Death in Venice and Other Stories (Paperback)

ISBN: 0451530322
ISBN 13: 9780451530325
By: Thomas Mann Jefferson S. Chase Martin Swales

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Reader's Thoughts

Bruce

What are we faced with here? A writer, Aschenbach, past 50 years of age, apparently with a degree of renown, driven and obsessed, tiring, feeling the need of a break or a rejuvenation, sees a young man from afar near a cemetery and experiences a burst of wanderlust, a vision of something different in his life, and decides on a month’s vacation somewhere different from his usual summer retreat in the mountains. We know nothing of what kind of writing the protagonist does, nothing of the significance of this particular young man.Aschenbach’s literary accomplishments are chronicled, and he turns out to be a genuine man of letters, having written extensively and authoritatively in a number of different genres. “His entire being was geared to fame.” There seems to be a stoici quality about his life and approach to his art, a fierceness with dignity that perseveres despite all obstacles and repeatedly triumphs, an intensity that ignores all personal discomfort, indeed a grimness in the face of all challenges. His art conceals an inner weakness with solid and undaunted surface overlying a disintegrating core. How much of this picture is autobiographical, one wonders. At any rate, this art appealed to the spirit of his age, to the many who succeeded despite and in the face of exhaustion and despair, again, a stoic picture. With his aging and artistic ripening came a moral inflexibility labeled as purity, an absolutism impatient with relativism, a “moral resoluteness transcending knowledge.” This tenacity simplifies the world and psyche but at the expense of strengthening its opposite. But this process led in Aschenbach’s later life and writing to a sort of ossification, a conventional formal glibness and predictability. Finally, his monastic stillness led to fussiness and weariness, and he yearned to escape, if only for a holiday.After a couple of abortive attempts at finding just the right location, he set sail for Venice. Disembarking into a gondola, he had premonitions of death, viewing the gondola as a coffin. After a mildly disagreeable confrontation with the gondolier, he arrived at his hotel on the Lido, aware that his solitude made him more aware of sensations than would be a traveler with a companion. And then, while waiting for dinner, he was captivated by the appearance of a 14-year-old Polish boy with his family. Encountering the boy repeatedly during the next day, he seemed to become increasingly intrigued, not to say infatuated. Yet in less than twenty-four hours, convinced that the atmosphere of Venice was making him ill, Aschenbach decided to leave the city, going so far as to send his luggage on ahead and himself going to the train station, during the ride to which he began having second thoughts, wishing to remain in Venice after all. To his joy, his luggage had been mis-routed, so he returned to his hotel to await the retrieval of his goods. Once back, he acknowledged to himself that the reason for his reluctance to leave Venice had been the boy, Tadzio, whom he again glimpsed.Days pass, filled with glorious weather, and Aschenbach no longer considered leaving; throughout the days he watched Tadzio, his observations and descriptions deeply sensual; he was infatuated. All of creation was intensified and transformed by his infatuation, his mood and language being expressed in flowery tropes and Classical allusions. He extended his holiday in order to remain in Venice with Tadzio, still never having spoken to the boy. Finally, upon receiving a smile from the youth, Aschenbach acknowledged to himself that he was in love.Four weeks passed, during which Aschenbach was now stalking Tadzio. At the end of this time Aschenbach became aware that an epidemic was spreading throughout Venice, noting that German-speaking tourists were leaving the city. Mann’s language becomes gradually more voluptuous, sickening, rotting in its metaphors, steamy, exotic and fetid, suiting the mood of the story as Aschenbach became more and more obsessed, more reckless in his behavior. All this time, Aschenbach realized what was happening but justified it to himself. And at the same time, he continued to try to find out more about the spreading illness in the city, even as he seemed not to contemplate leaving. Discovering that the problem was cholera, that increasing numbers of people were dying, and that Venice officials were hushing the matter up, he contemplated warning Tadzio’s mother to take her children and flee. But he decided not to do so, and with that decision began his further and more rapid moral decline, his descent into a deeper irrationality complete with nightmares in which he abandons his Apollonian life into a Dionysian frenzy, the psychic working out of his dissolution. He even went so far as to alter his appearance to appear more youthful, dying his hair, using makeup. Becoming increasingly tired, increasingly disoriented, increasingly ill, he fantasizes a speech by Socrates to a young lover to justify his own obsession as he lolls exhausted in a Venice square, having lost sight of Tadzio. A few days later, Tadio and his family left, but before they did Aschenbach once more watched Tadzio on the beach and, watching, died.This is a powerful and masterfully written novel, outstanding in its creation of a mood and process.

