It’s been such a busy week. There’s been so much to do, and I haven’t managed to finish even half of the many tasks I set out to complete this week. I started so many posts that, somehow, I just haven’t found time to finish…
My thoughts at the moment are a tangle I can’t straighten out. This week, I won’t bore you this week with a long, annoying preamble.
Here’s my review. Hope you like it!
Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann
Published in 1912
Death in Venice, written by Thomas Mann, isn’t exactly what you’d call a book. It’s more like a short story. A longish short story, but still a short story. And Book to the Future is really, as the title says, kinda meant to be about books. Not short stories. This isn’t Short Story to the Future. That’d be a stupid name for a website.
So, I’m bending the rules of Book to the Future this week. I’m sure it won’t be the last time. So, let’s just call Death in Venice a novella and get on with the review, okay? Okay.
Our main character is Gustave von Auschenbach. He’s a successful, middle-aged German writer. On a walk one day, he sees a young man, standing in a graveyard. Watching the man from a distance, Auschenbach experiences an awakening, and, out of nowhere, he decides to take a holiday. At first, he imagines himself somewhere exotic:
“…far and wide around him he saw hairy palm-trunks thrusting upwards from rank jungles of fern, from among thick fleshy plants in exuberant flower…”
– Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
…but, after a little more thought, Auschenbach settles on a more familiar (less suggestive) destination. He sets off, travelling from place to place for a while, unable to settle, before he suddenly decides to visit Venice (he’s been there before). But, on the boat to Venice, he begins to find his travel companions disgusting – in particular, one old man who wears a wig, make up and a set of cheap false teeth and is travelling with a group of younger men. He arrives in Venice, but the weather is bad. He’s fleeced by a dodgy gondolier. Auschenbach notices every little thing, as if he doesn’t want to just relax and enjoy his holiday.
Auschenbach arrives at his hotel, and when he goes downstairs to the hotel’s dining room that evening, he notices amongst the hotel’s guests a large, Polish family. There are three teenage girls, their mother, a governess…and a long-haired, fourteen-year-old boy, towards whom Auschenbach feels a strange, instant attraction.
He quickly becomes obsessed with the boy, and soon, he spends his days at the beach, watching from his chair as he plays in the sand. Eventually, Auschenbach overhears his name: Tadzio.
When Auschenbach’s health begins to suddenly decline, he decides to leave the city, but as he leaves Venice behind, he realises that he simply can’t live without the boy he adores. When a mistake with his luggage enables him to return to Venice, he takes up watching the boy with a renewed fervour.
To explain, or perhaps to justify his obsession with Tadzio to himself, Auschenbach makes long, eloquent speeches about Greek philosophy and mythology – much of which is completely lost on me. For Auschenbach, Tadzio represents perfection; he’s the very epitome of classical beauty.
Before too long, Auschenbach, not content with merely watching Tadzio from a distance, begins to follow him everywhere he goes, becoming more and more reckless in his pursuit of the young boy. Even Tadzio’s family are beginning to notice.
And, in the meantime, rumours are beginning to circulate around the city; tourists are leaving Venice. A terrible sickness has broken out. But Auschenbach is far too preoccupied with Tadzio to pay attention to what’s going around him…
In a book short story novella called Death in Venice, we know someone’s going to bite the big one. Will the old man die? Or his beautiful, fragile young love…?
Death in Venice is a truly fascinating little novella. And no – it’s not porn. If you’re looking for overtly sexual material in these few pages, you’re not going to find it. Auschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio isn’t physical. He never even manages to find the courage to even speak to him – towards the beginning, Auschenbach approaches Tadzio on the beach, with the aim of merely talking to the object of his affection, but, like a teenager, he finds himself paralysed, unable to speak, and walks away, .
That’s not to say that the relationship is entirely innocent on Auschenbach’s part. It’s not. Auschenbach sees Tadzio as a symbol of beauty and youth – two things he lost long ago (and perhaps never really had to start with). But for all Auschenbach’s allusions to Greek mythology, he simply can’t hide the fact that he gradually becomes a creepy old man, following a young boy everywhere he goes.
The way Thomas Mann presents Auschenbach’s gradual descent, his loss of dignity, is truly intoxicating. It’s tragic, but compelling, in the same manner as a car crash or Britney Spears. He presents us, at the beginning of the novella, with a detailed portrait of Auschenbach’s character, his past, his achievements, his flaws. Then, swiftly, inevitibly, Mann knocks him, piece by piece to the ground.
I also adore the way Mann riddles his text with metaphors of death and decay – the graveyard in the beginning, the illness that hangs over the city, the smell of stagnation that, the over-ripe strawberries. This is the kind of writing I adore. In Death in Venice, the spectre of death is everywhere. I love authors who stack up metaphors in great big, staggering piles…
However, what I found particularly intriguing about Death in Venice is that the story isn’t told in the first person; it’s told in the third person. The second chapter tells us all about Auschenbach’s works, their reception, Auschenbach’s greatness, his contribution to German literature…it’s remarkably like reading an author’s biography. In the middle of the novella, while watching Tadzio on the beach, Auschenbach is compelled to pick up his pen and write, and the narrator tells us…
“Never had he felt the joy of the word more sweetly, never had he known so clearly that Eros dwells in language, as during these perilously precious hours in which, seated at his rough table under the awning, in full view of his idol and with the music of his voice in his ears, he shaped upon Tadzio’s beauty his brief essay – that page and a half of exquisite prose which with its limpid nobility and vibrant controlled passion was soon to win the admiration of many.”
– Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
The narrator is in a position to tell us that Auschenbach has written a passage that “was soon to win the admiration of many”. Which makes me wonder…who is narrating this story? A fan? An admirer? A stalker? A biographer? The passage continues…
“It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse reader and shock them…”
– Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
The narrator tells us that it’s just as well that the world doesn’t know about Auschenbach’s fixation on Tadzio. But hang on – didn’t they just tell us? What is going on here? Is the narrator telling us the truth? If they ARE telling us the truth, how would it be possible for anyone to know the most innermost workings of Auschenbach’s mind? The grand speeches he makes when he’s alone? Is the narrator trying to save or destroy Auschenbach’s reputation? Who’s telling this story?? What’s going on?? Gaaah!!
I can’t help but love a story that leaves me confused. I adore narrators that can’t be trusted, stories that keep me guessing; that twist and turn and frustrate and simply refuse to sit down on their pages and behave themselves. I like stories that leave me scratching my head for months afterward.
Essentially, Death in Venice is the story of a man who falls in love with a fourteen year old boy. This topic has the potential to be quite disturbing. But somehow, Thomas Mann’s writing (like Nabokov’s in Lolita) somehow distracts you, wraps you up, carries you along, so you forget the potentially disturbing nature of the story and become caught up in the novella’s compelling character and his tragic downfall.
My copy of Death in Venice contains a bunch of Mann’s other short stories. I know, one day, when I finally have the time, I’ll be returning to these pages for more.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Not only is Death in Venice an exercise in writing brilliance – it’s also less than one hundred pages long. Win!
In a word:
(Yes, I know that’s the worst book review cliche there is. Too bad. In this case, it’s true. Shaddup.)