Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Resurrection in Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks"

     I spent much of my early years with Thomas Mann and his family. As a teenager, I read him in translation, then as a German major in the original. At UC-Berkeley in 1975 (the centennial year of his birth), I took a course on him offered by his son Michael. Right after that course ended Michael was kind enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for me to UC-Irvine for a graduate assistantship. At UC-Irvine I started to write a dissertation on Henrich Mann, Thomas' brother, even conducting research in both parts of a still-divided Berlin.

     For several reasons that dissertation was unfinished, primarily because I ended a Lutheran seminary and was ordained in 1981. MY reading continued, as did my teaching career. 

     Mann was also Lutheran but developed a religiously-based humanism that was not bound to any particular confession. When I read Buddenbrooks, his first novel, the ending intrigued me. The novel is subtitled Verfall einer Familie/Decline of a Family.  As the surviving members mourn the loss of the last male heir, there is a surprising affirmation of the Resurrection from an unlikely source: Sesemi Weichbrodt was a schoolmistress to the Toni Buddenbrook and became an unofficial member of the family. She is extremely short in stature, old, malformed, and for all appearances, weak. 

    Yet she gives a ringing affirmation of the Resurrection. I am not saying that Mann himself thought so. But he is not using the character to spoof religious dogma. Long ago I did a short piece for a German Lutheran US/Canadian publication on the pastor figures in the novel. Mann was aware of Christianity;'s influence. 

     Not that I would use this in a sermon, since not many Americans know of Mann or this novel. But I wonder if Günter Grass or John Irving partially based Oskar Matzerath and Owen Meany on Sesemi Weichbrodt?

suddenly Frau Permaneder burst into tears. 

“I loved him so much,” she sobbed. “You don’t any of you 
know how much — more than any of you — yes, forgive me, 
Gerda — you are his mother. — Oh, he was an angel.” 

“He is an angel, now,” corrected Sesemi. 

“Hanno, little Hanno,” went on Frau Permaneder, the tears 
flowing down over her soft faded cheeks. “Tom, Father, 
Grandfather, and all the rest! Where are they? We shall 
see them no more. Oh, it is so sad, so hard!” 

“There will be a reunion,” said Friederike Buddenbrook. 
She folded her hands in her lap, cast down her eyes, and put 
her nose in the air. 

“Yes — they say so. — Oh, there are times, Friederike, when 
that is no consolation, God forgive me! When one begins 
to doubt — doubt justice and goodness — and everything. Life 



crushes so much in us, it destroys so many of our beliefs — ! 
A reunion — if that were so — ” 

But now Sesemi Weichbrodt stood up, as tall as ever she 
could. She stood on tip-toe, rapped on the table; the cap 
shook on her old head. 

“It is so!" she said, with her whole strength; and looked at 
them all with a challenge in her eyes. 

She stood there, a victor in the good fight which all her 
life she had waged against the assaults of Reason: hump- 
backed, tiny, quivering with the strength of her convictions, 
a little prophetess, admonishing and inspired. 


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