Jenny

While on the quintessential backpacking-through-Europe trip in my early 20s, my traveling partner and I, of course, went to Venice. We arrived and were immediately charmed by the uniqueness of this mythic city, checked into a super cheap room and ventured out to explore. After a warm afternoon/evening of flirting with gondoliers, getting lost down tiny alleyways, admiring glass jewelry, and drinking inexpensive wine, we returned to our room. It was dark. We turned on the glaring overhead lights and were faced with something out of a horror movie. Dozens upon dozens of plump, well-fed mosquitoes had been squashed against the eerily blank white walls and the quivering shadows of their still-living counterparts could be seen hovering in the corners. Further investigation of the room turned up several swatters and some toxic-looking bug spray. The next day we checked into a place that cost slightly more, but that was air conditioned and had no need for opening the windows. We spent a lovely few days in Venice, exploring its many charms, but the insect-infested nightmares and itchy welts lingered like the reek of the canals...reminding us of the city's more gruesome underbelly. I was reminded of this experience while reading "Death in Venice." Aschenbach is both charmed by Venice, and troubled by it. Much like Aschenbach, I would go back to the city in a heartbeat. The first thing that drew me into this little masterpiece was his vibrant and well-balanced description of the setting through Aschenbach's eyes (perhaps partially because I have been there and could relate...and even all of these years later, Venice remains quite a bit the same.)Obviously, as I look toward teaching this book to my European Lit class in the fall, I'm wondering how to head off the "Eeew. He's a creepy pedophile!" comments before they even start. Admittedly, as I witnessed the development of Aschenbach's love for the young Polish boy, Tadzio, over the course of the book, I had my own moments of "ew," but I felt that Mann's candid and unguarded exploration of Aschenbach's psyche helped me to see that this story goes far beyond that of an older man obsessively stalking a beautiful young boy. As Aschenbach nears his final moments of his writing career (and his life), he is grasping for that perfect beauty that every artist hopes to achieve, represented in the symbol of Tadzio.I find it quite crafty that Mann is able to create such an intimate relationship between the reader and Aschenbach that, at times, the reader knows and understands Aschenbach's innermost feelings, intentions, and motives even better that Aschenbach does himself. I'm also anxious to go back and the story more slowly, in the process reading up on the many layers of mythological references that Mann makes. I read it quickly the first time--I almost couldn't help it--but it is clearly a book meant to be savored, reread, digested slowly. At the book's end, I found myself flipping back in search of this quotation, seeking something to help me make sense of it: "Yes, even on a personal basis art is an enhancement of life. It makes you more deeply happy, it wears you out faster. It engraves on the face of its servant imaginary, intellectual adventures and, with time...makes him spoiled and fastidious, producing a weariness and nervous curiosity that could hardly be generated by a lifetime full of extravagant passions and pleasures." Ultimately, and in its simplest terms, Aschenbach's story is about what it means to be an artist, what it means to pursue beauty. A hefty theme for such a slim volume, but one that he seems to explore adeptly in all of its complexity of pleasure and pain.

Becca

In 'Death in Venice', Thomas Mann allows his readers to view a respectable man's descent into madness, into a dark, disturbing obsession where reason and logic have no impact on actions - where passion reigns sovereign... and it's jarring to *witness*.The story begins with such attention taken to establish the story's protagonist (*Gus von A*) as hyper-disciplined, possessing the utmost aplomb and self-mastery - only to have him come undone as the book progresses. This is one of those stories where syntax and diction play as much a part in the reader's investment as does the plot itself. Mann's sentences are at first long, and intricate - with far too many dependent clauses (seriously, try to diagram some of these suckers!)... but by the story's end, peppered amongst the ornate are an equal number of staccato phrases (often the protagonist's hurried and ill-considered decisions to act on whim). I love the art of writing and Mann's style is the equivalent of literary porn. The subject matter isn't lacking scandal either. GREAT read. It's short enough to read quickly, but why rush. Savor it a bit.

Barbara

When I was in college, I read Death in Venice for the first time. I can't imagine what I made of it then. Of course, the story of an older man drawn to a beautiful young boy is compelling, but the sense of time running out can't have meant much to me at that point in my life. I read the novella again recently and was struck by its power. Mann captures so effectively the emptiness of Von Aschenbach's life. Though the story is full of people, he is apart, alone, a writer, a recorder of life, not a participant. His growing infatuation with Tadzio threatens his safe world, but his desire for contact with the boy overwhelms everything else. Here is part of how Mann describes Tadzio when Von Aschenbach seems him for the second time. "It was the head of Eros, with the yellowish bloom of Parian marble, with fine serious brows, and dusky clustering ringlets standing out in soft plenteousness over temples and ears." In the beginning, he is a statue, something beautiful to admire. Yet at the end of the book, Mann writes, "Once more he paused to look: with a sudden recollection, or by an impulse, he turned from the waist up, in an exquisite movement, one hand resting on his hip, and looked over his shoulder at the shore. The watcher sat just as he had sat that time in the lobby of the hotel when first the twilit grey eyes met his own. . . It seemed to him the pale and lovely Summoner smiled at him and beckoned"

