Thomas Mann, the humorous German: comedy in ‘Buddenbrooks’

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Thomas Mann, the humorous German: comedy in ‘Buddenbrooks’

Thomas Mann in 1905

Thomas Mann is usually perceived as a difficult, ponderous, heavyweight novelist.  But he can also be very funny.  The serious subject matter, historical sweep and philosophical themes of Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901) have led most readers to ignore the comic, ironic and satiric tone that enlivens his first and perhaps greatest novel.  Comedy lightens the mood and enables the characters to endure their personal and professional disasters and the many deaths that occur.

The comic elements in the novel have a structural as well as a thematic function, as it races toward its tragic climax with the early death of Hanno, the sole male heir, from typhoid.  As in Moby-Dick, where Melville eliminates the detailed cetology chapters and speeds up the narrative as Captain Ahab pursues the whale, Mann eliminates the comedy (apart from satirising Hanno’s schoolteachers) as the once-prosperous family declines and finally disappears.  At the end of the novel Tom tries to enjoy a book of jokes and humorous stories, but moans and shoves it away in disgust.  His son Hanno, instead of weeping during the ritualistic ceremony and exaggerated mourning, cannot suppress a ridiculous and distressing laugh at Tom’s deathbed.

Mann uses the recurrent leitmotif, an emphasis on particular personal habits and mannerisms, to define his characters.  This technique, invented by Homer and patented by Mann’s hero Richard Wagner, familiarises readers with the characters and wittily distinguishes each one from the dozens of others in this well-populated novel.  Both comic and ironic, the leitmotif makes the figures in the book seem like old friends, locked in their idiosyncrasies, whose eccentric but predictable behaviour we learn to recognise and understand.

The Buddenbrooks’ mother Bethsy says “Assez” in response to anything unpleasant  or upsetting.  Her daughter Tony keeps saying that she is a silly goose, though she gains awareness from her many setbacks.  She repeats Morten Schwarzkopf’s statement that honey is a pure product of nature, echoes (without believing) his radical political views, and adopts his phrase “sitting on the rocks” as she remembers their idyllic time together and longs for her lost love.  Her immaculately dressed brother Tom chain-smokes Russian cigarettes and keeps his moustache pointed with iron tongs.  Both Tom’s wife Gerda and his delicate son Hanno have unhealthy bluish shadows around their eyes.  Aunt Klothilde has an enormous appetite but remains painfully pale and thin.  The three jealous, spiteful and malicious spinster cousins take endless delight in Tony’s marital misfortunes.

Buddenbrooks (1909)

Tony’s disgraceful first husband Bendix Grünlich has golden mutton-chop whiskers that are powdered like gilded walnuts at Christmas.  Old Dr. Grabow invariably prescribes, for every illness, a useless diet of a little squab and a little French bread.  The tiny hunchbacked teacher Sesame Weichbrodt always bestows an explosive kiss on the forehead and exclaims, “Be happy, you good chawld!,” though this greeting becomes increasingly inappropriate and difficult as the child grows older and taller.  The real estate broker Siegismund Gosch, who regrets not being hunchbacked, strives to look like a crafty villain.  He fails to complete, or scarcely start, his translation of the collected dramas of Lope de Vega, who wrote (though Mann doesn’t mention it) 1,800 plays.

Mann’s comic portrayal of religion begins on the first page when Tony’s sceptical grandfather makes fun of the child’s prayers.  She recites that God provides fields and cattle.  Gently mocking her, he asks about the price of those holdings and how much she wants for a sack of wheat, and is reproached by his son for “making fun of he most sacred matters again!”  Pious Bethsy is simply infatuated by the hypocritical and parasitical clergymen who find a comfortable haven in her home.  When a visiting pastor asks their servant, “Dost thou love the Master?”, she misunderstands him and confuses her boss with Jesus.  Tony, loathing the men in black who devour widow’s houses, discourages their gross appetites by serving a revolting stew, and declares “we don’t need any middlemen between us and our God.”

The most outrageous example is Pastor Teary Trieschke, who has a wife and numerous children in Berlin, and whose eyes well up during his own sermons.  He sends a billet doux with strangely obsequious endearments to Tony’s bedroom and is instantly banished from the house.  Tony’s sister Clara, with her mother Bethsy on the harmonium, reads aloud cloying passages from “Sweet Baby Jesus” books.  Though Clara has no children during her marriage to Pastor Tiburtius, he persuades her to send a deathbed request to Bethsy asking that her inheritance be left to him.  Knowing that Tom would strongly object, Bethsy secretly sends Clara’s money to the devious Tiburtius and Tom is furious when he discovers their duplicity.

