The 19th Century Novel of a 20th Century Writer

September 5, 2010 § Leave a comment


Buddenbrooks (Mann, Thomas)

Buddenbrookhaus in Lubeck (Courtesy: Magnus Manske/Wikimedia Commons)

Quite possibly, the most remarkable thing about this novel is the fact that Thomas Mann wrote it in 1901, at the tender age of 26.

Do not get me wrong – it is definitely possible to author great novels while still on the right side of thirty. Salinger was 32 when he published The Catcher in the Rye – but it could have easily been written when he was a few years younger. Ditto Rushdie and Midnight’s Children (34 in 1981), Joseph Heller and Catch-22 (32 and 1955), Hemingway and A Farewell to Arms (30 and 1929) – and Charles Dickens was exactly 26 when he wrote Oliver Twist, though he was well over 40 by the time he wrote A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations. And that, in fact, is my point – that there is a  kind of novel that is difficult to write, unless by a writer of a certain age. Take War and Peace, for example, or East of Eden, or Love in the Time of Cholera. There is a good reason for this, but in order to explain, I must digress briefly into how novel-writing has changed over time.

There is a yawning gap between the style of the European novel in Charles Dickens’ time and that in Ernest Hemingway’s, and while Thomas Mann is closer in vintage to the latter, I felt Buddenbrooks was far more a logical continuation of The Charterhouse of Parma, War and Peace or Madame Bovary than an obvious precursor of Mrs. Dalloway, The Great Gatsby, or of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. And the biggest difference between the two ends of that spectrum is in the way reality is represented in them.

As the literary scholar Erich Auerbach points out in his excellent book, Mimesis,

in Stendhal and Balzac we frequently and indeed almost constantly hear what the writer thinks of his characters and events; sometimes Balzac accompanies his narrative with a running commentary …We also very frequently hear what the characters themselves think and feel, and often in such a manner that in the passage concerned, the writer identifies himself with the character. Both these things are almost wholly absent from Flaubert’s work. His opinion of his characters and events remains unspoken; and when the characters express themselves it is never in such a manner that the writer identifies himself with their opinion or seeks to make the reader identify himself with it.

In fact, by the time of Virginia Woolf, “the writer as narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection“. The reader doesn’t really know what is going on in Woolf’s mind, or even in that of her characters, except by interpreting the viewpoints she chooses to make available. In other words, in the (roughly) hundred years between Moby Dick and The Alexandria Quartet, reading novels has become considerably tougher, with progressively less spoonfeeding by the author, and progressively higher proportions of ambiguous opinion than objective fact in the text. And while the modern reader remains preoccupied with interpretation, the modern novelist is more concerned with an in-depth exploration of a specific situation than in a comprehensive coverage of life; in zooming in, so to speak, rather than in employing a wide-angle lens.

Auerbach explains:

He who represents the course of a human life or a sequence of events extending over a prolonged period of time and represents it from beginning to end must prune and isolate arbitrarily…And the people whose story the author is telling experience much more than he can ever hope to tell. But the things that happen to a few individuals in the course of a few minutes, hours or possibly even days – these one can hope to report with reasonable completeness.

In that respect, Stendhal and Tolstoy – and Mann, in Buddenbrooks – were actually more ambitious, attempting to relate the entire lives of a large number of characters, explaining each event from each of their perspectives, and yet attempting to keep the whole thing true to life. Buddenbrooks employs a cast of dozens, from diverse backgrounds, professions and classes – and he has to think like each of them, in order to tell us what a shy child would be going through in a classroom when his masters grill him on Latin, how a poor relative would feel when invited to eat at the table of her rich cousins, how a haughty socialite would react to her husband’s sudden insolvency, how a pianist brought up in the Beethovan tradition would regard Strauss, what a socialist son of a fisherman could possibly find attractive in an heiress, the slight embarrassment caused by the provincial accents of a Bavarian beer merchant in the company of the well-heeled, and what a Senator and scion of a hoary business house would reflect on when confronted with intimations of his own mortality. Hence my wonder: how is it even possible for a 26 year old put himself in so many shoes? How could he have encountered so many different personalities in his brief existence, and managed to observe them closely enough to write them into his book? How can someone at such an age, distill the kind of wisdom that can only come from a lifetime of experiences, into something like The Brothers Karamazov, or Magister Ludi?

The answer to the last question, at least, is simple: he doesn’t. Apart from a single, heavily Schoperhauer-influenced, meditation on mortality towards the end of the book, there isn’t much wisdom on direct display in Buddenbrooks. But a possible clue to the other questions is provided by a study of Mann’s own life. Thomas Mann, it turns out, was himself the son of a senator and grain merchant in Lubeck, Germany, who died suddenly in 1891, when Thomas was still a teenager, and the old family firm had to be liquidated soon after – all events described in the book as well. No doubt it is the autobiographical aspect of these events that allowed the young writer to depict them so realistically, but it is nevertheless no mean achievement.

Having said that, I find I tend to agree with Auerbach. Accounts of entire lives across generations can be … very boring indeed. The depiction of the ever so gradual decline of a family’s fortunes, mirroring, as it does, the fin de siecle decadence and moral decay of the Germany of Mann’s youth, is certainly a grand theme for a novel, grand enough to earn Mann the 1929 Literature Nobel and a pre-eminent position in the pantheon of German writers; however, to my modern tastes, the realism makes the reading experience achingly akin to watching paint dry – and over much time, peel – on the walls of the magnificent Mengstrasse mansion of the Family Buddenbrooks.

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