Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2010

Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, translated by John E Woods

No, it’s not  your eyesight, it is hard to read the writing on the front cover of this book.  It’s a library copy of Buddenbrooks, the Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann and I consider myself very lucky that they haven’t culled it from their collection.  It is so long since anyone  borrowed it that it still has a pristine Due Date for Return sticker inside it – which means the library bought it before they computerised the library some time last century.  The only sign of wear is the gold lettering on the cover, presumably from being jostled about on the shelves.

It’s a book that deserves to be read.  There are rave reviews about it on Good Reads (a social networking site for readers, you can find me there) and the consensus seems to be that it’s a masterpiece of German literature.  Since I’ve read very little German lit, and none of their classics at all, I can only compare it with English classics, and it seems to me that it is rather like Galsworthy’s Forsyte saga, which I discovered through the 1967 BBC series and subsequently enjoyed as books.

I’m reading it in translation, of course, and here and there the English is a bit clunky, which surprised me because the translator has an English name, John E. Woods.  My guess is that he’s American – because of that middle initial, a mannerism not widely used in the UK (or Australia) – but it doesn’t read as if it were written by a native speaker of English.   There is a risible rendition of low German when Herr Permaneder comes to visit, which makes him sound a bit like a cowboy in an ancient western movie.  (I had no idea that Munich and Southern Germany were  considered ‘inferior’  socially to the Prussian north – is Mann poking fun at the Buddenbrooks or was/is this attitude widespread?)  What also feels strange is the shortness of the early chapters: some of them are only 3-4 pages long, and it has the effect of breaking up the flow of the reading and making the narrative disjointed, a bit like watching those films made for TV where the script is planned to allow for adverts to interrupt it.  The abrupt deaths of some of the characters are also a bit disconcerting; it’s as if Mann gets tired of them, or their generation, and simply bumps them off!

Like Galsworthy, Mann is interested in the impact of social change on families. The Forsyte saga traces the transition of ‘new money’ in class-conscious Britain, and explores whether material success brings happiness.  Soames Forsyte, a ‘Man of Property’ is contrasted with his brother ‘Young Jolyon’ who is an artist; and marriage is shown not to be the solid, comfortable institution it is supposed to be in 19th century England.  The Buddenbrooks family is also very concerned about maintaining the values of industriousness which have elevated them to the upper middle class, and they take a dim view of family members who marry for love instead of for money and social position. It is important to them to observe niceties and traditions such as big family dinners and impressive hospitality, and like the Forsytes they are highly embarrassed by divorce.


I really wish I had read this book during the school holidays when I had time to consider it properly because there are so many threads to pursue.  Antonie (Tony, oh, should it not be spelt Toni??) is a most interesting character.  She is pert and mischievous as a child, but adolescence brings the discovery that there are aristocratic families with a superior social rank to hers.  She refuses her first offer, falling in love instead with an impecunious doctor while on holiday but blithely breaks her promise to him when reminded of her responsibility to marry well for the family’s sake.  She might have done better to follow her heart – for the ‘good marriage’ her father wants for her turns out to be a sham, and she quickly divorces the bankrupt entrepeneur who needed her dowry.  The social impact of this divorce is catastrophic: still in her early twenties, she is supposed to resign herself to a quiet life as if in penance.

Consul Thomas Buddenbrook, the industrious third-generation burgher and his dreamy brother Christian replicate the contrast between their father and step-uncle in the second generation.  The first family dinner with which the book begins, is marred by a letter from Gotthold who has married beneath him;  his brother Consul Jean, the ‘younger master of the house’ (p14) and his mother Madame Buddenbrook defer sharing Gotthold’s supplication with his father Johann so as not to cause a row.

‘He was not a narrow-minded man.  He had seen a good piece of the world, had ridden in a coach-and-four to southern Germany to buy grain to supply the Prussian army in [18]’13, had been in Amsterdam and Paris, was a man of enlightened views, who, God knows, did not condemn everything beyond the gates and gables of his hometown.  But apart from his business connections, he was more inclined than his son, the consul, to set strict limits to social relationships and to be standoffish with strangers’.  (p7)

This ‘man of enlightened views’ flew into a rage when, as an ‘act of Christian charity’ his son the Consul engaged Ida Jungmann to be housekeeper and to take care of the children.  He objected to the orphaned daughter of an innkeeper being in his household, and is only mollified when she turns out to be

 ‘a woman of aristocratic principles, who differentiated very precisely between the first and second levels of society, between the middle class and the lower-middle class; she was proud to be the devoted servant of the first level, and showed her displeasure if Tony made friends with a schoolmate who, in Mamselle Jungmann’s estimation, was merely from a good middle-class family’ (p7).

