” Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice (Dover Thrift Editions) (Paperback) ~ Thomas Man... Cover Art

In January 2013 I read Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s brilliant 1956 novel. The tragic story set in Paris of a doomed love affair between two men has been rated by the Publishing Triangle as #2 on its list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels of all time. Thomas Mann’s classic Death in Venice, first published in 1912 in his native Germany, was the only work to receive a higher rating. I added Mann’s work to my To Read List and recently got around to reading it. More a novella than a novel, it was a welcome break from the many 500-600 page works I have recently tackled.

As the title would suggest this too is a tale with an unhappy ending and like Giovanni’s Room deals with a doomed love affair or more precisely an obsession. The central character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous German author in his fifties. Despite his fame and good fortune he is emotionally starved and decides a vacation is in order. He initially goes to Pula in modern-day Croatia but soon decides that a trip to Venice is what he needs. After settling into his hotel on the island of Lido, at dinnertime he notices an aristocratic Polish family. He is particularly struck by the beautiful fourteen year old son whom he likens to a Greek sculpture. Over the next few weeks he regularly sees the boy who he learns is named Tadzio. He soon becomes obsessed with seeking the boy out, wherever he may be. While Aschenbach is preoccupied with following Tadzio everywhere, he becomes increasingly aware that there seems to be a health hazard lurking in the city. Not wanting to spoil the story any further I will refrain from discussing any more of the plot. Just bear in mind the title of the work.

One little bit of trivia that I found quite interesting is that Mann’s widow in 1974 revealed that the story was in fact inspired by an actual holiday that she and Mann took in Venice in the summer of 1911. They stayed at the same hotel, the Grand Hôtel des Bains, where Aschenbach and Tadzio are lodging in the novel. While there Mann spotted a Polish family with a strikingly attractive ten-year old boy. While Mann allegedly did not pursue the young boy as Aschenbach does, he was fascinated by him and spoke about him quite often. Mann’s diaries released in 1975 revealed that he struggled with his bisexuality throughout his life.

I cannot really say I enjoyed this classic work; more accurately I would say I appreciated it. Even though I did not read it in its original German language, it was clear to me that Mann has a clear mastery of the written word. The plot itself was quite interesting and having been to Venice twenty years ago I was able to visualize the city as Mann was describing it. This is not an easy work to read and it is quite dry at times. Since I was reading an English translation it may be that I was not reading the best version. That’s one possible explanation for why I was not as enamored with the work as Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Mann also extensively references ancient Greek culture and mythology in the story and since I have read nothing by the ancient Greek writers I have a very limited understanding of that nation’s culture & history. I am certain that if I were better read in the writings of that era my enjoyment of this book would have been much greater. I certainly cannot fault Mann for my limited knowledge. Since this is a short book I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading a work by an author with an incredible writing skill.

Should you be interested in reading my comments about Giovanni’s Room , just click on the following link.   https://eahartnett.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=208&action=edit

Favorite Books That I Read in 2013

I’ve had the good fortune to have read some incredible books these past twelve months. Earlier this week I posted a rant here about the books that appear on a goodreads thread titled Best Books Ever, a list to which I took strong exception. So for the record the works I mention below are the ones I read this past year that I most enjoyed and which I believe have helped to make me a better writer; each of them I found truly outstanding. I will not attempt to rank these; each was superb in its own special way. Thus they are arranged in alphabetical order by title. These authors have all truly inspired me as I work to complete and get published my own first novel. I have also included my Honorable Mention List. A number of the books on both lists were the author’s first published work, wonderful encouragement for those of us who hope to see our own first book in print. The date following the author’s name is where you will find a more detailed review of each of these works in the Archive section to the right. Happy Holiday Reading!

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham: (May 2013) One of my new favorite authors, the story centers around the relationship between two people who meet as young boys, experiment sexually with each other, move apart and reconnect later in life. Beautiful, heartwarming, funny and sad. This book preceded his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Hours.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman: (Feb. 2013) Set in the Italian Riviera and viewed from the perspective of someone looking back on events that happened in the distant past. Aciman creates an erotic energy between two young men that is not consummated until late in the book. Rarely have I ever seen such a beautiful mastery of language and images. I was in complete awe by the time I finished this brilliant literary novel.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: (Feb. 2013) The tragic, heart-breaking story of doomed love set in 1950’s Paris. One of the great breakthroughs of 20th century literature and one perfectly executed.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: (Aug. 2013) What can I possibly say that has not been said ad infinitum about one of the greatest pieces of American fiction? How did I ever get this far into life without having already read it? A masterpiece without question.

Where You Are by J.H. Trumble: (Nov. 2013) I read two books this year by this incredibly gifted author. This one dares to take head-on the taboo subject of teacher/student intimacy forcing the reader to not think in black & white terms. She creates a beautiful, complex and thoughtful work in the process.

Winter Birds: A Novel by Jim Grimsley: (Dec. 2013) A grim, painful and frightening novel set in a poor rural North Carolina home dealing with an abusive and alcoholic man who terrorizes his wife and five children. 

Honorable Mention List

Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette: (May 2013) This memoir is so painful, so poignant, so beautifully written and deals with the author’s struggle for the first half of his life to accept himself as a gay man. So sad that this great author died way too soon.

Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trumble: (June 2013) The other novel I read by this talented author this year and her first. The story centers on two young men deeply in love who face serious challenges and jealousies when circumstances force them to live far apart from one another. This author has really impressed me.

Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley: (Aug 2013) One of three books I read by Grimsley this year. A disturbing, powerful and moving story of forbidden and unspoken love in the rural South.

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez: (Sept. 2013) This book focuses on the lives of three high school seniors, whose lives are interconnected, each of whom is in a different state of gay self-acceptance. At times quite humorous, at other times fairly serious.

