For my birthday present (back in March), my sister gave me a pile of books with the intention of doing something about the dreadful state of my reading. To improve the literary quality of what I was feeding my mind, she had put together a collection of books that are very good, classic examples of German literature of the 20th century. She put them in a chronological reading order for me, and I have only just now finished the first one:
„Die Buddenbrooks“ (literally translated „The Buddenbrooks“, but the English translation is simply called „Buddenbrooks“) is a novel by Thomas Mann, first published in 1901, when Mann was 26 years old and 28 years before he would win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The story covers the years 1835 to 1875 in the life of the Buddenbrook family, wealthy merchants living in the northern German town of Lübeck. It took the author three years to complete, and he wrote a lot of his own family history and circumstances into it, allowing for much detail in even the most (seemingly) trivial things such as clothing, the sound of a voice, personal habits, the food on the table, the layout of a house, and so on.
Due to all that minute detail, the book boasts 759 pages to tell a story that could be told much shorter: The family face problems in their personal lives as well as in business; their elders (and some of their young ones) die, their young ones get married (or not), have children, are successful (some more so, some less) in business and local politics, but there is an atmosphere of inevitable decline throughout the four generations portrayed.
The characters are very lifelike, each with their faults and virtues, each with something to like and something to irritate the reader, just like real people are. The minute detail in all aspects makes for vivid pictures rising before the reader’s inner eye; I know there have been several TV adaptations of the book, and I will surely watch one of them soon (because my sister has it on DVD) to see how close it is to the book and how good my imagination was.
It took me a while to get into the story, and I never found it to be quite the page-turner, but I held on until the end and was moderately saddened by the way some threads of the story turned out.
There were a few surprises; for instance, several times expressions are used I had no idea were already known in the second half of the 19th century, and I also had not expected the family members dealing with each other in such an open, emotional and even fun-loving and tender manner, although bound by the strict conventions of their times.
Of course Thomas Mann's writing is of a quality a lot of my other reading material can not even remotely compare with; apart from my weekly paper "Die Zeit", I don't read much German, so this was a welcome change.
If you look up "Buddenbrooks" on wikipedia, you will find a lot of information about the book and its author (in English).