relevance as an historical document. Ridley's opinions in these matters tend to concur with those of other critics who have written on the subject, including Mann himself. Only on occasion does the author of this key to Buddenbrooks provide an emphasis to his conclusions that makes them stand apart. Thus, although he does not discredit the standard interpretation of practically each of the characters as a representation of a Mann family member or acquaintance (Mann indeed made a list, pairing the real-life and novelistic counterparts), Ridley begins his study with the assertion that Thomas Buddenbrook, the book's leading character, supposedly modeled on Thomas Mann's father, is just as much "a self-portrait" of Mann. In a later chapter, devoted to an analysis of Thomas Buddenbrook, Ridley underscores his point by posing that Thomas Buddenbrook "stands in a particular relationship to the narrator" (my emphasis), thus doubling the character's autobiographical import. Ridley's analysis of these interrelationships lends support to his reading of the entire novel, which holds that, in accord with its subtitle "Decline of a Family," it is the story of the one Buddenbrook who most plainly represents the self-doubt and general malaise that enervated the bourgeois world in its pursuit of "progress" in the years before World War One. Summarizing these statements on the significance of Buddenbrooks, Ridley contends: "We should think of Thomas Mann as Thomas Buddenbrook freed from the constraints of societal representation and liberated for the work of art." This kind of insight, indicating knowledgeability of both the work and pertinent critical literature, provides [End Page 714] a challenge to the serious reader to read Buddenbrooks more skillfully.
Equally scholarly, even to the point of being a definitive statement on a subject of some controversy, Judith Marcus' elucidation of the fragile personal relationship between the critic Georg Lukács and Thomas Mann and their mutual concerns in literary matters is bound to be of considerable interest to experts on the subject of the Thomas Mann canon and of much less interest, if any, to the ordinary readers of his work or even students of...