Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family - Thomas Mann, John E. Woods

I have been stalling about writing a review. Just as I stalled about finishing the book. Buddenbrooks didn't exactly grab me in the beginning. The first few chapters seemed to be about a bunch of smug, self-indulgent people who wore elaborate outfits and stuffed themselves without restraint. I barely noticed the two sons, Tom and Christian, and Tony, the golden-haired daughter. If it hadn't been for the discussion threads provided by other members of our group, I may have abandoned it entirely. It didn't make much sense to me until one of the threads pointed to the influence of Richard Wagner's operas on Thomas Mann. I've never been a huge Wagner fan, but I've heard people speak about Wagner time. Apparently, it explains how audiences are able to sit for hours once they're under the spell of his music. 

So maybe the elaborate housewarming was something like the opening of the Ring Cycle when the gods move into their new castle in Valhalla. The Buddenbrooks, gods of commerce, were announcing to the town that they were rich enough to merit everyone's attention-and envy. Old Mr. Buddenbrook made his money as a war profiteer and had recently disinherited an elder son from an earlier marriage, because that son had married a woman from a lower social rank. Was the estranged son, Gotthold, analogous to the giants who built Wotan's castle? They all felt similarly cheated. Despite these vexing thoughts, gods will be gods, so nothing could stop any of them from celebrating their elaborate new digs. The Buddenbrooks' star, like Wotan's ring of stolen gold, would shine brightly as long as someone in the family could mind the family coffers. Easier said than done.

The children grew into adulthood knowing what is expected of them; girls were to marry for money and boys would inherit the business and produce male heirs. As long as there was enough wealth, a few youthful indiscretions and missteps shouldn't matter. Unfortunately, except for Grandpa, none of the men had much talent for business and the girls made unfortunate marriages. Things rapidly deteriorated. By the time Tom's son, Hanno, was born, the business was hemorrhaging money, Tony was a divorced, social-outcast and Christian was a disreputable hypochondriac. Mann chose to describe all of this in a series of operatic set pieces. We witness weddings, funerals, intimate gatherings and elaborate family spectacles with all the Buddenbrooks performing as if they were actors on a stage. Each of them has at least one stirring aria, to explain his or her interior life, but they all seem to lack the will-or capacity- to reverse the family's downward trajectory.

Their plight reminded me of a psychoanalytic theory espoused by Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child. There she described a child who was so aware, consciously or otherwise, of the wishes of his parents and had such a strong desire to fulfill them, that he loses track of himself and his own identity. It’s about the child who never discovered his “true self” because he was so concerned with pleasing those around him, and the repercussions of that later in life. The book discusses the unconscious wishes of the parent being often unconsciously bestowed on the child, with the child absorbing these wishes and morphing into this different person. Alice Miller must have readBuddenbrooks!

Poor Hanno didn't stand a chance. His short life was so mired in unhappiness that it is almost unbearable to read about it. His father's deepening depression, the family's suffocating expectations, unremitting social humiliations and a sadistic dentist caused him to retreat into a world of improvisational music. I kept wishing that his Aunt Tony would morph into Brunhilde and carry him away to Valhalla, like she did for Sieglinde in Die Walkure. Of course that didn't work out too well for Brunhilde and, besides, poor Tony's narcissism kept her from ever anticipating just how bad things might get.

It was almost a relief to read about Hanno's "immolation" from typhus, which reminded me of the burning of Valhalla in the Ring's final segment, Twilight of the Gods. In Wagner's version the stolen gold is returned to the Rhine-maidens, but for the Buddenbrooks there was nothing left to return. Their happiness, and the gold it was traded for, was long gone. Mann's genius rests in his ability to make us care about these fatally-flawed characters who, because they lacked their own fully-formed identities, were tragic prisoners of their unfortunate childhoods. How ironic.