Thomas Mann’s lengthy novel “Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family” sounds likely to be more enriching than enjoyable. But this 1901 masterpiece, which earned Mann the Nobel Prize in literature, has simple, direct prose and an ironic tone that I often found to be laugh-out-loud funny. Mann grew up in Lübeck, and the novel, set between 1835 and 1877, chronicles the demise of a wealthy north German merchant family over the course of four generations, incidentally portraying the manner of life and mores of the Hanseatic bourgeoisie. Major historic events occur around the characters, such as the 1848 revolutions and the unification of the German empire in 1871, but these events have little obvious effect on any of them. Their destinies are almost entirely of their own making.
I developed great affection for the richly developed main characters, but Mann also draws even the most minor characters with quick, incisive strokes. One professor, for example, “suffered from occasional hemorrhaging of the lungs and always spoke in an ironic tone of voice, because he considered himself as clever as he was sickly.” The food descriptions also fascinated me. Christmas dinner was quite familiar, but then there were other meals, such as “good breakfasts of shrimps and port wine” and snacks of “lemon buns with breast of goose,” that defied comprehension.
Almost every German is familiar with “Buddenbrooks,” but few Americans I know have read it. I can’t recommend John E. Woods’ lucid translation highly enough to people traveling to Hamburg and Lübeck. Indeed, I found the book so charming that I’d recommend it to anyone.