The spheres of art and the imagination have painfully little
in common with business, trade and finance, and some
might go so far as to see these two vocations, the artist
and the manager, as diametrically opposed in their values
and perspectives.  This tension manifests itself in many
ways, but with particular intensity in the field of the
novel.   

Put simply, fiction has trouble dealing with the engines of
the economy in a plausible, realistic manner.  Storytellers
are far more comfortable treating
business as a source of comedy,
or as an inspiration for farce,
caricature, melodrama or social
critique; but nothing is rarer in
fiction than a penetrating, realistic
account of commerce that would
ring true with those who have
experienced the flux and ardor of
life in the throes of the marketplace.  

True, there are exceptions.  Joseph
Conrad in
Nostromo confronts the
subject head on and needs neither to
aggrandize (
The Fountainhead) nor mythologize (The Great
Gatsby
) nor satirize ("Bartleby the Scrivener")—all proper
and reasonable stances, needless to say, but each a kind of
distortion, even if a pleasing distortion.  For every novel
of business that rings true—
The Rise of Silas Lapham,
American Pastoral, Seize the Day—we have dozens that
strike a more clangorous tone.  By comparison, readers
seeking realistic novels about university life or organized
crime or bohemian treks on the road have no shortage of
fine works awaiting them.  If, as Calvin Coolidge once
claimed, the business of America is business, apparently no
one told the novelists.

But the preeminent novel of business, in my opinion,
comes from outside of the annals of American fiction.
Thomas Mann's
Buddenbrooks, published in 1901, reveals
the kind of vivid, intimate sense of the inner life and outer
drama of the industrialist's domain that one seeks for in
vain among other novelists.  To find a more accurate
accounting of the business life, one would need to be able
to read a balance sheet and cash flow statement.

RELATED REVIEWS
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

Mann had good reason to understand this world with
such intense awareness. At the time of his father's death
in 1991, the family’s grain business had just celebrated its
one hundredth anniversary.  Mann himself had focused his
secondary school studies on science and mathematics,
rather than the humanities, because he was preparing for
a career as a merchant.  He struggled as a student, rarely
making much headway in the classroom; nor did he show
enough aptitude to take on responsibility for the family
enterprise.  Thus a key theme of
Buddenbrooks—namely
the pressures on the younger generation to maintain and
build on the foundations of an inherited commercial
firm—were very much a part of the novelist's upbringing.  

Much of Mann's own early circumstances finds its way
into these pages. The
Buddenbrooks family, like the Manns,
operate a successful grain business, which has remained in
their control over several generations.   Almost every
member of the Buddenbrook household is based on a
member of Mann’s own family—resemblances that stirred
up some tension among the novelist's relatives after the
work’s publication in 1901.  Even the street names are the
same as those found in Mann’s native Lübeck in Northern
Germany.

Buddenbrooks represents, in many ways, the antithesis of
the novels of rags-to-riches that were so popular among
American readers around the time Mann's book was
published.  (A
recent study of the borrowing habits of
an Indiana public library from that period found that
Horatio Alger, the master of such stories, was the single
most popular author, accounting for one out of every
twenty books checked out by patrons.)  If the New World
saw its future in stories of financial advancement, Mann's
Old World merchant families worried about preserving
their fragile inheritance from the past.

Mann's novel—which carries the subtitle 'The Decline of a
Family'—begins in 1835, a juncture that will prove to be
the high point of the Buddenbrooks' success story.   
Johann Buddenbrook, son of the founder of the family
firm, has rewarded himself for his worldly achievements
by moving into a stately house, a monument to both his
commercial success and stolid Lutheranism. By the close
of the work—some two generations and 42 years later—
little remains, whether of family, firm or home.  In the
intervening pages, Mann presents a collapse in slow
motion, often painfully slow motion, but no less damaging
for the ambling pace at which it unfolds.

At a superficial level, Buddenbrooks is a novel of great
banality.  The characters who reside in these pages face no
heroic challenges, engage in no tumultuous love affairs,
encounter no heinous villains or dramatic obstacles.  By
conventional standards, their situation is hardly the stuff
of tragedy—indeed, many readers will look at their
comfortable situation as semi-affluent heirs blessed with
possessions, prestige and money in the bank and see the
opposite of tragedy.  The Buddenbrooks rank among
those who hold winning tickets in life's lottery, and as
such might seem immune to our pity or concern.

Yet the very brilliance of this novel derives from the
unprepossessing nature of the decline that afflicts such
folks.  One does not need to be Shakespeare to evoke
pathos from the downfall of a Prince of Denmark or
King of Scotland, but the ever-so-gradual fall from grace
of a grain merchant presents a different set of challenges
to the author.  Instead of a glaring tragic flaw, the novelist
must carefully evoke a series of smaller vices—vanity,
petulance, envy, hypochondria—that individually take
little toll, but cumulatively serve as milestones on a
protracted journey of dissipation and decay.  

A strange claustrophobic quality pervades these pages.
Mann is especially sensitive to the peculiar nature of
family businesses, in which private household matters
and public fortunes become inextricably mixed, just as
past decisions by those long gone come to weigh all too
heavily on the dictates of the present and the looming
demands of the future. These are rich, deep matters, and
perhaps most profoundly addressed via the novel, which
can bring them to life in ways that not even the discursive
essay or sociological study can match. But even with the
leeway granted by fiction, few novelists could do justice
to the insidious, cumulative, faltering nature of such a
humble tragedy.  

Indeed, Max Weber's much lauded book
The Protestant
Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
(1905) seems in many ways
to echo themes that Mann developed with much greater
emotional power in
Buddenbrooks, a work that anticipated
the sociologist's effort by four years.  But Mann presents
the flip side of Weber’s argument—instead of showing
how the firmly-held values of the rising business class
spurred capital accumulation and worldly success, our
novelist reveals what happens when this precarious
rapport between spiritual hygiene and financial reward
erodes and is ultimately torn asunder.  The two works
ought to be read in tandem, for both stand out for their
grasp of the often hidden relationship between character
and commerce, the metaphysical and
the economic.

There is also heavy irony at play here. This semi-
autobiographical novel of protracted failure achieved a
commercial success that allowed Mann to live comfortably
while devoting his full energies to writing—without
having to worry about the family business.  To some
degree,
Buddenbrooks set the stage for Mann's later
masterworks, such as
The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice
and
Dr. Faustus.  In each of those works, Mann reveals his
obsession with illness and physical decline, and how they
can sometimes co-exist with creative ferment and
personal transfiguration.  And aren't those evocations
of the human organism in a strange, almost industrious
kind of decline merely variants on the familial
deterioration that he portrays with such intensity in
Buddenbrooks?  In this debut novel, we not only encounter
this downfall presented in vivid, moving terms, but see
more clearly than in any of Mann’s other works how
much that strange admixture of success and failure was
part of his personal inheritance.
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Buddenbrooks

by Thomas Mann

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Selected Reviews
(2007-2012)
BY TED GIOIA

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