Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

February 2, 2014

Plot summary (from the publisher): Celebrated novella of a middle-aged German writer’s tormented passion for a Polish youth met on holiday in Venice, and its tragic consequences. Powerful evocation of the mysterious forces of death and disintegration in the midst of existence, and the isolation of the artist in 20th-century life.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I liked all the references to classical and mythological figures. The parallels Mann draws between these various characters and Aschenbach supplied layers of additional meaning to the story.
  • Aschenbach’s distaste for the clownish old man on the boat was a great (if obvious) bit of foreshadowing. From the moment Aschenbach took the time to make detailed observations of the old guy’s appearance, I knew he was doomed to a similar fate — and indeed, he left this world with the grey dyed out of his hair and artificial rouge on his cheeks.
  • Thank The Lord nothing happened between Aschenbach and Tadzio. I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish the novella, short as it was, if they’d actually met or conversed. Even the significant “look” the two shared was enough to make my skin crawl.

Disliked:

  • I’ve gotta say I’m not a big fan of pedophilia, even if the feelings were never ultimately acted upon. Yes, I realize Aschenbach’s “love” of Tadzio was more about an old, fading man’s appreciation of youth and beauty than about carnal lust, but it was still gross as hell.
  • I’m fairly certain I read a subpar translation of the book. From everything I’d heard about Mann prior to reading Death in Venice, I was led to believe he was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. But the inelegant prose presented in the edition I read didn’t mesh with those lofty expectations. Since I wasn’t reading Mann in the original, the blame has to fall on the translator, right?

Rating:

Death in Venice is a novella that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. There are plenty of metaphors, allusion, and symbolism to keep the reader busy thinking about the artist’s place in society or whatever; however, I don’t have enough training in literary analysis to offer an informed opinion about that side of the book. Instead, I can just tell you that as a straightforward story about a declining older man chasing his youth in the form of a beautiful young boy that he cannot possibly have, this was pretty good. If nothing else, it was short and to the point, which counts for a lot. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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