Three Junes by Julia Glass: (Aug. 2013) The 2002 National Book Award Winner. Three separate but interconnected stories taking place in Greece, Scotland and New York during three Junes over a ten-year period. Fascinating work!



Goodreads “Best Books Ever”

I’m a big fan of goodreads. It’s my Go-To Place to fill my bucket list for my To Read List and has provided me some excellent suggestions for quite some time now. Currently I have 82 books on that list, nearly all of which I added as a result of reviews and suggestions on goodreads based on my past reading habits.

Recently on the site I saw that someone had posted a thread titled simply “Best Books Ever” that apparently was started in 2008. When I last checked, more than 107,000 people had voted and more than 3,300 people had left comments. Out of curiosity I checked out the voting…the results were nothing less than shocking. Before discussing the specifics of the 10 books that topped that list, I want to articulate what for me represents a Best Books Ever list.

Ever is a long time and certainly works going back thousands of years like Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey come to mind as likely candidates for such a list. Writers like Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Rousseau, Voltaire, Dickens, Darwin, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Twain, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Proust, Shaw, Joyce, Steinbeck, Faulkner are the sort of names I would expect to see on such a list. There are way too many authors of similar stature and my not mentioning them by name does not mean their works would not be serious candidates for such a list. I think you get the picture of what I’m suggesting. I will shamefully acknowledge that I have read a pitifully small percentage of works by the authors I have cited but I recognize that it is the words of writers like these that have left a significant mark on the civilized and literate world. Such a list is always subject to heated debate, and far greater minds than mine or dare I say that of anyone reading my blog have expressed strong opinions on the subject.

So getting back to the goodreads list: what were the 10 books to top the list? Six of the top nine were Harry Potter books. Really?  With all due respect to J.K. Rowling, I think even she would take strong exception to the absurdity of such results. Popular, entertaining, well-written – I will grant all that but give me a break. I doubt if she is going to be winning a Pulitzer or Nobel prize for her efforts. Top vote getter by a wide margin was…drum roll…The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Same comments I made about Ms. Rowling apply here as well. Most irritating on the list was # 3 rated Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. WTF???? I will refrain from any further comment. Oh and for the record before anyone starts accusing me of being misogynistic, mercifully the remaining two books rounding out the Top 10 were To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride and Prejudice, rated seven and ten respectively. I probably would not include them in my own Top Ten List but definitely can see a strong argument for their being there. Both easily dwarf the others in that upper tier.

The simple problem with this query was the originator’s posing it as a “Best Books Ever” List rather than “Books I Have Most Enjoyed” List, which is how I presume most people were responding when they entered their choices. In the latter case, all bets are off and anything goes. People are entitled to like what they like. There are many books I have enjoyed but would never dream of listing as Best Books Ever. The perfect examples of that for me are Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and the Vampire Lestat, probably my two favorite books of all time. I totally delighted in both and have read each several times but fully recognize neither deserves to be put on Mount Olympus. I’m in the process of compiling my own list of My Favorite Books I Read This Year which I’ll soon be posting here. The ones I will be including I totally loved and would enjoy reading again but except for perhaps one I would not consider putting any on a Best Books Ever list.

I realize any such list is very subjective. Some of the comments did make me chuckle. “This list is a joke!”  “This list has some of the same books as the worst books list. lol”  “Wow, some of these folks need to read more. Or age more. Or go to school, or something. I mean, really.” “I hope my novel doesn’t end up on this list.” The last was probably my favorite. I left a comment that I refused to vote and give any validity to such a preposterous list. Someone wrote back that I was being a snob. I really do not think that is the case but if that is what anyone wants to think just because I try to have high standards so be it. I was going to respond to her but saw no point in getting in a food fight. Instead I thought I would vent my feelings here. I’d love to hear back from you on the subject. And once I do get my own manuscript completed and published I will echo the earlier comment. “I hope my novel doesn’t end up on this list.”

Background Reading for My Novel, Part V: Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni's Room

A  book that always seems to appear on anyone’s list of great gay-themed fiction is James Baldwin’s modern-day classic Giovanni’s Room, his second novel, first published in 1956. The Publishing Triangle, the American association of the LGBT publishing industry, has ranked this as number 2 on its list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels, second only to Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. As part of my plan to read an abundance of quality fiction that is gay-themed or of a coming-of-age genre to assist me in own writing efforts, I read this book in early January.

This is the first work of Baldwin’s I have ever read & what an incredible story it is. The protagonist David, a young American living in Paris in the 1950’s, for his entire life has been in complete denial that he is gay. Only when he meets the handsome Italian bartender Giovanni, who works in a gay bar in Paris, does he begin his slow acceptance of his sexuality. Tragically David begins this acceptance of his natural desires & stops lying to himself and others only when it is too late for him to have a long-term relationship with the man he realizes will almost certainly be the great love of his life. You know from the very beginning of this book that there will be a tragic ending and yet I found myself hoping it would not end the way it did.

Being a gay African-American in the 1950’s, Baldwin himself suffered a double dose of persecution and hostility with widespread racism and homophobia permeating American culture for his generation. He emigrated from the U.S. to Paris in 1948 where he felt life would be easier and lived in Europe the rest of his life.

This was a quick but painful story to read; I polished it off in two evenings. The novel is incredibly well written & poignant. Giovanni’s Room was a major breakthrough in the publishing industry, helping to broaden public awareness and opinion on same-sex desires and relationships at least in the minds of the reading public. In light of the growing acceptance of marriage equality, Baldwin’s novel is a reminder of just how far the fight for LGBT rights & acceptance has come since Baldwin’s time. I plan to read more by this brilliant author.