Sunday, June 15, 2014

consuming good heavy food

Buddenbrooks moves along in set pieces or literary moments – I mean in scenes that I can think of in isolation -- either long or short, the briefest ones being those miniature performances that take place in solitary sentences, like Herr Kesselmeyer playing the piano on his shoulder.

That moment is inert, it comes and goes without an aftermath, which means that it is the easiest kind of scene to pick out, but there are other moments that act as triggers, making them less easy for me to bring them out quickly because they seep into their own repercussions. The beginning of Tony's hatred for the Hagenström family is signalled by the scene in which the son kisses her, the hatred goes on throughout the book, occasionally mentioned, then, almost at the end, the kiss re-enters the story.

Food is present almost as soon as the book opens. In chapter one they are waiting for the lunch bell to ring; by chapter two it has rung. “There they all sat, on heavy high-backed chairs, consuming good heavy food ...” (translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter). Food goes on vibrating throughout the book, the wealth of the family often expressing itself in food (and the black sheep Christian jumps up from his chair because he has a nightmare fear of choking on a peach), until my idea of their money was also a feeling for spongy substances decaying and vanishing. They could have been buying jewels in chapter one instead and showing off their jewels in chapter two. At the end of the book they might still have owned the jewels. They were never going to keep the food.

The value of food is effervescence. It starts with the gastric juices. So the family's loss, a soft haemorrhage, is a different species of loss to the losses of a character such as Shylock, who could have kept control over his money and his religion (identifying himself by both of those as soon as he appears onstage) if the Merchant of Venice hadn't taken place. But it does, and he is dispossessed. Other people are dictating to him. A state of loss exists at the end of both stories but the value of that loss is different in each case, even though you could sum up both of them with the same words: “Their wealth is gone.”

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