Sunday, August 21, 2011

Buddenbrooks (1901)

I'm familiar only with the classic H.T. Lowe-Porter translation of Thomas Mann's first novel; even though I found the John E. Woods translation of The Magic Mountain a bit better than Lowe-Porter's, with Buddenbrooks it's more just a matter of sticking with the copy I have, a problem of being a cheapskate. I'm no Thomas Mann scholar—just a fan, at least of the two novels by him that I know and like best. Buddenbrooks is another outsize work, but rather more straightforward than The Magic Mountain, backfilling with 19th-century German history where Mountain tends to use philosophy and other sports of the intellect. In a way it's kind of a straight version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, taking a middle-class family of German merchants and tracing their decline across a few generations (the Woods translation, indeed, bears the subtitle The Decline of a Family). As always, Mann is preoccupied with the place of the creative soul in the modernizing world, a world often defined and controlled by monied interests. The most likeable people also tend to be the most naïve, and many times the least likeable are the most successful. So it goes, as someone said elsewhere of other circumstances. But there's much more to Mann and Buddenbrooks than just artist and businessman. Mann's language is so elegant and charming, even in translation, that it really does make me wonder what it must be like in the original German. His characters are richly detailed, uniquely human, and almost always recognizable one way or another. They are people we know. And Mann's ability to construct a narrative that feels as big as an ocean, one to simply dive into knowing the way is sure, is a pleasure and probably accounts for why I consider him still my favorite of the great European novelists. Buddenbrooks is his first, and even if it never seems to me to read like a first novel in virtually any way, I think I'd still point to it as the best place to start if you're ever thinking of making a project of reading him. Oddly enough, perhaps, I have struggled with a good deal of the rest of his oeuvre: I like his stories and shorter pieces, such as "Death in Venice," but rarely feel moved to return to them. On numerous occasions I have struggled with and never finished the Felix Krull novel. And while lately I have been making my way (slowly) through the Joseph and His Brothers quartet, and find them pleasurable enough, they are a bit more deeply Biblical than suits my taste. But Buddenbrooks I love.

In case it's not at the library.

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