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.
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.
The rest of my review has multiple spoilers, so only click here to the original review on my ANZ LitLovers blog if you have already read the book.
I read this book in December 2010.
Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.
Lisa Hill, Melbourne, Australia