Daniel Pecheur

I just finished reading this and I was really blown away. Thomas Mann is an extraordinary writer who provides brilliant insight about the condition of the suffering artist. Using the character of Tadzio as the ideal of beauty, Mann describes the final days of a famous writer named Aschenbach, who while vacationing in Venice discovers this young male who becomes the apotheosis of all his ideals of beauty and intoxicates him in a rapture of emotion that carries him, like a sickness, to the throes of anguish and unremitting, fiercely irrational obsession. It brings to my mind some other works I've read this year, like Wilde's Picture of Dorian Grey and Camus' The Plague. Dorian Grey because like Wilde, Mann uses a young male to represent the ideal of beauty, though with far greater depth and penetrating language. Like Camus' Plague, Mann uses the motif of an omnipresent plague to parallel with the inner turmoil of his central character, who succumbs to the obliterating madness of his love for Tadzio, losing all sense of his inveterate rational composure. The Apollonian cedes to the Dionysian, Aschenbach stumbles into the abyss of passions and dies in the captivated sight of his fetishe, the godlike image of beauty. The ending yields an inevitable and yet powerful catharsis that the entire novella has been building up to and waiting to burst in some excruciating crescendo of despair, here seen as the physical death of Aschenbach which consummates the other "death" in Venice-- that of his life-long sober and contained artistic convictions that have burned up under the raging influence of an emotion that spells his annihilation, that undermines every belief he has lived by and sends him crashing impotently in the fires of uncontrollable passion. Aschenbach's inner struggle and ultimate death embodies the troubled soul of the artist that expends all its energy in wistful contemplation of the Ideal, and when it is finally seen in physical form, it results in a devouring pang of insatiable desire that can be nothing less than fatal.

Jenny Blounts

While on the quintessential backpacking-through-Europe trip in my early 20s, my traveling partner and I, of course, went to Venice. We arrived and were immediately charmed by the uniqueness of this mythic city, checked into a super cheap room and ventured out to explore. After a warm afternoon/evening of flirting with gondoliers, getting lost down tiny alleyways, admiring glass jewelry, and drinking inexpensive wine, we returned to our room. It was dark. We turned on the glaring overhead lights and were faced with something out of a horror movie. Dozens upon dozens of plump, well-fed mosquitoes had been squashed against the eerily blank white walls and the quivering shadows of their still-living counterparts could be seen hovering in the corners. Further investigation of the room turned up several swatters and some toxic-looking bug spray. The next day we checked into a place that cost slightly more, but that was air conditioned and had no need for opening the windows. We spent a lovely few days in Venice, exploring its many charms, but the insect-infested nightmares and itchy welts lingered like the reek of the canals...reminding us of the city's more gruesome underbelly.I was reminded of this experience while reading "Death in Venice." Aschenbach is both charmed by Venice, and troubled by it. Much like Aschenbach, I would go back to the city in a heartbeat. The first thing that drew me into this little masterpiece was his vibrant and well-balanced description of the setting through Aschenbach's eyes (perhaps partially because I have been there and could relate...and even all of these years later, Venice remains quite a bit the same.)Obviously, as I look toward teaching this book to my European Lit class in the fall, I'm wondering how to head off the "Eeew. He's a creepy pedophile!" comments before they even start. Admittedly, as I witnessed the development of Aschenbach's love for the young Polish boy, Tadzio, over the course of the book, I had my own moments of "ew," but I felt that Mann's candid and unguarded exploration of Aschenbach's psyche helped me to see that this story goes far beyond that of an older man obsessively stalking a beautiful young boy. As Aschenbach nears his final moments of his writing career (and his life), he is grasping for that perfect beauty that every artist hopes to achieve, represented in the symbol of Tadzio.

WK

How this story is told is masterful, but what is told I don't appreciate.

