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THOMAS MANN'S BUDDENBROOKS: THE WORLD OF THE FATHER HENRY C. HATFIELD WHILE Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, his Joseph, and a few of his short stories have become classic works in this country, his first novel, Buddenbrooks, has been less fortunate. It is in some danger of being assigned a place in the perspective of literary history as one of those books which are generally respected but seldom read. Such a destiny would be unmerited and unfortunate, for Buddenbrooks is of a calibre comparable to that of any of Mann's works; as a narrative, indeed as a novel in the classical sense, it very probably surpasses them. T. S. Eliot once remarked on the "usefulness" of a type of poetry "which could cut across all the present stratifications of public taste," and cited tbe plays of Shakespeare, with their "several layers of significance " as examples of works of the desired universality of appeal. Eliot was writing only of poetry, but his aperfu illuminates the enormous success of Buddenbrooks. Essentially a rather complicated and deeply pessimistic book, it has an abundance of sheer narration, of humour, of easily grasped character and local colour, which make its vast popularity natural enough; and also a certain sympathetic warmth in dealing with character which is more agreeable to most readers than the cool temperature of the early novellas. One need know nothing of Wagner or Schopenhauer, of the theory of decadence or the metaphysical allure of death, to find the novel absorbing, and this is all to the good. Nor need one have heard of the leit-motif to feel the effect of Mann's repetitions; indeed it would be difficult to miss most of them. To say this is not, of course, to disparage the less obvious attractions of the book: its tendency and meaning, its overtones and associations. The comparison with Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, sometimes facilely and misleadingly made, can be enlightening. Buddenbrooks , besides its popular elements, has precisely what the Saga does not: the broad range of "layers of significance," unexpected finesses, and a technique which, if at times obviously used, points ahead from the straightforward historical arrangement of nineteenth-century narration to the musical complexities of the novel of the twentieth century. Mann's own reference to Wagner's Ring (also, in a sense, a "Decline of a Family" ) furnishes a needed clue. Despite "scruples and doubts" about the scope and nature of the book, Mann completed Buddenbrooks in about two-and-a-half years; 33 UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, vol. XX, no. 1, Oct" 1950 34 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY it was published late in 1900. The actual writing was begun in Italy, where he spent a year with his brother Heinrich. Yet there is no trace of the South in the novel. This was no "Italian journey" in Goethe's sense, it had nothing to do with the traditional attempt of the German writer to experience the Mediterranean and classic world; it was rather a period of deliberate self-isolation, which afforded no doubt perspective and concentration on his work. Mann tells us that his mood at the time was made up of "indolence, a bad conscience as a bour~ geois, and the secure sense of latent talents." For the "bad conscience" there were presumably two reasons: his rejection of any sort of middleclass career, and his choice of the decay of his own family as a subject . At times, Mann must have felt that he was committing an indiscretion if not a downright betrayal. Thomas Buddenbrook is closely modelled after Mann's own father, and his exotic wife Gerda would seem, to a lesser extent, reminiscent of Mann's mother, Julia Da Silva-Bruhns. Psychologically, the novel may be said to represent a sort of reckoning with the father image by a young man who has broken with the family tradition and gone off to carry on a "questionable " existence in Munich and Italy. He has rejected the ancestral firm, business, the whole world of Lubeck; his revolt has been successful and, outwardly, not very difficult, but a sense of guilt and remorse remains. The reckoning is unusually gende, as such things go...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 33-44
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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