Sometimes you start a book with not very high hopes. A classic is always a gamble. Will it still be as fresh as it was at the time of writing, or will it seem hopelessly old fashioned? Buddenbrooks feels as fresh as when it was written. You are stuck from page number 1!
The novel tells the story of four generations of a bourgeoisie family in Lübeck during the years 1835-1877. Mann's own family comes from this milieu so he was well aquatinted with it. We meet them at the peak of their success and follow the decline over the years. Major political and military developments took place in Germany during this time; the Revolutions of 1848 and the Austro-Prussian War. They are the back drop to the story, but do not have a significant place in the novel.
The main characters are from the third generation; Thomas, Christian, Antonie (Tony) and Clara. Thomas is the one who shows interest in taking over the business. Christian is more interested in the theatre and a leisurely life. Tony is the most proud of the siblings, and although she falls in love with one man, she agrees to marry another one, to make her father proud of her and it is good for the business. It ends in divorce, as does her second marriage. However, she seems to glide on top of everything and her faith in the family never fails. Clara is the youngest sibling by several years, and her life takes a rather religious turn.
Mann manages to give us so many different characters following the family's rise and decline. We feel what the family feels, enjoying the good times and suffer the bad times with them. The great thing with the novel is that we are very close to the family and see how they are changing as they grow up and mature. Life's surprises change our characters and our own ability to change with the times decides whether we are going to be happy or not.
I am quite fascinated by family sagas. Sooner or later, successful families, tend to decline. The Buddenbrooks are on the hight of their success in the generation we get to follow, and inevitably, they are doomed to fall. The sub-title to the novel is Verfall einer Familie (Decline of a family) and this is the main theme of the book. Why did they decline? There are of course many answers to this rather complicated question. One reason, I think, is that the success of the company and the family overrides all other feelings and wishes, and in the end, when your mind is not with it, you can not keep it up. Times are changing and people with them. The generation after does not always see things as the older generation. Furthermore, it puts a lot of pressure on the heirs, here, especially the boys. It is almost like a royal family; you have to produce a male heir to have someone to take over the company. And what happens when everyone get girls? And, when the long longed for boy arrives, the pressure to be as your father wants you to be, is overwhelming and brings you down.
Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, mainly for this novel. Part of the Presentation Speech says:
The realistic novel - one could call it a modern prose epic influenced by historicism and science - has by and large been the creation of the English, the French, and the Russians; it is associated with the names of Dickens and Thackeray, Balzac and Flaubert, Gogol and Tolstoy. There was no comparable contribution from Germany for a long time; poetic creativity there chose other outlets. The nineteenth century had come to its end when a young writer, the twenty-seven-year-old son of a merchant from the old Hanse city of Lübeck, published his novel Buddenbrooks (1901). Twenty-seven years have passed since then, and it has become clear to all that Buddenbrooks is the masterpiece that fills the gap. Here is the first and as yet unsurpassed German realistic novel in the grand style which takes its undisputed and equal place in the European concert.
Buddenbrooks is a bourgeois novel, for the century it portrays was above all a bourgeois era. It depicts a society neither so great as to bewilder the observer, nor so small and narrow as to stifle him. This middle level favours an intelligent, thoughtful, and subtle analysis, and the creative power itself, the pleasure of epic narration, is shaped by calm, mature, and sophisticated reflection. We see a bourgeois civilization in all its nuances, we see the historical horizons, the changes of time, the changes of generations, the gradual transition from self-contained, powerful, and un-self-conscious characters to reflective types of a refined and weak sensibility. The presentation is lucid yet penetrates beneath the surface to hidden processes of life; it is powerful but never brutal, and touches lightly on delicate things; it is sad and serious but never depressing because it is permeated by a quiet, deep sense of humour that is iridescently reflected in the prism of ironic intelligence.Even now, 116 years after its publication it is a wonderful, refreshing read. The language is beautiful, it flows over the pages, and you will never want it to end. The description of the many, various characters in the novel is one of the highlights. Through all the book, the story of the Buddenbrook family keeps you stuck to the pages, and when finished, it is like loosing your friends. I can easily say that this is one of my favourite books.