On her visit to a school friend in Munich, Tony declares her hatred for the Catholicism of Bavaria, and reports home that a high dignitary of the Church, perhaps an archbishop, “leered at me from his carriage window as if he were a lieutenant of the guard!”   When Tony, given to emotional excess, presents Tom with a heavy ceremonial plaque on the hundredth anniversary of his firm, “she looked so thrilled and was straining so hard that she might have been a martyr in ecstasy,” perhaps in the manner of Bernini’s celebrated statue of Saint Teresa in Rome.

The first of Tony’s unsuitable suitors is the aggressive, oleaginous and mendacious Bendix Grünlich, whose name suggests greenish slime and who thrusts his way into the family garden like a snake crawling into Eden.  He flatters everyone, puts on airs and is inordinately pleased with himself.  Unlike Tony, Tom and their brother Christian, who immediately penetrate Grünlich’s façade and see the absurdity of his phony character, manners and behaviour, their worldly and experienced parents are actually quite impressed by him.  Tony tearfully asks, “What does that man want from me!  What have I ever done to him?”— meaning both “how have I affected him?” and “how have I harmed him?”  Following the dictates of her heart, she contemptuously mocks Grünlich and says she cannot endure him.  When he threatens to kill himself if Tony doesn’t accept him, Tom takes him seriously and absurdly asks Tony if she’s willing to bear the responsibility for his death.  When she rejects his exaggerated proposal, he theatrically falls on his knees and pleads, “then you do not wish to slay me?”  When she tries to console him by saying “no, I don’t despise you,” he springs to his feet and falsely tries to trap her by claiming, “you’ve given your word.”

Tom eases Tony’s pressure to marry and gives her time to acquiesce in the fateful decision by sending her on a holiday to the nearby seaside resort of Travemunde.  While there she meets Grünlich’s antithesis, the handsome and charming medical student Morten Schwarzkopf.  His gruff harbourmaster father rebukes Morten for putting on airs when talking about metabolism and referring to water as H20.  He and Tony soon fall in love; she promises to marry him as soon as he becomes a doctor and he sweetly kisses her on the mouth.  But while Tony is sleeping upstairs and unable to make her choice, Grünlich suddenly appears.  Determined to secure her considerable dowry, he falsely claims that he’s engaged to her.  Morten is unjustly berated by his father for trying to marry above his station and is forced to give up Tony forever.  Grünlich takes pleasure in outwitting and humiliating his rival.

Sue Prideaux’s description (in her recent life of Friedrich Nietzsche I Am Dynamite) of women’s education in nineteenth-century Germany explains why Tony obeys her parents’ wishes and unwillingly accepts Grünlich.  The teacher’s job was “to overlay a girl’s individuality and to equip her instead with a synthetic identity, pressing her into the sugarcoated mould of the perfect marriageable maiden, a tabula rasa prepared to take the impress of whatever husband should rule her future.”  Grünlich’s  discreet but repulsive kiss dabbed against her brow is a marked contrast to Morten’s tender expression of his love.

Grünlich and Tony marry. They move to Hamburg, where Tony thinks the banker Kesselmeyer is her husband’s closest friend.  When Tony tells him, “Grünlich claims I’m driving him to ruin,” he bursts into riotous laughter and exclaims, “That’s quite, quite, quite funny.”  But the banker is more dangerous when his behaviour is merry.  As Grünlich descends into bankruptcy, Kesselmeyer (with first claim on his assets) demands payment of his considerable debts.  He feels enormous Schadenfreude at his friend’s desperate cringing and insults him by shouting: “You have the conscience of the butcher’s dog, but you’re a loser, a dolt, a poor fool.”

Grünlich summons Tom from Lübeck to rescue him.  Kesselmeyer states that the desperate debtor owes precisely 68,755 marks and 15 shillings. Tom asks if he’s willing to grant an extension and the banker responds with a burst of immoderate amusement: “He laughed with his mouth open, in good-natured spasms, without any trace of mockery. . . . his whole face, twisted and deformed by this excess of mirth, turned vermilion.”  Grünlich makes another false threat to kill himself, which Tom now ignores.  Kesselmeyer takes even more hilarious pleasure in telling Tom that all Grünlich’s creditors falsified their books and tricked Tom into accepting him so they could get Tony’s dowry.  The supposedly clever Tom finally realises that he’s been disgracefully deceived by both Grünlich and Kesselmeyer, and has ruined Tony’s life by believing them. Only then is Tony permitted to divorce her swindler husband.