Poor little Klothilde is also ‘an act of Christian charity’.  Coming from a ‘collateral line of the family, one with no property whatever’ (p8), she is being brought up in the household but is a ‘silent old maid’ at the age of eight and since she has no dowry, she has no future at all.

It’s just as well that old Johann isn’t around by the time Consul Jean gets to reflect on the diminishing status of the family in Part Six. Thirty-something Madame Antonie Grunlich is back at home, hoping to remarry, despite the loss of her impressive dowry to her Ex, but Christian is still letting the side down. He needs nagging to come to work on time (or at all), he runs into debt, and he’s a hypochondriac.  He hangs out with a bon-vivant called Andreas Gieseke, who is about to marry into the aristocracy and can get away with behaving badly whereas Christian cannot.  Thomas is not best pleased about this: the family’s reputable connections are dying off and losing influence so the Buddenbrooks social position is vulnerable:

His brother the consul, however, knew – he knew that Christian offered the family’s adversaries an easy target, and that this was one target too many…Late Uncle Gotthold’s bad marriage remained an embarrassment.  The consul’s sister was a divorced woman, even if one need not give up all hope that she might marry again.  And his brother was considered a ridiculous fool.  (p310)

The fierce contempt in which Thomas held his brother – and the wistful indifference with which Christian bore it – found expression in all those trivial moments of life that can only manifest themselves among people thrown together among families. (p130)

From what little I know of the life of Thomas Mann (which came in a roundabout way from reading Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile) I think there are autobiographical elements in Christian’s dissatisfaction with being steered into business when his heart was in an academic life (p316).   Thomas doesn’t listen to Christian’s wishes – he jettisons him into business elsewhere, in Hamburg where he won’t be such an embarrassment to the family.  Perhaps the introduction of the coarse but ‘dradfully funny’ Herr Permaneder as a suitor for the unmarriageable Tony (p329) is a reworking of the ‘unsuitable’ marriage of Mann’s own brother Heinrich to Nelly?  Certainly Tony’s change of heart speech about the unimportance of appearances seems as if she is trying to convince herself as much as anyone else:

I want to make it quite clear – what counts in life is not how things are expressed or pronounced, but what the heart feels and intends. (p328)

She subsequently acknowledges to Ida that while she was comfortable with the easy-going attitudes of his hometown (where she met him on holiday), she is embarrassed by him in her home ‘where everyone is so different, so much more rigid and ambitious and dignified.’ (p333).  Whatever the state of her confused feelings about this man, she knows she has little choice: she is expected to cleanse the stain that is next to her name in the family annals – so she ventures into what turns out to be another disastrous marriage.  In a long impassioned speech to Thomas she admits that it wasn’t Permaneder’s dalliance with the servant that triggered her flight from this second marriage but rather the incompatibility of her aristocratic tendencies with her new life:

We feel that we are aristocrats, and we’re aware of that distance, and we should never try to live where people know nothing about us and don’t understand our worth, because it will only bring humiliation and they will think that we are ridiculously arrogant. (p376)

Even as Thomas’s fortunes appear to be improving with his election to the Senate and the long-awaited birth of a male heir, there are signs of decline.   Christian’s business fails and he becomes genuinely ill; their sister Clara dies; and the child is sickly and slow to develop.   In a melancholy conversation with his only confidante Tony, Thomas recognises, as Galsworthy’s Soames does, that material success does not bring happiness.  ‘Senator’ and ‘house’ are superficialities’ he says, and he feels a sense of impending doom:

Something I’ve learned from life and history…I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things in reality have gone into decline already.  (p422)

As the firm encounters one difficulty after another, Thomas questions his own values, remembering a time when Christian had said ‘every businessman is basically a swindler‘ (p464) and he confronts the truth that there is a ruthlessness about it that he doesn’t like:

He remembered the impression that the catastrophe of ’66 had made on him, and he called to mind the overwhelming, unspeakable emotional pain.  He had lost a great deal of money – but that was not what was so unbearable.  For the first time in his life he had been forced to experience personally and completely just how cruel and brutal business can be, had watched as all his better, gentler and kinder sentiments had slunk away before the raw, naked, absolute instinct of self-preservation, had seen his friends, his best friends, respond to his misfortune not with sympathy, not with compassion, but with suspicion – cold, dismissive suspicion. (p461)

His exploitation of Herr Von Maiboom (an aristocrat married to one of Tony’s childhood friends) leaves him feeling ashamed, and it sours the celebration of the firm’s centenary, so much so that he is almost pleased when the contentious crop is ruined by hail.  His depression makes him bully his small son, belittling his musical talents and sapping his fragile self-confidence. Things go from bad to worse: the relief Tony felt when Hugo Winschenk was found as a husband for the unmarriageable Erika turns to ashes when he is convicted of insurance fraud and the reputation of the Buddenbrooks as a noble family is in tatters.

