I sometimes worry about physical settings in my stories. How much do I need to describe, and how much do I let my readers fill in on their own? I found a passage I liked in Thomas Mann's second novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), translated by HT Lowe-Porter, which describes the idiosyncratic location of the Hansesaal, the assembly room for the Lübeck's government councillors:
The room belonged to the beer-hall and dance-establishment of a widow named Suerkringel; but on certain days it was at the service of the gentlemen burgesses. The entrance was through a narrow whitewashed corridor opening into the restaurant on the right side, where it smelled of beer and cooking, and thence through a handleless, lockless green door so small and narrow that no one could have supposed such a large room lay behind it. The room was empty, cold, and barnlike, with a whitewashed roof in which the beams showed, and whitewashed walls. The three rather high windows had green-painted bars, but no curtains. Opposite them were the benches, rising in rows like an amphitheatre, with a table at the bottom for the chairman, the recording clerk, and the Committee of the Senate. It was covered with a green cloth and had a clock, documents, and writing-materials on it. On the wall opposite the door were several tall hat-racks with hats and coats.
The language is fairly simple, so my attraction to it does not lie in the sophistication of word choice. The verbs are not vivid: "were" is the most common verb. Neither is the sentence structure is particularly complex: "The (noun) (verb)" starts most sentences. Quite possibly, the setting itself attracts me more than the way the setting is described. Government buildings I am familiar with are not rooms attached to a tavern. This particular meeting room does not seem opulent, either, or at least it is not described as being opulent. Photos I found of the actual Lubeck Rathaus make the building seem impressively styled, though it's true that in Mann's time they may not have been so impressive or at least not as impressive as other buildings the book described.
Perhaps this passage impresses me because it reflects the book's goal of describing a ruling class of merchants, who, despite their severe Protestantism, valued trade and wealth to the point where all other values were pressed into their service. The room is described prosaically and with an emphasis on its country plainness ("whitewashed," even "barnlike"); nevertheless, it is attached to a beerhall and dancehall, two places associated with the kind of licentiousness that the Buddenbrook family and its social class were supposed to reject. This rejection in theory does not always apply in practice. Some characters in the novel have their downfall because of scandals over drinking or associations with people outside their narrow social circle.
Word choice plays an important role in this representation of Hansesaal, but only in conjunction with other of the book's motifs. This passage demonstrates the interrelationship between the sentence level of writing and the thematic level of writing. A description, therefore, can do more than present a sensory impression of a place to satisfy people's desires to "see" where characters are. The description of a specific setting can reflect and thus participate in the communication of thematic goals.
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