The consul paged back and forth in the notebook. He read, at the very end, the little entries about his own children, when Tom had had the measles and Antonie, jaundice, and how Christian had survived chickenpox; he read about the various trips to Paris, Switzerland, and Marienbad that he and his wife had taken, and then opened to the torn and foxed parchment pages that old Johann Buddenbrook, his father's father, had filled with elaborate curlicues executed in pale gray ink. These entries began with an extensive genealogy, tracing the family's main line--how at the end of the sixteenth century the oldest known Buddenbrook had lived in Parchim and his son had become an alderman in Grabau. How, later, another Buddenbrook, a merchant tailor by trade, had married a woman from Rostock, "had done very well"--this was underlined--and sired a remarkable number of children, some of whom, as fate would have it, lived, others of whom did not. And how another, who called himself Johann, had remained in Rostock as a merchant. And finally how after many years the consul's grandfather had arrived thre to found their grain business.If the "prosopographic" chronotope presupposes a story of organic development, then how can it really be realized in the form of a novel? Neither human evolution nor world history as such are enough to provide a compelling story, and the conventions of the novel are such that relationships between human beings cannot always tend in a specific direction. The prosopographic novel, then, must constantly struggle against its dual inheritance--from the novel, with all its archetypal Joseph Campbellesque plot elements, and from history, for which the answers are a lot more difficult to fix precisely. (Hayden White, on such a rudimentary level, is no help.)
- Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks
Buddenbrooks is of course one of the archetypal prosopographic novels. Deleuze once argued, rather idly, that the characteristic question of the novella form was "What happened?"; the equivalent for this genre, and especially this book, is "Whom did it happen to?" The work offers us three possibilities, one obvious and two less so. The obvious one is announced in the very subtitle: the work's subject is "a German Family" and the narrative is the story of its "Decline." But there is something unsatisfactory about this, especially because that the book is far too personality-driven to really be the study of a family. Most of the action deals with only one generation; it is as if this were the third volume in a four-volume saga. Given the book's events, it is hard not to feel that it itself militates against the family-centered perspective.
The second possibility is that this is just a book about Thomas Buddenbrook, the grandson of the man who heads it at the beginning. Much of the action is centered around his own apprehension of the arc of his family history, the need to move or reposition the family along it--to turn back the clock in a very literal way. Mann returns to Thomas again and again, fascinated, evidently, by the conflict in his personality between the acute sense of historical responsibility and the diminishing sense of his own powers. The remainder of Buddenbrooks, in this view, would be the prologue and background to Thomas's failure. This seems an interesting explanation, but it remains plagued by the collapse of context it entails. How does one deal with the multitude of historical levels, of which the book is so keenly aware, if they are nothing but stage-sets for Thomas?
The most compelling, to me, possibility is that in effect, the novel's characters are simply abstractly conceived human beings living in a historical context (making their own history, as Mann's older contemporary would put it, but not in conditions of their own choosing). There is a "character"--namely, the problem of reconciling the sense of progress and decline inherent to human thinking about history with the course of history itself, which resists the imputation. In this view all the Buddenbrooks (except, perhaps, for Hanno) are trapped in a mindset that would be suicidal even if the family were to progress; they've tied themselves too tightly to history and cannot but suffer for it.
While tastes may differ, it seems to me that Mann was successful in answering this question with a good yarn. The book's success--as opposed to the Buddenbrooks'--depends on its ability to keep immediate events in tension with the obvious arc of the narrative, defined so forthrightly in advance. One knows the family will fail, but not what will happen next. The sense of imminent surprise, no doubt, owes much to Mann's keen sense of history--but also to its fidelity to the prosopographic structure, which is stately and measured even in this midst of chaos and surprise.