Monday, November 7, 2011

V Nabokov and H James in Venice

Last night I read Thomas Mann's long short story Death In Venice. I admit to having never read any Thomas Mann before. I can't account for it, but it's true. Anyway, DiV last night.

It's the story of an aging German writer named Aschenbach, famous and beloved since his youngest days, who gets the sudden idea (planted in his imagination by Death, who appears thrice in the tale in different guises but always played by a thin man with a snub nose*) to travel in an effort to reinvigorate his passion for writing. Our hero has loads of technique but no longer really has the fire in his blood. Aschenbach ends up in Venice, where the authorities are keeping a cholera outbreak as secret as they can so that the tourist industry won't be harmed.

In the dining room of his immense beach side hotel, Aschenbach sees a Polish family. They have two daughters and a son, named Tadzio. Tadzio is a perfect specimen of European male youth, a little carven Greek god come to life. Aschenbach, who has long abandoned sentiment and irony and the passions of youth for a deliberate and careful classicism, a regimented art and life, finds himself drawn to Tadzio. So drawn to him that he begins to stalk him on the beach and on family outings in the city. A few days of this and Aschenbach wants to speak to the boy, wants the boy to speak to him, and our hero realizes that he's in love, and not in a purely aesthetic way either. Things progress from there.

About halfway into the story I got the strong impression that I was reading a sketch of Lolita as written by Henry James. An old writer lusting after a youth, with layer upon layer of symbolism and irony. The entire story is a symbol for itself, a large irony about irony, a reckless joke about art not being life which is pulled off by art becoming lifelike. It's a fabulous machine, at once self-conscious and proud of its artifice while also being both bigger than and more subtle than all the formal and symbolic games. A nice piece of work, in other words. Not at all what I was expecting. Much much better.

* Each of Death's appearances mocks Aschenbach by being an exaggerated and comic version of our hero. In fact, everything in this story is a mocking, ironic symbol of one sort or another.


  1. This DiV has long been on my list to read. Thanks for the review. Of sorts.

  2. As I move on to the other stories in this book (I'm reading Tonio Kroeger right now), I begin to think that Death in Venice isn't Mann's best work, even though it's so well-known. DiV is an impressive formal achievement, but maybe because of that careful formal architecture it lacks some of the humanity of his other stuff. Which may also be one of the deliberate ironies of the story, so huh.

  3. This peaks my interest. :) I love Death personified. :)

  4. Death is more a prop than a character in this; it's not his story at all and Mann never explicitly says that this character is Death, nor that the three appearances of this character are all in fact the same person. But obvs he is and they are.