Thursday, November 1, 2012

Guest Review: DEATH IN VENICE by Thomas Mann

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1912

Genre: novella

Topics: philosophy, obsession, logic versus passion

Review by Patty S.

I regard Thomas Mann as one of the more esteemed German writers of his era. He has provided enough material to mark his place in German literature, and his works are almost always taught at university. It was hight time, therefore, to read one of his better-known novelas, Death in Venice (I read it in the original, available through Project Gutenberg).

I knew of the plot of the book so I was ready to dive into a whirl of emotions. No - this is not how Mann writes. We follow the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a middle-aged man who is at the height of recognition as an artist and basically on the verge of going downhill. He tries to find inspiration anywhere, and this has to be Venice. From the beginning, I could not sympathise with him. Because the story is told by an unknown third person, I find there is too much distance between myself and the main character. While I can read about his struggle, it felt like reading a report on some unknown soldier in a far-away land. How much more impressive it would have been had I been reading Gustav's own thoughts and fears and expectations! That was a point I was really astonished with and it triggered a bit of research into Mann's point of view: It turns out that the story of this book is based on Mann's own experience. This put everything into a new perspective: did Mann deliberately want to "tone down" the connection between Gustav and himself? Was he afraid that if he had the protagonist talk for himself, he might have revealed more than he was comfortable with? And why should he be uncomfortable?

This is the second point: I see the despair of an man who has gained recognition by nurture when he sees a naturally beautiful boy. To me, this goes beyond an older man trying to find the youth elixir in the young boy - it's more of the feeling of insecurity that keeps us from feeling safe. We will always run the risk of being "exposed" because we don't feel at ease in our skin. We've accomplished great things with the respective effort, but we feel that it's all fake. It is when we witness someone who embodies all the qualities we would have liked to see in ourselves, that we lose our grasp of reality. Gustav has all the qualities that other people admire, yet he's not happy. He's searching for inspiration, he can find none, and resorts to moving to and from places, just to escape this feeling of convention.

This is the third point: while I said I would have preferred Gustav to talk for himself, I appreciate the insinuations the reader provides as to social convention. The story unfolds at a time where society imposed a number of guidelines as to how one should live. We can a glimpse from the Polish family, where the girls are made to look like nuns, while the boy is free to do as he pleases. While growing up, of course, he will also succumb to the pressure of society and will probably end up like Gustav. Gustav, who has "profited" from society, but who now realises that he has made a pact that can no longer be sustained. He sees how pointless all this masquerade is, and he escapes - only in spirit - by obsessing about the young boy.

How I wish that escapes of this kind were the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of those who need it. But there, even Mann knows the outcome: harsh and definite, he shows that there is no escape - once we get into acting our lives, we will keep on acting until the end. A challenging book, great in interpretation, but it left me wondering how Gustav really felt - how Mann really felt ...

Find Death In Venice by Thomas Mann at Project Gutenberg (German)|Internet Archive (English)