” 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

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Background Reading for My Novel: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

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Attempting to review a novel as legendary as The Picture of Dorian Gray is challenging to say the least but I will do my best to do just that. Noted more for his plays and poems, this work by Oscar Wilde was his only novel. When first published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, the story sent shock waves through the literary world and was viciously attacked as immoral most notably for its homoerotic and hedonistic themes. Wilde attempted to quiet the attacks by substantially revising the story and adding more background, expanding the original work from thirteen to twenty chapters before its 1891 book publication. The revisions did little though to quiet the outrage. The edition I read was the one published in 1891 which is the most widely read version.

The general storyline of course is well-known. It follows the life of a handsome young man who has his Faustian wish fulfilled that a recent painting of him will age while he himself remains physically young and attractive. As Gray’s life slides further and further into debauchery and crime, the portrait becomes increasingly grotesque while he remains eternally beautiful. It does not take much imagination to realize that the artist Basil Hallward is clearly infatuated with Dorian although there is no sexual contact between the two in the novel. It is through Basil that Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton who advocates a hedonistic lifestyle to Dorian, suggesting to the impressionable young man that beauty and satisfying one’s desires are the only things really worth pursuing in life. This is the trigger that changes Dorian’s attitude and behavior. The two become close friends and remain so throughout the story.

Wilde once commented that the novel’s three main characters contain much of himself: Basil is the person Wilde perceived himself to be, Lord Henry represents the public view of him and “Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” The story itself is incredibly fascinating and Wilde does a superb job playing with the age-old fantasy of eternal youth. Some of the best lines in the book are the pithy, cynical reflections of Lord Henry. Two excellent examples: “Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.” Also: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

The one criticism I have of the book is that at times I found the prose to be a bit too flowery but in part I am sure that is a reflection of the writing style of the era. Chapter 11 for example is almost entirely a long, drawn-out recounting of all the excesses to which Dorian indulges himself describing endlessly the colors and textures of the objects with which he surrounds himself. Eventually I found myself simply skimming through this chapter because I started thinking “OK Oscar, I get the picture. Can we now get on with the story?” My guess is that this was a part of expanded background Wilde felt necessary to add to the 1891 publication to quiet his critics. It has been suggested by scholars that Wilde would probably want us to read the work as it was originally written since we are in a more permissive forward-looking time than the repressive Victorian world in which he himself lived. Since the original unedited version is now available I may do just that.

Eventually of course Wilde was subjected to a very public trial for his immoral homosexual lifestyle and sentenced to two years’ hard labor for his “crimes”, a sentence that would break him physically and emotionally and contribute to his early death. This is an important novel and one very well-written. It is a classic example of Gothic fiction, much as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe are. Thank you Oscar for this work. I am so sorry I did not get to stop by and pay my respects to you during my recent visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0162fd1648fb970d-600wi

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!

 

 

Background Reading for My Novel: “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby

Disappointment is an unfortunate fact of life. Let’s face it: all of us have had more than our share of it in our lives. Many things can trigger this: someone’s actions, a vacation spot, a meal at a restaurant, a show, a movie, a book.  The list is almost endless. If the source of the disappointment is something that has won widespread praise you may wonder during or after your experience what all the fuss was about. High expectations often can lead to major letdowns. Fortunately this book did not elicit that response from me – just the opposite in fact happened.

When I began reading The Great Gatsby I was well aware of the high esteem the book enjoys in the literary world.  It was a book I had long-planned to read and somehow never did despite its brief length. One quarter of the way through the book I had the dreaded sense that this was going to be a literary disappointment for me. Yes I could appreciate Fitzgerald’s writing talent but I could not help but wonder why it has been consistently ranked one of the greatest works of American literature.

And then the magic happened. The book which had started so slowly soon picked up tempo so that by the time I finished it I felt I had been taken on a wonderful journey. It amazes me that Fitzgerald could create such an incredible tale and such fascinating characters in a mere 180 pages. This is the story of Jay Gatsby’s rise from his humble origins to a life of great wealth, of his obsessive and doomed love for Daisy (née Fay) Buchanan, a love that ultimately results in his downfall. Though set in Jazz Age Prohibition-era 1922 in the fictional village of West Egg, Long Island, the story has an almost timeless quality about the rewards and dangers of pursuing the American dream. The story is told through the eyes of Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, Nick Carraway, a bond salesman, who like Gatsby served in World War I. While Nick appears to live a comfortable life, living in a small house that he rents, Gatsby’s home is a lavish mansion where he frequently holds extravagant parties. The two men become friends after Nick attends one of Gatsby’s elaborate gatherings. Nick’s presence at this event and the brilliant images the author used to depict the party scene was for me the point when the pace of the story began to accelerate. In hindsight I now appreciate that Fitzgerald in the measured first forty plus pages was setting the stage for what would follow.

