Buddenbrooks Chapter One

Often, in an hour of depression, Thomas Buddenbrook asked himself what he was, or what there was about him to make him think even a little better of himself than he did of his honest, limited, provincial fellow-burghers. The imaginative grasp, the brave idealism of his youth was gone. To work at his play, to play at his work, to bend an ambition that was half-earnest, half-whimsical, toward the accomplishment of aims that even to himself possessed but a symbolic value—for such blithe scepticism and such an enlightened spirit of compromise, a great deal of vitality is necessary, as well as a sense of humour. And Thomas Buddenbrook felt inexpressibly weary and disgusted.

What there was in life for him to reach, he had reached. He was well aware that the high-water mark of his life—if that were a possible way to speak of such a commonplace, humdrum sort or existence—had long since passed.

As for money matters, his estate was much reduced and the business, in general, on the decline. Counting his mother’s inheritance and his share of the Meng Street property, he was still worth more than six hundred thousand marks. But the working capital of the firm had lain fallow for years, under the penny wise policies of which the Senator had complained at the time of the affair of the Pöppenrade harvest. Since the blow he had then received, they had grown worse instead of better; until now, at a time when prospects were brighter than ever—when everybody was flushed with victory, the city had at last joined the Customs Union, and small retail firms all over the country were growing within a few years into large wholesale ones—the firm or Johann Buddenbrook rested on its oars and reaped no advantage from the favourable time. If the head of the firm were asked after his business, he would answer, with a deprecating wave of the hand, “Oh, it’s not much good, these days.” As a lively rival, a close friend of the Hagenströms, once put it, Thomas Buddenbrook’s function on ’Change was now largely decorative! The jest had for its point a jeer at the Senator’s carefully preserved and faultless exterior—and it was received as a masterpiece of wit by his fellow-citizens.

Thus the Senator’s services to the old firm were no longer what they had been in the time of his strength and enthusiasm; while his labours for the good of the community had at the same time reached a point where they were circumscribed by limitations from without. When he was elected to the Senate, in fact, he had reached those limitations. There were thereafter only places to keep, offices to hold, but nothing further that he could achieve: nothing but the present, the narrow reality; never any grandiose plans to be carried out in the future. He had, indeed, known how to make his position and his power mean more than others had made them mean in his place: even his enemies did not deny that he was “the Burgomaster’s right hand.” But Burgomaster himself Thomas Buddenbrook could never become. He was a merchant, not a professional man; he had not taken the classical course at the gymnasium, he was not a lawyer. He had always done a great deal of historical and literary reading in his spare time, and he was conscious of being superior to his circle in mind and understanding, in inward as well as outward culture; so he did not waste much time in lamenting the lack of external qualifications which made it impossible for him to succeed to the first place in his little community. “How foolish we were,” he said to Stephan Kistenmaker—but he really only meant himself by “we”—“that we went into the office so young, and did not finish our schooling instead.” And Stephan Kistenmaker answered: “You’re right there. But how do you mean?”

The Senator now chiefly worked alone at the great mahogany writing-desk in his private office. No one could see him there when he leaned his head on his hand and brooded, with his eyes closed. But he preferred it, also, because the hair-splitting pedantries of Herr Marcus had become unendurable to him. The way the man for ever straightened his writing-materials and stroked his beard would in itself have driven Thomas Buddenbrook from his seat in the counting-room. The fussiness of the old man had increased with the years to a positive mania; but what made it intolerable to the Senator was the fact that of late he had begun to notice something of the same sort in himself. He, who had once so hated all smallness and pettiness, was developing a pedantry which seemed to him the outgrowth of anybody else’s character rather than his own.

He was empty within. There was no stimulus, no absorbing task into which he could throw himself. But his nervous activity, his inability to be quiet, which was something entirely different from his father’s natural and permanent fondness for work, had not lessened, but increased—it had indeed taken the upper hand and become his master. It was something artificial, a pressure on the nerves, a depressant, in fact, like the pungent little Russian cigarettes which he was perpetually smoking. This craving for activity had become a martyrdom; but it was dissipated in a host of trivialities. He was harassed by a thousand trifles, most of which had actually to do with the upkeep of his house and his wardrobe; small matters which he could not keep in his head, over which he procrastinated out of disgust, and upon which he spent an utterly disproportionate amount of time and thought.