David

This collection of Thomas Mann's novellas and short stories thematically exhibits the alienation of being a passionate artist in a bourgeois society. "We artists despise no one more than the dilettante, the man of life who thinks that in his spare time, on top of everything else, he can become an artist," the title character tells a sympathetic friend in "Tonio Kroger," a story which seems at least partially autobiographical. Tonio, who has become a renowned writer as an adult, recalls an instance when he was a boy in which he tried to entice the interest of a friend -- a popular, athletic boy, everything that Tonio was not -- by enthusiastically explaining to him the plot of Schiller's "Don Carlos." The attempt was futile, however, and Tonio was left spiritually alone with his unusual love of literature."Tristan" takes the artist-bourgeois conflict to a setting that presages Mann's definitive novel "The Magic Mountain." The protagonist, an offbeat writer named Spinell confined to a tuberculosis sanatarium, takes an interest in a fellow patient, a businessman's wife who, he discovers, is a sensitive and tasteful amateur pianist. He writes her husband a derogatory letter, deploring him as a philistine who does not deserve to share his life with this secretly artistic woman, which results in a heated confrontation between the two men. In "The Child Prodigy," Mann's tone turns satirical as he focuses on an eight-year-old concert pianist giving an electrifying public performance to an audience whose various reactions -- wonder, jealousy, indifference -- are reflections upon themselves more so than on the performer. "Death in Venice" is the boldest piece in this collection, unambiguously presenting homosexuality in an artistically positive light but also showing something of a German fascination with Italian culture and scenery. Gustav Aschenbach, the protagonist, again seems to reflect Mann to an extent as a middle-aged, widowed, respected author from Munich who becomes infatuated with a teenage boy while vacationing in Venice. Whether this love ever becomes mutual or physical is not as important as the mood Mann invokes about European cultural and moral decadence, possibly symbolized by the cholera epidemic that sweeps through the city. "Man and Dog: An Idyll" is a brilliant meditation on the narrator's affectionate and occasionally difficult relationship with his pet pointer and also allows a glimpse of life in the industrialized and suburbanized Germany of the early twentieth century. To say that Mann gives the dog a human personality may seem a cliche, but few writers could achieve his level of empathy in relating a dog's behavior and desires in man's terms without resorting to outright personification. A disturbing inversion of this story is told in "Tobias Mindernickel," in which a lonely old man, given no personal background by Mann, ostracized in his neighborhood by adults and taunted by children, buys a dog and demands from it the obedience and respect he has never earned from people.Mann is truly one of the most important figures in twentieth century literature. What he chose to portray, and the talent with which he portrayed it, brighten the legacy of a century that threatened to destroy art in so many ways for so many insane reasons.

Melissa

Death in Venice is a philosophical examination of the plight of the artist. Aschenbach--the fallen artist--has lost his soul in his pursuir of success. He goes on vacation, where he falls in love with Tadzio, a young boy. As cholera overtakes Venice, Aschenbach slips deeper and deeper into his love affair. This novella is a really masterful combination of action and philosophy, seemlessly interwoven through Aschenbach's character.

Ray

I only read the title story. I keep reading the gay canon backwards. I am sure comparisons to Isherwood abound. But really this reminded me more of a gussied up Dennis Cooper. I did enjoy it. I wonder why so many gay authors longly peer through the windows to look at lives they can not lead. Well actually I know why but all the isolation does get tiresome.

Raluca

Though I found Mann's style to be a bit boring, I did find comfort in the similarities between his characters and my own ego. The motif of the outsider, the person who cannot fit in society's predetermined roles and must struggle to come to the facts that he will forever be on the outskirts, observing society rather than taking part in it, is one I am quite familiar with. But while I still keep optimism in the ideas I form for stories I will never write, Mann's work overwhelmed me with sadness. I found this tone to be accentuated more in the way the stories trailed off without a finality, as if to suggest that this struggle he's been carrying within him for so much time will never let him go, that he had long lost hope to ever find peace of heart. THow would I have loved to find out how the young Tadzio would react when his elder admirer finally approached him. But it was not written in the stars for the two to be acquainted and I suppose it was a parallel of sorts of the times that Mann lived in, when one was bound to keep their inner turmoils inside and though two kindred souls might recognize each other by their gaze, their association would be improbable.

Michael

i stalk mr. mann's corpse. one of the first serious writing exercises i gave myself was to write death in venice from gustav's p.o.v. and that story is only the beginning - i have a big soft spot for all of his work.

