Monday, July 10, 2017

Circumambulating with Buddenbrooks

While listening to Buddenbrooks, I walked ten times around the driveway, mostly not using the cane but, following instructions from Geraldine the physical therapist I was carrying the cane lest I become tempted to pull a weed or thirty and then be unable to get myself upright again. According to the app on my phone, the same phone on which I listened to Buddenbrooks, I walked 1633 steps or .73 mile.

There is parked in our driveway an 18-year-old Audi station-wagon, shorn of license plates, that has not been driven for at least 18 months. Our plan is to call some worthy charity and give them the car if they will come to our driveway and take it away. The possible worthy charities are so vast and diverse that choosing among them inevitably gives rise to marital discord and/or moral dilemmas: should this well-loved and much-driven agglomeration of metal parts benefit the National Eating Disorders Association or Surf Aid International, Mechanics who Care or Glaucoma Research, Autism Speaks, Alzheimer’s Association, Colitis Foundation, Home for Little Wanderers, or Sierra Forever Families? You can appreciate the difficulty: good arguments can be made.

Before we decide what worthy cause shall reap the financial benefits of the old Audi, it will have to be emptied out, because for now it functions as a tertiary honey-super and broken tools storage container. And how useful it has been.

Being permanently parked and unregistered, no one has thought it worthwhile to actually wash the old Audi, so its once shiny red paint is now overlaid with a bespoke combination of pollen, pine sap and pollution. I discovered that this made an excellent medium for keeping track of my driveway orbits. Each time I completed a circle, I made a mark on the Audi’s hood with the rubber tip at the base of my cane. (I took a photo to show you, but it looks like an unsightly smudge. Nothing more.) I was irrationally pleased with myself for devising this method of keeping track. Until today I can honestly say that after walking several times around the driveway - excellent exercise for my post-surgical revised right knee - not once have I been absolutely sure of the number of revolutions. Did I manage 10 or 11? Or only 9? I was distracted by pulling those weeds in the asphalt, and then even more distracted by noticing the proliferation of poison ivy vines on the scrawny hemlock trees between our driveway and our neighbors, the ones that look like dendritic meth addicts. (The trees, not the neighbors.)

Then, coming round the corner, I was again distracted by the slow-growing tricolor beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’. I love all beech trees, copper, purple and weeping. In my imagination the Buddenbrooks landscape is full of beech forests, and the houses are surrounded by beech hedges. That is not the case. Thus far there is only the avenue of beech trees on the road to Travemünde. Just that avenue by the seaside, and yet the beeches, their roots and their canopies, are intrinsic to Buddenbrooks.
About fifteen years ago my mother gave me this tree, back when she was still capable of choosing and buying an exotic chimerical tree. I like to remember that time when my mother knew a lot about trees. She researched trees. She had arborists on speed-dial. Having become enamored of this particular tree in the Smith College (the maternal alma mater) Botanical Garden, my mother planted a tricolor beech at the Orchard, and it slowly grew to an impressive size. Then something strange happened: it started to revert. This variety of beech has variegated leaves of purple and pink, copper and green; so it was very eerie when certain branches of Mom’s tricolor beech were only purple or only copper or only green. Just certain branches. Apparently this can happen to variegated plants: at some point they revert. Mine has not yet reverted. Perhaps because it is still so small, being such a slow-grower, the slowest growing tree I have.
Given such compelling distractions, it is a good thing I have the pollen-dusted Audi keeping track of my revolutions.
This is not the first or even the second or third time I have read Buddenbrooks, but it is the first time I have listened to it on Audible because it only recently became available on Audible. (27 hours for a mere 1 credit: a real deal.) I cannot adequately explain what I find so compelling about Buddenbrooks. (I feel that I do a better job of justifying my passion for Moby Dick, even though I have read Buddenbrooks more frequently and likely will again.) The story of the rise, and mostly the decline of four generations of grain merchants in a northern German city, in Buddenbrooks you will find allusions to almost any family dysfunction you can imagine. When I read the book I am constantly telling myself all the ways the story is not analogous to the story of my family. The Buddenbrooks family are from northern Germany, and my grandfather was Swabian, in southern German. (True, like old Johann B., my paternal grandfather married a Frenchwoman, my grandmother Germaine. In both cases, being patriarchies, the family ethos remained overwhelmingly Teutonic rather than Gallic, until the French strain creeped in. By which time it was already too late.)
The Buddenbrooks are grain merchants, and the Lehners dealt in cotton waste, in the twentieth, not the nineteenth century. The Buddenbrooks are most adamantly Protestants, most certainly not Catholics. The Buddenbrooks family line dwindles down to poor Hanno; while the Lehners breed prolifically and seem inclined to continue on that path. So, of course, the differences are vast.

Buddenbrooks remains a story of duty in mortal struggle with personal fulfillment, of family and business versus individualism and art. Clear winners are not possible. Keep walking.

By my calculations, which you are free to check and correct, if ten revolutions equal 30 minutes of reading time, (and assuming I only listen to Buddenbrooks while walking the driveway), then the book will be finished after 540 times around the driveway or 39.42 miles. I could be in Cold Spring Harbor or the Wawayanda State Park. Or I could be in my driveway.

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