Gideon Haigh is a journalist and one of the very best cricket writers in the world today. He has written for The Age, the Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Guardian, the Times and Wisden Cricket Monthly, amongst many other publications, and he has been editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack Australia. His cricket books include One Summer Every Summer: An Ashes Journal, Mystery Spinner: The Story of Jack Iverson (runner-up for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize in 2000), The Big Ship: Warwick Armstrong and the Making of Modern Cricket and Game for Anything: Writings on Cricket. With a father from Yorkshire and a mother from Tasmania, Gideon was born in London and raised in Geelong. The Ashes, which he will be reporting for the Guardian this summer, leave him feeling deeply conflicted. Here he discusses Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks.
Gideon Haigh on Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
Aside perhaps from sex and self-help, no corner of the modern bookshop has grown so exponentially over the last twenty years as that devoted to management. Bookshops cramming the whole of human history into a couple of dusty shelves devote entire walls to self-promoting CEOs and soi-disant management gurus. 'So a prudent man will always follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been outstanding. If his own prowess fails in comparison with theirs, at least it has an air of greatness about it.' Thus Machiavelli in The Prince - and on the desire for that air has a vast industry been built.
Given that business now occurs at the speed of thought, to borrow the title of Bill Gates' contribution to bedside table furniture, it's a wonder anyone has time to read this guff. Perhaps they don't: expect a volume soon called Why You're Too Busy To Read This Book. But there's one book about commercial life worth seeking that you won't find grouped under 'management', 'business', 'finance', 'economics', or even 'true crime': Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann's epic novel of the four generations of a family grain trading business in the Baltic port of Lubeck, should to my mind be on every business school curriculum.
Mann's story, broadly based on his own family's experiences, is now almost synonymous with ideas of decline - and not merely of families. But it dramatizes issues confronted by every corporation. And Buddenbrooks is unusual, even among novels in which business features: Mann depicts a world where business and blood are commingled and coequal; commercial life is seen not as the workings of individual genius, or the outcome of impersonal forces, but in terms of human relations - warm and cool, strong and strained. The business finally stalls not because of succession, or squandermania, or malfeasance. It perishes with the family's energy and enterprise, which take confidence and competence with them.
Nor does corporate mortality strike from nowhere. From the first, the Buddenbrooks know the risks of losing their vitality and nerve. When the novel opens in 1835, Johann Buddenbrook, largely responsible for the family fortune, is entertaining guests in a handsome 150-year-old residence recently acquired from a respected firm fallen on hard times, Ratenkamp & Co. A superstitious silence descends when Ratenkamp & Co is mentioned, whereupon Johann expounds a theory that Dietrich Ratenkamp's weakness was inertia, not ignorance: 'I'm convinced he halfway knew about his partner's dealings, that he was not totally ignorant of what state his warehouse was in. But he was immobilized.'
Momentum has been established as a trait of successful business; at this stage the Buddenbrooks retain theirs. Though Johann is ageing, his son Jean is the ideal successor. He persuades his daughter Tony to agree to a loveless marriage to a merchant called Grunlich for the sake of the common weal, then is equally decisive in ending the marriage when that husband overextends himself.
The passages where Jean pores over Grunlich's accounts, pondering how banks built him up, then dragged him down, are riveting: 'B. Grunlich's present misfortune could just as easily have overcome him two or three years before - that was evident at first glance. But he had enjoyed inexhaustible credit: the banks had provided him with capital, again and again he had received the endorsements of solid firms like those of Senator Bock and Consul Goudstikker, his promissory notes had been treated as if they were cash. And then had come a collapse of trust on all sides, a total withdrawal of trust as if by prearrangement, everyone joining in the attack on B. Grunlich with complete and ruthless disregard for even common business courtesy. But why now, now, now?'
The accounts gradually disgorge their horrid truth: Grunlich has fostered the 'dreadful misconception' that the Buddenbrooks stand behind him. It is a textbook case of what financial markets call 'moral hazard', where the greed/fear cycle among lenders has been exaggerated by the assumption of rescue through a third party. Jean breaks the cycle. Deaf to Grunlich's pleas, he sends his son-in-law to the wall, following advice from his father that he also passes to his son Thomas: 'Show zeal for each days' affairs of business, but only for such that make for a peaceful night's sleep.'
