Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

April Books 4) Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, by Thomas Mann

steve_mollmann has been urging me literally for years to read this, as have others, and I finally made it - even tried the first few chapters in German, but got a bit stuck on obscure articles of clothing and furniture that I wasn't taught in school (apparently a "Vatermörder" is a stiff collar, not someone who has killed their father).

Anyway, the Woods translation did me very well. It's the story of the Buddenbrook family in Lübeck in the 19th century, and how things basically go downhill for Tom and Tony, the son and daughter of Consul Jean/Johann Buddenbrook who built up the business empire, and at the end an account of the childhood of Tom's son Hanno. The history of Germany rumbles by in the background, 1848 and 1871 and so on glanced at in passing; but Mann is much more interested in the family dynamics of the siblings (there's also a disinherited half-brother, a disreputable younger brother and a much younger sister who gets married off to a Baltic clergyman) tied up with continual and increasing worries about money. There are a lot of interesting things in the telling, about architecture, colour and music (this last especially important both for Hanno and his disreputable uncle Christian), and I can see why one might want to come back to it again.

At the same time, it feels like a bit of a literary sidetrack. Yes, it draws in a good way on Middlemarch and War and Peace, but I think that both are better books in themselves, and also both are more satisfactorily linked to the politics of their setting. Mann is perhaps a bit better at engaging our interest in characters who are themselves pretty flawed. At a time when European loved family sagas like this, you can understand that it won him his Nobel prize. Yet 1902 was the year that Joyce graduated from UCD, Virginia Woolf had just wound up her studies at King's College London, and Proust was getting to grips with translating Ruskin. Greater things were around the corner.

I do appreciate, with tinges of regret, the care taken by Woods in translating the various German accents and dialects. Lübeck and Hamburg are close but different; Tony's second husband is Bavarian, and Woods translates him as an American redneck, rough at the edges but with a heart of gold, encountering a much posher set of in-laws. It's hilarious and effective, though of course it introduces a slightly different dynamic; the original Herr Permaneder is actually a proud Central European, always going on about the mountains and the beer of his homeland in nearly impenetrable Bayrisch, and the Munich/Lübeck dynamic is completely different from the Texas/Sussex dynamic. So, while it's very entertaining, it's also a bit of a step from the original authorial intent. I guess it's unavoidable. Certainly, "Why, howdy do?" is a decent enough translation of "Ja, grüß Eana Gott!" and I don't think a translation could be much more accurate without excessive resort to footnotes.
Tags: bookblog 2014

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