Saturday 7 May 2011

Mann, Thomas "Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family"

Mann, Thomas "Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family" (German: Buddenbrooks) - 1901

I have read "Buddenbrooks" a couple of times and think this is one of the best books of German literature. It is usually described as Thomas Mann's masterpiece. The author is definitely one of Germany's most famous and best writers. The novel, an epic story, dates from 1901 and describes the life in a wealthy merchant family over several decades from the 1800s until the beginning of the twentieth century. The story is based on the author's own family who lived in Lübeck, the town where this novel takes place. It belonged to the Hanseatic League which "was an alliance of trading guilds that established and maintained a trade monopoly over the Baltic Sea, to a certain extent the North Sea, and most of Northern Europe for a time in the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period, between the 13th and 17th centuries" (an early European Union, if you wish). Quite an interesting part of the history of that part of Northern Europe.

A wonderful novel, rich expressions, perfect detailed writing, also about some important history that isn't described very often. If you enjoy history and would like to learn more about Germany at the beginning of the last century, this is the book for you. But even if you are not interested in history, this is also a great family saga, one that will never leave you again. A family that was so rich and important and had so much influence on the politics and economy of a whole town and region and who can't to cope with the changes into modern life. Read it. You won't regret it.

In our new international book club, we were asked to suggest our favourite book from our country. I didn't have to think long, it had to be "Buddenbrooks". Granted, it is a long story and that's probably one of the reaons why I love it so much but I was not the only one. We had a good discussion about all the different parts of the book, all the different subjects it covers.

There is so much more to this novel than just the decline of the family Buddenbrook. Rather, the decline of the whole society, especially the wealthy part of it, was discussed, the revolution, the lower classes who didn't put up with the bad treatment and poor salaries the received. Not any longer. All that led to the downfall of certain families, not everyone could keep up with their status after a lot was taken away from them.

The beginning of this was already shown in Tony's meeting with Morton, the student who told her about the different types of classes in society, who tried to open her eyes. Then there was Tony herself, always making the wrong decisions because she had to keep up appearances. Christian, the second brother in the family Buddenbrook, was more or less born into the wrong family but other than his nephew Hanno who seems to just like his uncle, he doesn't have anyone who understands him. Then, finally, Thomas Buddenbrook, the son and heir to a dynasty who doesn't see that the times are a-changing, who believes being named Senator will set him up forever and ever.

Well, the Buddenbrooks are a merchant family, one of the "first families in town". They got rich through their trade which was helped through the Hanseatic League which can be seen as a pre-European Union during a time where there were many many more little countries in Europe than there are today. It existed from the 13th to the 17th centuries and occupied most of the land fromt he Baltic and the North Sea, almost all of the Northern part of the European mainland and more than 300 cities were a member.

It is not surprising that the Buddenbrooks became rich as one of the leaders of Lübeck which was considered the Queen of the Hanseatic League. And it also not surprising that the family came to its end when the union that had helped them for so long did so, as well.

Even though Thomas Mann was still quite young when he wrote this novel (26 years old), it was mainly for this work that he received the Nobel Prize and "Buddenbrooks" is generally considered the first social novel and is considered "the greatest novel of the century".

Read it. You won't regret it.

From the back cover:

"Thomas Mann's first novel, Buddenbrooks, is drawn from his own life and experience.

The Decline of a Family, his story of a prosperous Hanseatic merchant family and their gradual disintegration is also an extraordinary portrayal of the transition from the stable bourgeois life of the nineteenth century to a modern uncertainty. "

We discussed this in our international book club in August 2007 and in February 2015.

See more comments on my ThrowbackThursday post in 2024.

I also read "The Magic Mountain".

Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 "principally for his great novel, 'Buddenbrooks', which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature".

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.
I was lucky to be able to visit the Buddenbrook House in Lübeck, you can read about my experience here.


  1. Just left this comment on Read the Nobels.
    A wonderful book indeed. One of the best books I have read. The prose is the most wonderful I have read, although I read it in Swedish. My review is here:

    I recently read an excellent biography of Thomas Mann and his family, quite interesting. It is The Mann Family by Tilmann Lahme, It gives a thorough background to his production.

