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JonathanPeto

JonathanPeto

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Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family - Thomas Mann I read a review recently of a historical novel. The reviewer believed that most historical novels fail, because they depict characters with a modern consciousness. These characters often defy the thinking of their times and act in ways that we can approve of. This novel is not historical fiction, but the fact that it was written over a hundred years ago and is full of completely recognisable, very vivid, and obviously historically accurate characters is just one of the things that wowed me about this book, Thomas Mann's first. Sure, the characters do not hold all our values, but they are so like us, in good ways and bad ways, that it reminded me that our lives, in a sense, have been lived before.

And that is humbling. But the book is so well-written, filled with so many beautiful passages, so many extremely clear depictions of important aspects of life. The realisation that all these emotions and situations have occurred before, millions of times, in millions of places, usually without an amazing novelist as witness, isn't even scary (most of the time) because I was just so impressed with Mann's ability to touch on so much. He writes about a specific family during a specific time period but makes it breath-takingly universal. Some characters appear throughout, but there are many viewpoints. Curiously, the novel, though clearly "literary", may even be an early example of a sub genre, the business novel, though I really have no idea how far back that sub genre goes. The Buddenbrooks are merchants, and the business environment, livelihoods, is a lively and interesting element of the novel's setting. The Buddenbrooks' decline and their business savvy is linked. We hear so much about today's changing economy; we ponder the unknowns and calculate, but that too, it is apparent from this novel, is not unique, even though differences between today and yesteryear obviously abound, humans have looked over similar precipices before...

It's an old novel, but I found it very readable and modern. Most chapters are short. A lot of exposition and description are not incorporated within "action", as may be more the norm today, but it was not monotonous or boring. If you want to see examples of lively exposition and lively "telling, not showing" that sparkles, read Buddenbrooks. Mann moved between exposition and scenes without apparent effort, and the scenes are exquisite. I'll try to recall some of them without giving too much away while hinting at their scope: banquets full of innumerable characters, siblings in their twenties playing it cool, young adults at the beach with their whole lives ahead of them, school days, class distinctions at play between various characters in various situations, characters with broken dreams rationalising, broken men at the beach relaxing, going to the dentist, playing music, getting sucked into a philosophy book for the day, shirking responsibilities, facing death, and much, much more.