Saturday, August 13

Considering Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks"

No one writes like Thomas Mann anymore. The Pulitzer Prize this year went to a series of interconnected short stories. Modern mobile technology is waiting for the app that finally brings nano-fiction to the masses. Even those who are still writing elephantine tomes prefer the micro. Adam Levin's The Instructions spent one thousand pages on four days. I know no contemporary writer who still crafts decade-spanning literary epics.

On the one hand, I appreciate this. If this was the trend still, I would consider myself fortunate to finish a novel every month. On the other hand, I am glad that we have Mann. Buddenbrooks is thick and slow. Mann cannot help but to record everything that happens in the lives of the titular family. Nothing is too minor, too inconsequential in the family's descent from the heights of society to mention. Every character who appears for the briefest moment, the man who reads a poem at a family dinner, the teacher who says nothing while watching the high school students between classes, receives two pages worth of physical description and motivation.

The book is thick, the book is slow and the book is beautiful. Part of it is Buddenbrooks' sheer density. In short stories there is no time or space to lose yourself in the narrative. The techniques are clear. The mass of words in Buddenbrooks obscures the craft. The family's fate is foreshadowed in the first chapters, but it's lost amid all the rest. The final chapters include a page of reference to the trials of Job, and I almost lost the significance in the comparison to the Buddenbrooks' own fortunes. All the words make it seem natural and unforced.

The writing itself is great. Better still is Mann's treatment of his characters. The central triumvirate of Thomas, Christian and Antonie Buddenbrooks are no less ridiculous than any other character in the novel. They have their vanities and other flaws, same as Therese Weichbrodt or Alois Permaneder, but they have their pride, their honor, too. They have their sympathy. It's a remarkable treatment and portrait of these characters.

Just, wow, what a novel.

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