Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Sagas of Decline

Mr.and Mrs. Buce have been idling away their evenings with a viewing of a multipart German video version of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, the saga of the Hanseatic merchant family (actually, I gather, his own) and its long decline.  It's impeccably put together: slow-paced, a little drowsy and boring, yet still compulsively watchable--exactly like the society it seeks to represent.

The viewing gave me occasion to remember how much I enjoyed the novel a few years back and indeed, how much I enjoy this entire genre of familial decline.  I'm a big Faulkner guy and my favorite Faulkner is probably Sound and the Fury, about the decay of the Compsons.  And there is no funnier story (novella?) in all of literature than Spotted Horses, about the advent of Flem Snopes who will do so much to set the old ways on their head.  Shelve that next to my more recent fave, I. J. Singer's Brothers Ashkenazi, where the young girl meets a rather different fate.

This kind of story is a natural for the novel, so it is remarkable to find also that it is  never so well  set forth than in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard and its British cousin, Heartbreak House.  It extends to stuff that you might not think of at first as a "social change" novel.  Like Proust, which you might not think of as such until you get to the end and discover that the Prince de Guermantes has married  Mme. Verdurin and you realize it has been a social change novel all along.

You can keep going into stuff that begins to sound a tad derivative, but has its own charms.  Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, whose TV incarnation probably inspired the TV incarnation of Buddenbrooks that we're watching just now.  Naguib Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy.  I gather Mahfouz makes a breakthtough in the use of Arabic in literature but I wouldn't know; he is a good read.

I say "I could go on," although at the moment I guess I can't.  I'm sure there are others I have read and forgotten; others I've heard of and not read and others I never even heard of.  I do notice one unsettling fact: a dismayingly large number of these guys seem to have won the Nobel Prize.  I know I shouldn't hold that against them but it isn't easy.


S said...

You might add I. B. Singer's "The Family Moskat" to your list (another Nobelist, by the way).

Buce said...

Noted. File that one under "heard of, not read." But I did love "Shadows on the Hudson," a different kind of novelistic sprawl. I recall that Brother I J has snother saga novel, "The Family Carnovsky;" haven't read that one either but the reviews are not quite as enticing.

mike shupp said...

Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons."

Orson Welles was quite taken with it, I recall. Which puzzled me till I read the book myself.

Also perhaps, Howells' "The Rise of Silas Lapham". There's the rise and fall of a family, albeit in one generation rather than several. Certainly worth reading at least once, especially for former Boston residents.