Thursday 11 September 2014

Read in 2014 - 31: Die Buddenbrooks

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:
Cover picture of the 1903 edition, same as mine, only without the line "Berlin 1903".
„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 L├╝beck. 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).


  1. I've wanted to read this since an English professor talked about it one afternoon in 1964, but you can see that I never wanted it too strongly. And now that I realize how long it is and perhaps depressing I suspect there is less chance that I will really read it! But I commend you for doing this, and your sister for getting these books together for you.

    1. Dear Kristi, the book isn't as depressing as maybe I have made it sound. It actually has some rather humorous bits in it. Yes, it is long, but that should not stop you from giving it a go. It took me a long time to finish, but that was mostly due to me reading only a few (short) chapters at a time before sleeping, and never many hours in one single "sitting" :-)

  2. I like the concept of the book and it's in a country and of a period about which i know next to nothing and therefore I would doubtless learn and might even enjoy. However I really can't imagine that I will ever get around to putting it on my list. I often wish that I could read more quickly and think that I should re-order the priorities in my life so that I read more.

    1. If you are happy with the amount of reading you do, and the kind of books you read, then I don't see why you should re-order priorities.
      What you say about the period about which you know next to nothing was pretty much true for me, too; I did learn a lot in that respect from the book.

    2. As always, Meike, you bring a needed element of sound common sense to things. Why should I indeed?