What outsiders called his vanity had lately increased in a way of which he was himself ashamed, though he was without the power to shake off the habits he had formed. Nowadays it was nine o’clock before he appeared to Herr Wenzel, in his nightshirt, after hours of heavy, unrefreshing sleep; and quite an hour and a half later before he felt himself ready and panoplied to begin the day, and could descend to drink his tea in the first storey. His toilette was a ritual consisting of a succession of countless details which drove him half mad: from the cold douche in the bathroom to the last brushing of the last speck of dust off his coat, and the last pressure of the tongs on his moustache. But it would have been impossible for him to leave his dressing-room with the consciousness of having neglected a single one of these details, for fear he might lose thereby his sense of immaculate integrity—which, however, would be dissipated in the course of the next hour and have to be renewed again.

He saved in everything, so far as he could—without subjecting himself to gossip. But he did not save where his clothes were concerned—he still had them made by the best Hamburg tailor, and spared no expense in the care and replenishing of his wardrobe. A spacious cabinet, like another room, was built into the wall of his dressing-room; and here, on long rows of hooks, on wooden hangers, were coats, smoking jackets, frock-coats, evening clothes, clothes for all occasions, all seasons, and all grades of formality; the carefully creased trousers were arranged on chairs beneath. The top of his chest of drawers was covered with combs, brushes, and toilet preparations for hair and beard; while within it was the supply of body linen of all possible kinds, which was constantly changed, washed, worn out, and renewed.

He spent in this dressing-room not only the early hours of each morning, but also a long time before every dinner, every sitting of the Senate, every public appearance—in short, before every occasion on which he had to show himself among his fellow men—even before the daily dinner with his wife, little Johann, and Ida Jungmann. And when he left it, the fresh underwear on his body, the faultless elegance of his clothing, the smell of the brilliantine on his moustache, and the cool, astringent taste of the mouth-wash he used—all this gave him a feeling of satisfaction and adequacy, like that of an actor who has adjusted every detail of his costume and make-up and now steps out upon the stage. And, in truth, Thomas Buddenbrook’s existence was no different from that of an actor—an actor whose life has become one long production, which, but for a few brief hours for relaxation, consumes him unceasingly. In the absence of any ardent objective interest, his inward impoverishment oppressed him almost without any relief, with a constant, dull chagrin; while he stubbornly clung to the determination to be worthily representative, to conceal his inward decline, and to preserve “the dehors” whatever it cost him. All this made of his life, his every word, his every motion, a constant irritating pretence.

And this state of things showed itself by peculiar symptoms and Strange whims, which he observed with surprise and disgust. People who have no rôle to perform before the public, who do not conceive themselves as acting a part, but as standing unobserved to watch the performance of others, like to stand with the light at their backs. But Thomas Buddenbrook could not endure the feeling of standing in the shadow while the light streamed full upon the faces of those whom he wished to impress. He wanted his audience, before whom he was to act the rôle of a social light, a public orator, or a representative business man, to stand before him in a confused and shadowy mass while a blinding light played upon his own face. Only this gave him a feeling of separation and safety, an intoxicating sense of self-production, which was the atmosphere in which he achieved success. It had come to be the case that precisely this intoxication was the most bearable condition he knew. When he stood up at table, wine-glass in hand, to reply to a toast, with his charming manner, easy gestures, and witty turns of phrase, which struck unerringly home and released waves of merriment down the length of the table, then he might feel, as well as seem, the Thomas Buddenbrook of former days. It was much harder to keep the mastery over himself when he was sitting idle. For then his weariness and disgust rose up within him, clouded his eyes, relaxed his bearing and his facial muscles. At such times, he was possessed by one desire: to steal away, to be alone, to lie in silence, with his head resting on a cool pillow.