Thomas initially seems cut from the same cloth. He purports to relish commercial cut and thrust, and regrets what he sees as the passing of sleeves-up entrepreneurship. 'I don't think great things can ever be accomplished from behind a desk - at least none that would give me pleasure,' he philosophizes. 'I need to see how things are going with my own eyes, direct them with a gesture, a spoken word, to control them on the spot by dint of my own will, my talent, my luck or whatever you want to call it. Sad to say, that kind of personal involvement by the businessman is going out of fashion... Ah, I almost fear that as time goes on the businessman's life will become more and more banal.'
This is a key insight of Buddenbrooks: it perceives the origin of decline in the culmination of incline. At first, the firm prospers under Thomas's 'fresher, more inventive, more enterprising spirit'. Then comes a setback, the indeterminate 'catastrophe of 1866', though what unsettles Thomas is not so much the scale of the failure as the sensation: 'He had lost a great deal of money - but that had not been what was so unbearable. For the first time in his life he had been forced to experience personally and completely just how cruel and brutal business can be, had watched as all his better, gentler, and kinder sentiments had slunk away before the raw, naked absolute instinct of self-preservation, had seen his friends, his best friends, respond to his misfortune not with sympathy, not with compassion, but with suspicion - cold, dismissive suspicion.'
For a CEO, confidence is easily replaced by anxiety. As General Electric's Jack Welch put it: 'Everyone who's running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear: "Am I going to be the one who blows this place up?"' Thomas now suffers the presentiment that he will be that one: 'What is success? A mysterious, indescribable power, a vigilance, a readiness, an awareness that simply by my presence I can exert pressure on the movements of life around me, the belief that life can be moulded to my advantage... And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moves beyond our influence.'
'When did it go wrong?' ask shareholders, creditors, investigators and governments when companies fail. It's almost always earlier than they imagined. Barings, Enron, WorldCom, Vivendi: all remained market darlings for years after the miscalculations that would ruin them. This paradox isn't lost on Thomas: 'I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already. Such external signs need time to reach us, like the light of one of those stars up there, which when it shines most brightly may already have gone out, for all we know.' As C. Northcote Parkinson put it in one of his facetious laws: 'A perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse.'
Momentum expended, Thomas tries to avoid slipping backwards. But like many a CEO in strife, he now finds past success a burden. He suffers through celebrations of his firm's centenary, and the home on which he has lavished attention merely reminds him of a Turkish proverb: 'When the house is finished, death follows.' He self-administers austerities 'in almost petty ways' - he changes his shirt every other day, and restricts his household to one dessert a week. He grows more cynical about business ethics - when his niece's husband is accused of insurance fraud, he remarks that 'it is most probably nothing more dreadful than what many of his colleagues have done - and got away with'.
Thomas must, however, 'keep up appearances'. He is contrasted throughout Buddenbrooks with his brother Christian, a glib, work-shy valetudinarian obsessed with the theatre. But Christian misses the act being played out before him:'‘No doubt of it,' Mann tells us. 'Thomas Buddenbrook's existence was no different from that of an actor, but one whose whole life has become a single production, down to the smallest, most workaday detail - a production that... constantly engaged and devoured all his energies.'
The theatrical in the commercial is often overlooked. After all, we speak of a company's financial 'performance', of a CEO's 'profile', of a result 'pleasing the critics'. And Thomas, like a modern CEO putting a spin on bad results for CNBC or Bloomberg, acquires habits of the stage - he detests the light at his back, for then he must study his audience; he prefers it the other way round, which reduces observers to less threatening shadows. The only character who intuits Thomas's pain is his otherwise ineffectual son Hanno, who is filled with foreboding by watching his father place and replace a mask of calm for each business encounter: 'Not only did he see his father's poise and charm and their effect on everyone, but his strange, stinging, perceptive glance saw how terribly difficult it was for his father to bring it off, how after each visit he grew more silent and pale... Hanno knew that they all expected him to appear in public someday, too, and to perform, to prepare each word and gesture, with everyone staring at him - and at the thought, he closed his eyes with a shudder of fear and aversion.'
Ultimately, there is no succession. With the death of Jean Buddenbrook's widow, the family mansion must be sold, gallingly, to the rival Hagenstrom family - the Ratenkamps' route has been retraced. Within months of one another, Thomas haemorrhages to death after an unsuccessful tooth extraction and Hanno perishes in a typhoid epidemic - final physical attestation of the decay and disease that have overtaken the dynasty. Liquidation, grossly mismanaged, ensues. This is what investors often forget, in their desire to lavish praise and heap blame, that few companies prosper through genius, and most expire through nothing to do with scandal. Buddenbrooks proves, too, that the Enron balance sheet isn't the only work of fiction from which business can learn.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]