Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Subtitled The Decline of a Family, Buddenbrooks was Mann’s first novel. He published it in 1902 and the English translation appeared in 1924. The book has many autobiographical themes.  Buddenbrooks was one of Hitler’s ‘burned books’ presumably for its political, social and cultural ideals. Mann won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929 for his work on this masterpiece.

Mann introduces the reader to the family, owners of a company passes down the generations. Old Johann leaves both the business  and his house to young Johann, also known as Jean, who is a son of his second marriage. This causes the anger of Gotthold whose birth caused the first wife’s death. Jean does not agree with his father’s decisions.

Jean has four children and, upon his death, the eldest, Thomas, inherits the business as well as the role of Consul.  Thomas also becomes local Senator having much influence in the town. All the trappings of society – entertaining, lavish houses, servants, tutors for the children – have been the norm but certain members of the families are beginning to refuse to toe the line. Thomas’ sister Tony has two bad marriages which end in divorce and inherent financial complications. Their brother Christian does not seem interested in the family firm. 

Thomas hopes in vain that his only son Johann will succeed him. However, Johann is not interested in the business. He is passionate about the arts, music in particular. In this he takes after his mother. She is a strong character in a male-dominated world.

When Thomas dies, the company is sold. Christian is confined in an institution and Johann dies of typhoid fever leaving only the women members of the family.

Social history

The book covers many decades, describing the unrest of 1848 and the political unrest of the 1870s. Mann spends whole chapters on detail of everyday life like a day at school of Johann’s and the symptoms of his last illness. Under Mann’s pen, the minutiae of family life are elevated to an importance which draws the reader into the essence of each character.

If Jim ever read this book, she may have drawn comparisons with her own family during the same period. She knew how her great-great-grandfather had married into money and bought a Scottish estate, as well as a house in Edinburgh.  This passed down through the male line. A series of unfortunate circumstances including illness forced the sale of the property. Like the Buddenbrooks, there were strong female characters. Jim was one of these who kept the family traditions alive until world events overtook them. She and her sister were the first women in the family to earn their own living.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence

Thomas Edward Lawrence was still in his twenties when he undertook a special role in the First World War.  As a British army intelligence officer working in Egypt, his task was to unite the Arabs to fight against the Turks in the Middle East. During a thousand-mile walk around Syria, he had learned to speak Arabic. This ability and his knowledge of the area and its people qualified him well. Lawrence’s personal interest in warfare, gained whilst a History student at Cambridge, also came in useful.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is an autobiographical account of the Arab Revolt and its consequences.

The British thought that the Arab revolt for independence from the Ottoman Empire would facilitate victory against Turkey, a German ally, so supported the rebellion. In October 1916, Lawrence recruited and coordinated an Arab army, including camels. At times, there was tension between Lawrence army and the British, having very different methods of warfare. Rather than enter into hand-to-hand fighting, he targeted railways, bridges and telegraph lines. It was Lawrence who suggested leaving the Turks in Medina and isolating the city rather than causing bloodshed in an invasion.

Courage and bravery

Before attacking a new area, Lawrence would undertake a personal recce as he did for Aqaba. He describes his 1917 journeys in the desert in great detail, the quest for shelter, food and clean water slowing progress at times. Desert terrain forced the party to navigate by the stars and they endured sandstorms and mosquito bites. His attacks led to victory in that area, his strength laying in the ability to communicate his strategies and ideas to the Arabs. The constant search for food and water for both men and camels was a strain on everyone, not least the camels, one of which was pregnant.

On another reconnaissance journey at Deraa, Lawrence was arrested, endured violent physical and sexual abuse and left for dead. Convincing his captors he was a local shepherd, he was freed. Consequently, he was able to take some useful information back to base. There were many narrow escapes but this period ended with the good news that Jerusalem had been captured by the British.

1918 started well for both the British and the Arabs. Now facing extreme cold, Lawrence’s Arabs fought on. However, operations reached somewhat of a stalemate and it was not until the autumn that the Ottoman troops began to retreat. In September 1918, Lawrence led the capture of Deraa. There followed a triumphant ride into Damascus as the war in the rest of the world was also ending.

Lawrence was a man who hesitated to follow orders to the letter. He analysed, he questioned and he examined his own motives. He was driven, enjoying the chase more than the catch. Although the Arab Revolt had been successful overall, the British failed to keep their promise of an Arabian state and divided up the captured territories. This left Lawrence with a feeling of guilt from which he never recovered.


Clouds Hill, final home of T E Lawrence

Lawrence wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom whilst living at Clouds Hill, his cottage in Dorset. Having changed his name to Shaw, after his friend GBS, he joined the RAF. His tragic death in 1935 was a shock to all, not least to Churchill who attended his funeral at St Nicholas, Moreton, where Lawrence is buried. Churchill called him ‘one of the greatest beings of our time.’ 


The Man who was Thursday by G K Chesterton

The Man who was Thursday is subtitled A nightmare, something which Chesterton stresses in an article published in the Illustrated London News, a day before he died in 1936. The book was published in 1908.

Two poets meet in London and discuss their craft. Previously unknown to each other, Syme is a policeman but does not reveal this. Gregory persuades him to attend a meeting of an anarchist organisation that evening. Syme decides to go undercover and infiltrate the society. The council members are named after the days of the week.  They swear to never betray each other and Syme is elected Thursday.  Puzzled by the behaviour of the others, he gradually discovers that they are all, except Sunday, also detectives. Their exploits take them on all kinds of wild goose-chases to prevent an apparent assassination. These involve various sorts of transport including an elephant and a hot-air balloon.

The improbable situations and chaos are reminiscent of Lewis Carroll and, in fact, Chesterton, when describing a scene in the final chapter, says it was ­‘as absurd as Alice in Wonderland’. Towards the end of the book there are Biblical quotations. At the same time, it becomes apparent that the seven characters represent the days of Creation, Sunday being the one who is somewhat inactive. There are scenes which seem to depict going to heaven and others where Sunday is Godlike.