In contrast to the abrupt deaths when the family was in the ascendant, Grandmother Elizabeth dies shortly afterwards in a long, drawn out chapter detailing every last tortured breath.  (Mann also devotes considerable length to the painful scenes where Hanno and Thomas undergo tooth extractions!)  There is an undignified scramble over her possessions, and an unholy row when Christian announces that he now plans to marry his long-term mistress of dubious reputation – and adopt his illegitimate children as well.  To Tony’s distress, the house – the family home for generations – is now falling apart and must be sold (not only for much less than they think it’s worth but also to their long-term enemy), and the safe harbour that sustained her through all her troubles is gone.

As the reader comes to the remaining pages of this very long book ((731 pages) there is a compelling sense that all hope is lost.  Thomas’s frantic efforts to make little Hanno a more robust child fail, and gossip begins to circulate about his wife Gerda and a young lieutenant.  Christian becomes even more of a liability, and Thomas’s own health begins to fail.    Few guests visit the house and to their consternation, a mere shop-keeper has been elected to the senate.  Thomas’s final indignity is his collapse into the gutter after a visit to the dentist, and Part Eleven lists a veritable catalogue of deaths as the family and its connections meet their end. Tony is outraged when Christian marries his woman, especially when she puts him into a sanatorium and lives cheerfully on what’s left of the Buddenbrooks’ money.  The firm is liquidated, and then Thomas’s fine house has to be sold as well.

It seems a bit odd to me that the prelude to Hanno’s premature death from typhus and the final break-up of the family is a long – and it must be said, rather tedious – account of his adolescent travails at school.  The only thing that gives him pleasure in this very long day is music.   It’s rather incongruous in the overall structure of the book, as if the young author Thomas Mann is just getting some long-held resentments off his chest.  All it achieves is to interrupt the final scene where the aging women have nothing to hope for but reunion in an afterlife – and Tony doubts its existence.

One sour note mars this otherwise interesting book: casual anti-Semitism is  unfortunately not uncommon in 19th century literature, but it is doubly repugnant in German works because of the Holocaust.  I looked up the date of Mann’s death to see if he outlived the War and had a chance to revise the anti-Semitic asides in Part Eight of Buddenbrooks, (published in 1901) and was surprised to find not only that he lived till 1955, but that he had married a secular Jew in 1905.  Ample opportunity to make amends, but he did not.  You’d think a Nobel prize winning author would have been embarrassed about that…

Nancy at Silver Season has written a thoughtful review, picking up on aspects of this novel that I missed.

Author: Thomas Mann
Title: Buddenbrooks, the Decline of a Family
Translated by John E Woods
Publisher: Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf 1994 (first published 1901)
ISBN: 0679417370
Source: Kingston Library.


  1. An excellent — and very thorough — review of a novel for which I have much respect, Lisa. You deserve credit for taking the time to trace many of the threads that Mann develops. Buddenbrooks is not an easy read (and does have weaknesses, as you document) and is even harder to try to summarize.

    I see it as a study in decline — and your comparisons to The Forsyte Saga are most appropriate. I didn’t like or dislike Mann’s characters but I found them interesting and ended up caring about their stories. Yes, there is a Germanic stodginess to them all, but since that is my background I perhaps found that comforting rather than off-putting.

    I think the “anti-Semitism” i n the novel is an important stream — like the conflict between Munich and Prussia that you describe, it was part of the time and those of us who did not live then should be able to see it. This was what three decades later would produce the Holocast so I don’t fault Mann for describing it.

    For those who look at this extensive review and respond “this is just too much for me”, don’t yield to that. Mann does tell his story in an effective fashion, but Lisa is right that it is wise to allow the book some time so you can read it in digestible chunks (ugly metaphor, that).

    I don’t know if you have read The Magic Mountain, Lisa, but if you have not, consider scheduling it for next years holidays. And read the Everyman’s Library edition — the introduction does a very good good job of outling the elements of a novel that would be on my short list (yes, ahead of this one) as “best ever”.


  2. Thank you, Kevin – I must admit I was conscious that you were waiting to see what I made of this book and did my best to do it justice!
    It *has* whetted my appetite for more, but nay! thou shalt not tempt me with The Magic Mountain! Not yet!
    For if you check out my 2010 reading intentions on Library Thing, ( you will see that I have designated this The Year of European Literature LOL in an effort to tackle the backlog of great books on my TBR. Dr Faustus has been lingering there for a while, and so that’s the Mann that comes next!