Grünlich’s repeated falling on his knees, threats of suicide and financial deceptions—first when trying to marry Tony, then when begging Tom to save him from bankruptcy—as well as Tom’s question to Tony — “do you love your husband?” — which Tony repeats to her daughter Erika when her husband Hugo Weinschenk is sent to jail, are comic versions of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence.  In another Nietzschean parody, Mann’s fictional characters leave for Hamburg, Munich, Amsterdam, London, Riga and Valparaiso, but all make the eternal return to Lübeck.

Old Town and River Trav, Lübeck, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

On her visit to Munich, Tony had met the oddly-named Alois Permaneder, a rather crude but congenial companion who showed her around the city, though he had never entered the famous Museum of Art History.  He comes to Lübeck on business, but the servants cannot understand his Bavarian dialect and think he’s a foreigner.  He presents his imperfect calling card, X. Noppe & Co., deleting the name of his former partner and leaving himself as the remaining “Co.”  Hoping to please Tony’s potential husband with a splendid feast of fish on a trip to the country, Tom politely tells the innkeeper, “We have a guest who’s hard to please,” to which Pemaneder replies, “Damn ’f I am.  Some rat-trap and a brew, fine by me.”

Permaneder comes through with his proposal of marriage, which Tony hopes will obliterate the stigma of her divorce from Grünlich.  But instead of being the hard-working husband she expected, he rents out two floors of their house and uses her dowry to retire prematurely.  He draws a line through “& Co.” and spends his evenings at the Hofbräuhaus, playing cards and drinking three litres of beer a night.  Tony criticises the Schlamperei of people in Munich, who are “lazy and frivolous, sluggish and superficial all at the same time.” She seems unaware that her brother Christian is exactly like that.

Like the crisis of Grünlich’s bankruptcy, Tony’s second marriage comes to a tragi-comic climax.   She’s awakened at night by the noise of the drunken Permaneder grappling with Babette, the pretty cook, who “twisted and turned to defend herself against the master of the house, who was holding her in a tight embrace and kept trying to press his walrus face to hers.”  As Tony pours out her disgust and plans to leave him forever—compounding her disastrous first marriage—he calls her a name she would never repeat, that would never pass her lips.

Tom sees this as a rather comical and unseemly escapade, and tries to persuade Tony to return to Munich and avoid another scandal.  But the silly goose ludicrously tells him, “I do know a thing or two about these matters, whereas you simply act as if this were the first time in my life that I ever got divorced.”  Finally, she’s persuaded to reveal her husband’s anticlimactic parting shot, “Go to hell, you filthy sow, you slut!” For the Buddenbrooks, this insult was even worse than his lecherous assault on the maid.  There’s also a serious side to this comic episode.  Tony’s infant had died soon after its birth.  Permaneder, like Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, may have been afraid of engendering another dead child with his wife and turned to the cook as a sexual substitute.

The revolutions of 1848, which erupt all over Europe, begin in tranquil and orderly Lübeck when Bethsy’s once-dutiful cook Trina, after absorbing the extreme political views of her butcher boyfriend, suddenly insults her mistress in broad Low German dialect.  She tells Bethsy that she’s going to replace her when the revolution comes: “Just you wait, madame, ’twon’t be long now and things’re gonna be reg’lated different.  Then I’ll be asittin’ up on the sofa in a silk dress, and you’ll be waitin’ on me!”Trina is immediately dismissed.

(1848, Burning the royal carriages, 1848)

When a mob of workers threatens the Senate, Tom bravely defies them and calms the riot, asking what they really want.  Corl Smolt, one of his dockworkers, says, as if they were ruled by the Prussian monarchy, “We want a republic, plain and simple.” “But, you nincompoop—you already have one.” “Well, Consul, sir, then we want ’nother besides.”

