Originally posted March 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
It was a pocket-sized hard cover with a mauve-colored flap that you gave to me for my sixteenth birthday. On the front was a sketch of a woman in a bonnet on the arm of a man in a top hat making their way through the narrow streets of old Hamburg. This was the city as it looked before you left it for Poland in the spring of 1940, and as it had been for centuries, before Allied bombs flattened it three years later. Above the sketch was the subtitle, “The Decline of a Family,” which didn’t strike me until many years later. At the time, you proclaimed that Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” was the best crafted novel you had ever read, and that Mann was without question Germany’s most gifted novelist.
“But strange about his private life,” you muttered with distaste, and didn’t elaborate.
None of these comments could entice an impatient sixteen-year-old to endure the unending sentences in German. The book went out of the wrapping paper straight into the book shelf, only to be removed twenty-seven years later when the subtitle began to haunt me.
You’d left your husband in the interior of Brazil, your marriage long broken, your eldest gone, with your remaining children scattered across the continents. The dreams of living space and abundant resources had been dashed by the self-defeating nature of greed, and you lived in your small apartment, like a lady of the manor in parody, staring at a grand painting in a heavy, baroque frame of men in a golden field.
It was in your very last years that the shoe-horning of old dreams into present realities became most apparent. One of your children, who had no family of her own, cared for you day and night, and often you’d scold her about the quality of her service. I preferred to think that this was just your frustration with the growing confines of age, but one couldn’t help the feeling that in your attitude were the last traces of overlordship from a bygone era. Increasingly, when I visited and watched you from across the dining table, I saw one of Picasso’s women, whose face, with its many angles, could never be ascertained.
In the lives of the Buddenbrooks family I caught a glimpse of one of those facades. It revealed your young woman’s aspiration to live the life of the elegant Hamburg merchanting class, and to stroke your hand across the light yellow upholstered sofa - a color reserved for the privileged - in Toni Buddenbrooks’ childhood home. In the beginning, your husband seemed to offer you a comparable possibility, as he managed his father’s successful chocolate business, and drove through town in a Wanderer, a luxurious German brand car. That was until the Depression struck, and your angry spouse signed up for the Party just a few days before the bewildering Christmas of 1931.
I wondered whether you had been able to keep a copy of “Buddenbrooks” in your home under the Third Reich. This wasn’t because no one had one. On the contrary, like all other books that were banned and burned during the thirties, everyone had copies. In fact, there had never been as thriving a business for books in Germany, legal and illegal, as during that time when people sought a temporary escape from the impending new war.
Yet, in your household it may not have been possible. You and your husband had cast your fates with the Party and its elite from the beginning, and the daily demonstration of loyalty demanded the rejection of the intelligentsia, particularly Jews or those who had married them. Blood and Land became your mantra, so that your husband could realize his dream of leaving the ‘decadent’ city and the chocolate business, and becoming an influential landowner.