Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have no doubt that Thomas Mann's "A Death in Venice" (1912) is a great work of literature. Spending six hours with this 68-page novella has been richly rewarding. Alas, it is just not my style of literature. As a simple-minded math person I am intimidated by the over-intellectualized text, full of metaphors, symbolism, and references to Greek mythology and philosophy. The critics say the novella is "intertextual", which might be true, yet I prefer literary works that stand on their own.
Most readers know what the novella is about. Briefly, an aging distinguished German writer, Gustav Aschenbach, travels recreationally to Venice, where he encounters a stunningly beautiful 14-year-old Polish boy, Tadzio. Aschenbach falls in love with Tadzio. The love is purely platonic as they never even talk to each other, but it becomes a deep obsession for Aschenbach. Let me quote: "In rising ecstasy he felt he was gazing on Beauty itself, on Form as a thought of God, on the one and pure perfection which dwells in the spirit and of which a human image and likeness had here been lightly and graciously set up for him to worship."
So much has been written about the "meaning" of the novella: the Apollonian vs. the Dionysian elements and the intellectual and restrained vs. the sensual and obsessive aspects. I lack qualifications to discuss these. To me the novella is more about an old man sensing the impending death and trying to recapture the atmosphere of his beautiful youth. The text is full of extremely sharp psychological observations. My favorite is "Nothing is stranger, more delicate, than the relationship between people who know each other only by sight [...] Between them is uneasiness and overstimulated curiosity, the nervous excitement of an unsatisfied, unnaturally suppressed need to know and to communicate; and above all, too, a kind of strained respect."
I wish I knew German better and could read the book in original. David Luke's translation is fantastic. My bet is that the original does not read any better than the English version.
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