Presentation Speech by Fredrik Böök, Member of the Nobel Committee for Literature, on December 10, 1929
If one asks which innovation the nineteenth century made in the field of literature, which new form it created in addition to the old forms of epic, drama, and lyric, whose roofs are in Greece, the answer must be: the realistic novel. By setting forth the innermost, secret experiences of the human soul against the background of contemporary social conditions, and by stressing the interdependence of the general and the particular, it has been able to portray reality with a faithful accuracy and a completeness that have no parallels in older literature.
The realistic novel – one could call it a modern prose epic influenced by historicism and science – has by and large been the creation of the English, the French, and the Russians; it is associated with the names of Dickens and Thackeray, Balzac and Flaubert, Gogol and Tolstoy. There was no comparable contribution from Germany for a long time; poetic creativity there chose other outlets. The nineteenth century had come to its end when a young writer, the twenty-seven-year-old son of a merchant from the old Hanse city of Lübeck, published his novel Buddenbrooks (1901). Twenty-seven years have passed since then, and it has become clear to all that Buddenbrooks is the masterpiece that fills the gap. Here is the first and as yet unsurpassed German realistic novel in the grand style which takes its undisputed and equal place in the European concert.
Buddenbrooks is a bourgeois novel, for the century it portrays was above all a bourgeois era. It depicts a society neither so great as to bewilder the observer, nor so small and narrow as to stifle him. This middle level favours an intelligent, thoughtful, and subtle analysis, and the creative power itself, the pleasure of epic narration, is shaped by calm, mature, and sophisticated reflection. We see a bourgeois civilization in all its nuances, we see the historical horizons, the changes of time, the changes of generations, the gradual transition from self-contained, powerful, and un-self-conscious characters to reflective types of a refined and weak sensibility. The presentation is lucid yet penetrates beneath the surface to hidden processes of life; it is powerful but never brutal, and touches lightly on delicate things; it is sad and serious but never depressing because it is permeated by a quiet, deep sense of humour that is iridescently reflected in the prism of ironic intelligence.
As a portrayal of a society, a concrete and objective representation of reality, Buddenbrooks hardly has its equal in German literature. Beyond the limits of its genre, however, the novel betrays its common features with the German mind, with metaphysical and musical transcendentalism. The young writer who had mastered the techniques of literary realism so perfectly was at heart a convert to Schopenhauer’s pessimism and Nietzsche’s criticism of civilization, and the main characters of the novel reveal their ultimate secrets in music.
Basically Buddenbrooks is a philosophical novel. The decline of a family is portrayed from the point of view that a profound insight into the essence and conditions of life is irreconcilable with naive joie de vivre and active energy. Reflection, self-observation, psychological refinement, philosophical profundity, and aesthetic sensibility appear to the young Thomas Mann destructive and disintegrating forces; in one of his most exquisite stories, Tonio Kröger (1903), he has found moving words for his love of human life in all its simplicity. Because he stood outside the bourgeois world that he portrayed, his vision was free, but he had a nostalgic feeling for the loss of naiveté, a feeling which gives him understanding, sympathy, and respect.
The painful experience of Mann’s youth that gave its profound tone to Buddenbrooks includes a problem that he has treated and tried to solve in different ways throughout his career as a writer. Within himself he has felt the tension between the aesthetic-philosophical and the pragmatic-bourgeois outlooks, and he has tried to resolve it in harmony on a higher level. In the short stories Tonio Kröger and Tristan (1903) the exiles from life, the devotees of art, knowledge, and death, confess their desire for a simple and healthy existence, for «life in its seductive banality». It is Mann’s own paradoxical love for simple and happy natures that speaks through them.
In the novel Königliche Hoheit (1909) [Royal Highness], whose realistic form disguises a symbolic story, he reconciled the life of the artist with that of the man of action, and he gave a motto to that human ideal: «highness and love – an austere happiness». But the synthesis is neither as convincing nor as deeply felt as the antithesis in Buddenbrooks and the short stories. In the drama Fiorenza (1906), in which the moralist Savonarola and the aestheticist Lorenzo di Medici appear as irreconcilable enemies, the gap is opened anew. In Der Tod in Venedig (1913) [Death in Venice] it reaches tragic significance. It was during this period, in the years that preceded the World War, that he became interested in the personality of Frederick the Great. He felt that that ruler presented a historically valid solution of the problem, for Frederick’s genius had, with unbroken vitality, combined action, contemplation, and a penetrating clarity free from illusions. In the ingenious essay Friedrich und die grosse Koalition (1915) [Frederick the Great and the Grand Coalition] he showed the possibility and reality of the solution, but the problematic writer of Buddenbrooks did not succeed in representing this ideal in the plastic and vital form of literature.
The World War and its consequences forced Mann to leave the world of contemplation, of ingenious analysis and subtle visions of beauty, for the world of practical action. He followed his own advice, implied in his novel Königliche Hoheit, to beware of the easy and the comfortable, and dedicated himself to an agonizing reappraisal of the questions that his country faced in its time of affliction. His later works, especially the novel Der Zauberberg (1924) [The Magic Mountain], testify to the struggle of the ideas which his dialectical nature fought to the end and which preceded the statement of his opinions.
Dr. Thomas Mann – As a German writer and thinker you have, reflecting realities, wrestled with ideas and created painful beauty even though you were convinced that art is questionable. You have reconciled the loftiness of poetry and the intellect with a yearning love for the human and for the simple life. Accept from the hands of our King the Prize that the Swedish Academy with its congratulations has awarded to you.
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