Sunday, 30 January 2011

[013] Death in Venice - Thomas Mann

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Death in Venice tells how on a visit to Venice the writer Gustav von Aschenback encounters a young boy by whose beauty he becomes obsessed. Bewitched and agonized, he desires to please ...

Using the stifling atmosphere of Venice to heighten the unbearable sense of oppression, Thomas Mann has created a sensitive and haunting portrayal of blind passion.

Why I Picked It Up:

Although (to be honest) I had never heard of it before, it looked like a book I should read, perhaps one of those classics I was trying to discover. It was also thin and did you read that back cover? Sounds super interesting. Or weird.

What I Think:

Despite the image I try to perpetuate about myself, there is one deep dark secret I hold, something that should never be uttered as an English major: I think most of the "classics" tend to be rather boring. 

I think, deep down, a lot of English majors probably agree with me; I know A does. Of course, after I read a few essays on them or discuss them in a large group, I usually come to at least respect the novel, if not actually see the good points and kind of like it. However, on my first read-through, there is a good chance I'll shrug it off with a "meh." 

In my defense, there are a lot of classics that I do adore and loved upon first read (A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind) but there is also an alarming number (in my mind, at least) that did not pass muster. This short story, as I don't think it's long enough to be even a novella, belongs to the second group.

Venice tells the tale of an old author who goes to Venice on a spur of the moment vacation. While on this trip, he encounters a young boy in his hotel that he becomes fixated on. Although they only interact fleetingly, his entire viewpoint becomes centered on this boy and while Venice slowly comes to pieces around him, he contemplates his life in relation to what he idealizes this boy to be. 

Regardless of whether you consider it a good or bad story, it is most definitely interesting, in plot at least. The idea of this old man forming a connection, if one-sided, to a young boy which throws his life into disarray, is a stunning image. When I think about it, I picture an old man in the foreground, perhaps sitting on a chair, watching an young boy in one of those 1900s bathing suits prancing on the beach. It is a fantastic visual.

The only problem, for me at least, is that there doesn't seem to be much story connected to the idea. I couldn't really tell you much of the actual plot because I seem to have forgotten it. I remember the writer and the boy, I remember the slow descent of death upon Venice but I don't remember anything anyone actually did. This is a bad sign. 

There is an amazing amount of symbolism in this story. So much so, in fact, that sometimes I felt more like I was reading a parable than a story, something I didn't want. Now, I take my symbolism with a grain of salt, normally. It's in every book and sometimes it's interesting and sometimes it's over the top but for the most part, it's easy to get past or focus on, depending on which you feel like. There was too much to wade past in this story which was annoying enough. It became even more annoying once I looked up some essays and notes on the story after finishing.

This story is sort of autobiographical. The author actually went on vacation to Venice around the same time as the fictional author and did, indeed, stay at a hotel (with his wife!) that was also attended by a family with a young boy with a strikingly similar name to the main boy in Venice. In fact, researchers managed to track down who the boy was and shared with him the story, based vaguely on him, when he was older. He was only eleven at the time of the Venetian vacation.

Finding out that the story was semi-autobiographical makes the symbolism even more aggravating to me. I don't mind symbolism when everything is fictional but I hate when people try to make facts into symbols. I appreciate what the author was trying to do but it always turns me off when I can go "or the man just happened to have red hair and you remembered it like that." Not very English major-y of me, I admit but I am a human with limits.

I think I will end this review with one of the bullet points I have in my notes. I take notes after I finish books in case I can't write the review right away (I'm writing this one about three months after finishing the book) and sometimes I think my bullet points are wittier than these blog entries are. In any case, I think this quote sums all my feelings up perfectly:

"No sympathy for any characters, if you can call them that. Reading it is like knowing something big and dramatic is going on but not really knowing what or caring."

Agreed, Past!Molly. Agreed.


  1. "Classics" are not always boring, but there was usually just more fun things to read. But I understand what you mean. There are plenty of classics that I thought were boring or just simply loathed (Animal Farm being one of the worst).
    But discussing them in class do help me respect them more than just reading them on my own would.

  2. I have never actually read Animal Farm. I wish they had it at my library; I would totally read it just to experience it.

    It's times like this I really miss classes. I wish I could discuss these ridiculous books with other people!

  3. Seriously. I miss sitting around discussing books all day. It was awesome.