  3. Sorry, Lisa, I hadn’t seen the list. I’ve started Dr Faustus twice and set it aside (not abandoned — just not the right time). I’ll admit that I am more interested in Mann’s observations about the world that he lived in — because it was a complex one and his observations have value — than his exploration of metaphors. But then again, someday I’ll get to that book.


    • Kevin, I think it was probably Mann’s observations about the world that he lived in that made Buddenbrooks so fascinating to me, so I may end up feeling the same!


  4. Hi Lisa, I’ve followed you here from GoodReads via Cynthia. Wonderful, thoughtful, thorough review. As someone who’s lived in Germany for the last thirty years, I can assure you that the attitude to Bavarian dialect is a cultural ‘given’: although the connection between accent and class is not as pronounced as in GB in the last century, nevertheless what was considered to be standard German was the language of the northern Hannover area and Bavarian, as coming from a rural and culturally conservative area, was connotated with backwardness and lack of sophistication. Oddly enough, nowadays it’s one of the few dialects that is acceptable, even politicians and other people in public life speak the local lingo.
    I also see Buddenbrooks very much as a novel of decadence, of the connection between Art and decadence, the idea that Art is something basically at odds with a robust and healthy life. This theme is definitely one that runs through Mann’s oeuvre: perhaps ‘Death in Venice’ might be a good place to go next? The theme of sickness and art continues there without it being quite as daunting as Magic Mountain!!


    • Hello, Karen, lovely to meet you – and we must befriend each other on Good Reads too!
      Thanks for explaining about the dialects – I find this kind of stuff fascinating because here in Australia everybody speaks more or less the same – although we do love to tease Queenslanders over their slightly broader accents LOL.
      The English, of course, are the experts at sorting social class by accent and dialogue…on our last trip to the UK, France and Italy, the only time we were completely flummoxed was when we were in Somerset and could not understand a word of what was being said to us.
      What I really like about having read Buddenbrooks is that I now have the pleasure of looking forward to reading the rest of Mann’s oeuvre. I love it when I discover a new author like this!


  5. A very fine review. I wrote something rather shorter on this book a year or so ago. I am a great admirer of Mann, who is near the top of my favourite author list. I tend to see the anti-semitism as a sort of historical inevitability – even Winston Churchill exhibited the same tendency. At least Mann fled Hitler’s Germany as Nazism gained power.


  6. Thanks, Tom – yes I agree about the anti-Semitism being part of the book’s place in time – but – wouldn’t you think that post-war he’d have written a preface to the next edition, pointing out that he was intentionally reflecting the prevailing attitudes of the period and didn’t have those attitudes himself? I think it’s important not to ‘normalise’ racism’, anti-Semitism, any kind of ‘ism’ even in literature.


  7. […] 1. Out of Africa (Heather J @ Age 30 …A Lifetime of Books)) 2. 3. Sexing The Cherry (Fluttering Butterflies) 4. A Pale View Of Hills (Fluttering Butterflies) 5. The Sun Also Rises (Fluttering Butterflies) 6. The House of Mirth (Caribousmom) 7. Buddenbrooks (Lisa Hill) […]


  8. This is one of my favourite German books, simply a wonderful work. I read and reviewed it a while back, and even though it is a long book, I felt it wasn’t a trial to read it all, even in German!

    There definitely is a feeling that Bavaria is a bit of a country cousin, less sophisticated in some ways than the more puritan north, and Permaneder does talk in Bavarian dialect. Your cowboy comment reminds me why I make the effort to read these books in the original! How did the translator bring across the platt-Deutsch which the people in Lübeck often speak?

    And yes, it is Toni :)


    • Hi Tony, I speak a smattering of tourist languages but nothing well enough to read a book in, except for Indonesian – and even that’s getting too rusty to read anything much now.
      That’s why I’m so pleased to see that (at least here in the Blogosphere if not in the print media) there is such interest in translated fiction – I have discovered so many wonderful books that I’d never even heard of before!


  9. […] (much later): I have since read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain (links are to my reviews) and can well understand why he won the Nobel […]


  10. […] be his masterwork.   It’s the third novel I’ve read by this author, the others being Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924), both written before Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929 […]


  11. […] homeland Germany.  At this time he had published, among many other works, Buddenbrooks, (1901, see my review); Death in Venice (1912); and The Magic Mountain (1924, see my review).  He had been awarded the […]


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