Frau Permaneder had dined that evening in Fishers’ Lane. She was the only guest, for her daughter, who was to have gone, had visited her husband that afternoon in the prison, and felt, as she usually did, exhausted and incapable of further effort. So she had stayed at home.

Frau Antonie had spoken at table of the mental condition of her son-in-law, which, it appeared, was very bad; and the question arose whether one might not, with some hope of success, petition the Senate for a pardon. After dinner the three relatives sat in the living-room, at the round table beneath the great gas-lamp. The Frau Senator bent her lovely face over some embroidery, and the gas-light lit up gleams in her dark hair; Frau Permaneder, with careful fingers, fastened an enormous red satin bow on to a tiny yellow basket, intended as a birthday present for a friend. Her glasses were stuck absolutely awry and useless on her nose. The Senator sat with his legs crossed, partly turned away from the table, in a large upholstered easy-chair, reading the paper; he drew in the smoke of his Russian cigarette and let it out again in a light grey stream between his moustaches.

It was a warm summer Sunday evening. The lofty window was open, and the lifeless, rather damp air flowed into the room. From where they sat at the table they could look between the grey gables of intervening houses at the stars and the slowly moving clouds. There was still light in Iwersen’s little flower-shop across the way. Further on in the quiet street a concertina was being played with a good many false notes, probably by the son of Dankwart the driver. But sometimes the street was noisy with a troop of sailors, singing, smoking, arm in arm, going, no doubt, from one doubtful waterside public-house to another still more doubtful one, and obviously in a jovial mood. Their rough voices and swinging tread would die off down a cross-street.

The Senator laid down his newspaper, put his glasses in his waistcoat pocket, and rubbed his hand over his eyes and forehead.

“Feeble—very feeble indeed, this paper,” he said. “I always think when I read it of what Grandfather used to say about a dish that had no particular taste or consistency: it tastes as if you were hanging your tongue out of the window. One, two, three, and you’ve finished with the whole stupid thing.”

“You are certainly right about that, Tom,” said Frau Permaneder, letting fall her work and looking at her brother sidewise, past her glasses but not through them. “What is there in it? I’ve always said, ever since I was a mere slip of a girl, that this town paper is a wretched sheet! I read it too, of course, for want of a better one; but it isn’t so very thrilling to hear that wholesale dealer Consul So-and-so is going to celebrate his silver wedding! We ought to read other papers: the Königsberg Gazette, or the Rhenish Gazette; then we’d—”

She interrupted herself. She had taken up the paper as she spoke, and let her eye run contemptuously down the columns. But her glance was arrested by a short notice of four or five lines, which she read through, clutching her eye-glasses, her mouth slowly opening. Then she uttered two shrieks, with the palms of her hands pressed against her cheeks, and her elbows held out straight.

“Oh, impossible—impossible! Imagine your not seeing that at all. It is frightful! Oh, poor Armgard! It had to come to her like that!”

Gerda had lifted her head from her work, and Thomas, startled, looked at his sister. Much upset, Frau Permaneder read the notice aloud, in a guttural, portentous tone. It came from Rostock, and it said that, the night before, Herr Ralf von Maiboom, owner of the Pöppenrade estate, had committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver, in the study of the manor-house. “Pecuniary difficulties seem to have been the cause of the act. Herr von Maiboom leaves a wife and three children.” She finished and let the paper fall in her lap, then leaned back and looked at her brother and sister with wide, piteous eyes.

Thomas Buddenbrook had turned away while he listened, and looked past his sister between the portières, into the dark salon.

“With a revolver?” he asked, after silence had reigned some two minutes. And then, after another pause, he said in a low voice, slowly and mockingly: “That is the nobility for you!”

Then he fell again to musing, and the rapidity with which he drew the ends of his moustaches through his fingers was in remarkable contrast to the vacant fixity of his gaze. He did not listen to the lamentations of his sister, or to her speculations on what poor Armgard would do now. Nor did he notice that Gerda, without turning her head in his direction, was fixing him with a searching and steady gaze from her close-set, blue-shadowed eyes.