Meanwhile, Tom’s father-in-law, old Lebrecht Kröger, is egoistically outraged that his carriage home has been delayed by the crowd and Tom sends Smolt to fetch it.  (Another of Tom’s workers, Grobleben, makes an equally inappropriate and absurd speech at Hanno’s christening by morbidly insisting, “we’ll all come to rot, to rot . . . to rot!”)  As Karl Marx wrote soon after the failed 1848 revolutions, in The Eighteenth Brumaire (1852), “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Christian is perhaps the great comic character in Buddenbrooks.  While still a precocious child, he amusingly imitates his teacher—with effective repetitions and pauses—who threatened a pupil by stating, “Externally, my good lad, externally you are sleek and dapper, true, but internally, my good lad, you are black,” which makes the family burst into laughter.

As an adult Christian makes a dramatic entrance, one-third into the novel, when he returns from Valparaiso, Chile.  A brilliant mimic and raconteur, he’s infatuated with actresses and the theatre, and longs to be a comedian in a café chantant.  He was once caught onstage, when the curtain went up, while talking to Fräulein Wasserklosset (Miss Water Closet).  He’s idle and careless when employed in Tom’s office, and pretends to work while pretending to be sick.  His signature, self-reflective song, which he refers to as often as possible, is “That’s Maria”: “a scandalous girl, the worst of ’em all.  If somebody’s done something naughty, that’s Maria. . . . Maria’s simply depraved.”

Christian warns young Hanno not to follow his bad example.  Then, ignoring his own advice, he treats the family to his own performance and “began putting on an opera, singing and gesticulating, now waving his arms in imitation of the conductor, now playing the various roles.”  Hanno watches with delight and the intimate audience shakes with laughter.

Christian loves to tell stories about his adventures in tropical Valparaiso, an exotic hellhole of violence and knife-murders.  The tough town also has its humorous aspects.  When it was too hot to work, his hero Johnny Thunderstorm boldly blew smoke in the boss’ face, perfectly “expressing saucy defiance and good-hearted, lazy indolence.”  Christian exaggerates this jape in Lübeck by igniting a medicinal greenish powder to ease respiration and “produces such potent, foul-smelling fumes that several people in the office begin to cough,” turn quite pale and rush out of the room.  Christian repeatedly insists that his painful nerve endings are too short on one side, though it’s not clear if his malaise is neurotic or pathological.  He sometimes comes “into a room at dusk and sees a man sitting on the sofa, nodding at him, when there’s no one there at all.”  But his comical behaviour make it hard to take either his illness or his hallucinations seriously.

Tom has given up the beautiful flower-girl Anna.  Tony, forced by dutiful obedience, sacrifices her first and deeply felt love for Morten.  But Christian marries for misguided love.  He jokingly says that he and his plain, pious Aunt Klothilde (she of the enormous appetite) would have to wait to get married “in heaven—separately, I mean.”  After his mother’s death he demands his share of her material possessions—linen and silver—that he can’t possibly use.  The clearly unsuitable husband then shocks everyone by announcing that he plans to marry Aline, a scandalous woman and perfect stand-in for “That’s Maria.”  He’s inherited her from previous lovers, and accepts the paternity of her child Gisela.  Christian defies Tom, who is right about the dubious Aline and threatens to have him declared mentally incompetent.  As Christian’s morbid fantasies become worse and more frequent, Aline has him locked up in a mental asylum in Hamburg.  She then takes control of his money and, under the cover of their respectable marriage, resumes her previous life of immorality.

Christian had formed an artistic bond with the violinist Gerda (Tom’s wife), with the musical Hanno and—indirectly— with Hanno’s friend Kai Mölln, who writes stories in the style of Edgar Allen Poe, and with Lieutenant von Throta who plays duets with Gerda.  Tom has poor taste in music, is jealous of von Throta and must listen to the long silences between music with Gerda from outside their room.  None of these talented artists is suited for arduous work in a hostile world.  In an effective bit of gallows humour Hanno, while still a little boy, commits an act of scriptural vandalism, violates the family traditions and infuriates Tom by accurately predicting and carefully recording his own death in the ancient family archive.

Tom feels that Christian’s nature and character are a danger to him and tells his brother, “I have become what I am because I did not want to become like you.”  But he does, ironically, become a physical wreck like the invalid Christian, who envies the illness that rivals his own and manages to survive Tom.  The cycles of birth and death, of rising and falling fortunes, are brilliantly dramatised by the contrapuntal chapters in Buddenbrooks. In this first novel, written in his early twenties, Thomas Mann describes the blessings and trials of his eponymous fictional family, the sudden changes of mood from hope to disappointment, from delightful comedy to inevitable tragedy.

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, is the author of Thomas Manns Artist-Heroes (Northwestern UP, (2014).


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