David

In this collection of stories Thomas Mann has one subject, and one alone: the provincialism and decline of the bourgeoisie of late Wilhemine Germany. The stories exude a brooding sense of decay that is symbolized in the lives of their protagonists, who are all troubled by an inability to merge cultural idealism with the material requirements of daily life. The practical men are cut off from the artists, and the artistic men are cut off from society as a whole. The result is, for the artist primarily, a disabling and often unbearable social alienation. Two character types reappear in most of the stories: the properly bourgeois individual, and the bourgeois révolté -- or the artist. What distinguishes these two types one from the other is their soundness of health: the bourgeois proper lives in a concrete world of practical ends and objective attainments, and is unselfconscious and ruddy with life. The révolté is a product of the same bourgeois civilization, but rejects its requirements of cultural conformity and practical discipline. In pursuit of art, the bourgeois révolté suffers from a self-imposed ostracism. In Mann’s portrayals, Aschenbach chief among them, the révolté is sterile and, in a few of the stories, quite literally physically defective. They cannot reproduce either physically or culturally, and they fail to integrate either themselves or their work with the culture from which they were born. This mood of pessimism is precisely what led Marxist literary critic Georg Lukacs to praise Mann as the greatest novelist of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lukacs valued Mann’s ability to portray the subjective experience of alienation as it resulted from the (often unspecified) contradictions of bourgeois civilization. The European literary establishment shared Lukac’s esteem, if not his politics, awarding Mann the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929 for his 1901 novel, "Buddenbrooks". Yet, unlike near contemporaries such as Joyce, Proust, and Maupassant – none of whom received the Nobel Prize – the range of Mann’s stories is much more limited, and his prose style much more conventional. For all the suffering of his protagonists, cut off from their friends, families, and lovers on account of their heightened sensitivity to artistic beauty, they are still very much creatures of the dark and padded nineteenth century bourgeois interior, unable or unwilling to make the gesture of complete rejection, just as Mann himself steered well clear of modernism and its experiments. The world-consuming appetite of modernism, its urge to take in the whole of human experience, is missing in these stories. Joyce aims to embrace his native city, his “race,” and the whole of language within his fiction; Maupassant spreads his observations of noblemen, peasants, sailors, soldiers, mothers, wives, and lovers across his hundreds of compact stories. With Mann, we have the same story, told skillfully and with great variation in detail, over and over again.The result is a fiction of decline, of blocked egress, symbolized in the fate of Aschenbach himself. Mann’s most famous character is a man who is driven to extremes by his desire, but is unable to either abandon or fulfill it, a contradiction that is only resolved by his extinction.

Schmacko

I know, it’s a crying shame I haven’t read this classic years ago. And now, having read it, I can say, “What a fascinating, disturbing little melodrama, ” set this brief but dense book aside, and then never pick it up again.Death in Venice by Thomas Mann was published in 1912. It’s about Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful septuagenarian German author who leaves his very staid, regimental life for a whim-filled holiday in Venice. While there, Aschenbach slowly shrugs off his straightjacket existence and starts to feel fiery passion. This is brought on by another vacationer to the island – a 14-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio.Death in Venice is about what 70-year-old Aschenbach’s passion means. Is it an artist’s appreciation of physical beauty? Is it the sickly old author longing after his own youth, acknowledging that that Tadzio takes youth for granted, not even realizing that his beauty is fleeting. Is Aschenbach a pedophile? Is his unnatural lust brought on by Aschenbach’s previously restrictive existence?Mann does a beautiful job of balancing all these complicated questions in a story that is both prosaic and tense. The book veers from being a confessional of sickness to an uncomfortable apologist creed for pedophilia as an education for the youth and an appreciation of physical beauty by older men. I happen to be a strong believer in social structure and propriety on this given subject, so I found myself a little squeamish, even the though the book itself is otherwise chaste. I was frustrated by Mann’s ability to both vilify the emotion and then create a shaky logic for why it exists. In that sense, the book is very successful.In another sense, this book is pure 1912 melodrama. A horrible plague has befallen Venice, a mysterious malady that becomes a major plot point. Aschenbach plummets from his formerly logical and lofty moral values into an obsessed and passion-controlled wisp of a thing. Achenbach is erudite enough that he goes into long narratives about the history of man-boy love and its acceptance in other cultures. You can feel the German trying to justify his own increasingly senseless emotions as he grows both physically and mentally sicker. Finally, it’s blindingly clear that the mystery disease and Achenbach’s lust are parallel metaphors, in which Mann gives his final judgment on the overarching subject of the book – the appreciating of youthful beauty versus pedophilic lust.I get it. I read it. I can move on.

Ann L.

Prose style is superb. Top-notch writing skills and sentence structure for high impact. The plots are dynamic. I have read a lot and generally do not care for short-stories, but somehow these have so much quality packed into them that they shot up to the top of my list of all-time favorite author. In fact, I am writing a mystery series now and these short stories are one of my 5 go-to books for checking on writing quality. "Little Herr Friedeman" was my absolute favorite. I thought I was used to surprise endings until I read this.

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