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Most people's first introduction to Thomas Mann is through his novella Death in Venice made famous by Luchino's Visconti's celebrated film. However, Thomas Mann wrote five major novels during his lifetime: The Magic Mountain (1924), Lotte in Weimar (1939), Doctor Faustus (1947), The Confessions of Felix Krull (1954, unfinished) and his literary debut Buddenbrooks in 1901 which, somewhat unusually, led him to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature eighteen years later.

Buddenbrooks, subtitled in English 'The Decline of a Family ', is a fascinating and detailed account of the disintegration of a wealthy merchant family over four generations as its members gradually succumb to the pursuit of personal happiness, most notably through art. Theoretically such a literary project sounds both pretentious and tedious, but nothing can be further from the truth. For what Mann brings to bear to the project are three distinct contributions: pain-staking research, unique personal insight and broader philosophical engagement.

This is a not a quick read (think Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendahl or even Marcel Proust) but it is one which slowly but surely engages the reader. As the story progesses, generation by generation, we begin to realise (like a print emerging in a darkroom tray 'back in the day') that this is not just about one Hanseatic family but about all of us. In short, this is not a 'philosophical' novel, but one which nevertheless is remarkably conversant with the philosophical preoccupations of its time - in this case those of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, especially the former.

The relationsip between commerce and art is never straightforward.
Buddenbrooks explores the connection in a narrow but revealing way by suggesting that although art is liberative, the price of that liberation can be an extremely high one: namely the disintegration of the family as a constructed, bourgeois reality. This, in an age which earnestly believes it is possible to both have your cake and eat it (see Damien Hirst and many others) seems strangely naïve. Mann, however, looks backwards as well as forwards, possibly to a young Galilean man who, on occasion, gave his parents 'short shrift'.


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Thomas Mann