    I have recently read Death in Venice, and another three novellas by him. I think these do not come up to the high quality of Buddenbrooks. I am eager to read The Magic Mountain and Dr Faustus. Have you read anything else by him? Thank you for the tips of the museum. I live not far from Lübeck so will have the possibility to visit, once these pandemic is over.

    1. Ooooh, lovely. Thanks for letting me know, I'll go over there and have a look. I am glad it made it into Swedish so well. Mind you, the languages are related, so it's easier to translate and keep to the style, I suppose.

      I have not read the biography you talk about but have read a lot about Thomas Mann and his family, extraordinary people who made it through difficult times. I'll put this book on my wishlist, though, thank you for the tip.

      I must confess, I haven't read anything else by Thomas Mann other than "The Magic Mountain" (fantastic! but not the same as Buddenbrooks) and "Death in Venice". At least with the latter I have to agree with you, not comparable. I have "A Man and his Dog" (Herr und Hund) on my TBR list, will have to read that soon.

      Lovely that you don't live far from Lübeck. Where in Sweden are you situated. My son is in Göteborg at the moment, having done his masters there for the last two years. We have moved back to Germany last year and now live about 2 1/2 hours from Lübeck (if the Autobahn is free, LOL). We'll certainly go again - also after the pandemic, it's a lovely city, also worth visiting if you have no interest in literature, the Buddenbrooks or Thomas Mann whatsoever.

      Lovely that you replied on the Nobel page. I don't get many comments there. Do you follow the page?

      Thanks for your visit.

    2. After having read the biography I read four novellas by him, Death in Venice, Tristan, Mario and the Magican and Tonio Kröger. I don't think any of them can compete with Buddenbrooks. I see them more as stories about his homosexuality. I agree with you about the story in Death in Venice. It is very sensitively written and an amazing 'love story' although they never really meet and talk to each other. I put my hopes to The Magic Mountain, and possibly Dr Faustus. Somehow, I feel that nothing can compare to Buddenbrooks when it comes to prose.
      How wonderful your son is in Sweden! I am not so familiar with Gothenburg, but it is a beautiful city. 'The face to Europe' as the people there say, being on the west coast! I live in Malmö, close to the bridge to Denmark. It is not far at all to Lübeck. I have passed by many times on my way Brussels - Malmö, but never had time to stop. I have visited Stralsund and Wismar so Rostock and Lübeck are high on my list. One day when this pandemic is over or going into resting mood.

    3. I'm not a huge fan of novellas anyway, I love big books. But if I like an author, I usually try more of them. I have "Herr und Hund" (A Man and his Dog) on my TBR list, I'll definitely read that soon.

      I'm sure you'll love The Magic Mountain but I have to agree, nothing can compare to Buddenbrooks. One of my all time favourite books. I have introduced it twice to a book club and they always liked it, even though many don't like big books.

      It's interesting that you live in Malmö. My son wanted to study in Sweden and the first town on his list was Malmö. But he got Göteborg. He's very happy there, though.

      Västküsten är bästküsten. 😃

      Next time you go to Brussels, you'll have to visit me, I live very close to the A1. I'm sure we'd have a lot to talk about.

  2. This sounds so good. I cannot wait to read it. As you know I loved The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice was impressive as well and I cannot imagine Mann writing something better. Since this novel won him the Nobel Prize, it must be. I think I will enjoy it immensely.

    I am sorry for this personal question, but cannot help but be curious - do you live in Germany? Or Brussels as the previous conversation hints? I lived in Brussels for 3 years too, as a trainee (now the UK) - liked it.

  3. Thanks, Diana, "Buddenbrooks" is my absolute favourite by Thomas Mann but I also love his other books, so I am sure you will like it.

    I don't mind personal questions at all. I also mention it in my profile, so it's no secret. I lived abroad about half my life but we went back to Germany when my husband retired two years ago. Before that, we have lived in the Netherlands for twenty years, the UK (Bucks) in the nineties and in Brussels about forty years ago. We have always gone back there for visits and will do so even more often in future since our youngest son just moved there last year. It's probably my favourite town of all.

    If you have any other questions, you are welcome to send my an e-mail. My address is in my profile.

  4. Did you ever read "Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull"?

    1. Nope, that's still on my wishlist. Have to think about it the next time I'm in a larger bookshop.