Gatsby’s efforts to reignite the love affair he had with Daisy five years earlier and to convince her to leave her husband is of course the centerpiece of this story. At one point Nick warns his friend of the futility of pursuing Daisy by simply stating, “You can’t repeat the past.” To this Gatsby cries back incredulously “Can’t repeat the past? But of course you can!” This stubborn blindness and refusal to let go of the past drives Gatsby’s every movement which sets in motion events that have tragic consequences. By the time the novel ends, it becomes evident how shallow, dishonest and self-absorbed all of the characters are with the notable exception of Nick. Early in the novel, Nick makes this comment about himself which by story’s end proves quite accurate. “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

This is truly a masterful story with so many memorable quotes. Here are a few of my favorites:

“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.”

“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.”

“The rich get richer and the poor get – children.”

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”    The novel’s final sentence.

This was a novel which had little in common with the book I am writing but has so inspired me to be a better writer. Thank you Mr. Fitzgerald. I feel forever indebted to you.

Background Reading for My Novel, Part VII: Dancer from the Dance

Dancer from the Dance

Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance first published in 1978 is a story of the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era of the gay NYC scene. Considered by many an important part of gay literature, the novel is told in the third person and is centered around the lives of two characters. Malone is a strikingly handsome young man from the Midwest who abandons the practice of law and his heterosexual façade initially to pursue his dream of perfect m/m romantic love, eventually submerging himself in the decadent world of sexual promiscuity and drugs. Sutherland, Malone’s mentor, is an older man and the quintessential bitchy, campy, drag queen. Much of the story takes place in Manhattan’s discos and Everard Baths and Fire Island’s world of unrestrained orgies.

The novel is well written but I must confess that by the time I finished reading it I felt as empty as the individuals who populate the story. I came out as a gay man in the same era as Malone’s character and indulged in much of the same hedonistic behavior that both he and the other people in the story so gloriously pursue. Consequently it’s not as though I disapprove or do not have an appreciation of the thrill that time and era had for our generation. I simply felt both while I was reading the book and upon completion that I really did not care about the fate of the protagonists. Because Sutherland’s character is so campy the sections of the book dealing with him were at least mildly amusing. Since Malone is described as being a hopeless romantic at least in the early parts of the novel, I found it ironic that he struck me as cold and not very interesting.

Dancer from the Dance  has been described by many as being a gay Great Gatsby. I’m ashamed to admit that I have never read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece so I obviously cannot comment on such comparisons. I fully intend to correct my reading oversight at some point in the future and maybe then a re-reading of Holleran’s book will leave me more satisfied. Despite my lukewarm feelings I am glad that I have read the book even though of all the books I have read since I started writing my own novel, I found this the least enjoyable.

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.

Background Reading for My Novel, Part I: Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye

Since the protagonist of my novel is a gay 18 year-old I decided early in my writing that I needed to read as much fiction as possible that would in some respects mirror my young man’s issues and struggles.  I started checking out both Amazon.com and Goodreads.com for suggestions from others. The books I’ve been reading have had a young man in his late teens and/or a youngish gay man as the protagonist. What a great group of books I’ve encountered.

I felt an absolute must read was Catcher in the Rye – amazingly a book I had never read. (Am I the last person in the English-speaking language over the age of 14 to have not read this before now?) Holden Caulfield is of course the quintessential teenager suffering angst, alienation and rebellion. What a wonderful novel; I believe it was Salinger’s first. Don’t worry folks, I have no illusions that when completed my first book will be in that league. Besides being hilarious and enjoyable it was inspiring to read. I can now fully understand why it is a modern-day classic.

I’ve read that as recently as the early 80’s this was the most censored book in US public schools, ostensibly because of its vulgar language. In fact in 2009 it was one of the most challenged books according to the American Library Association. Vulgar language?? Give me a break!!! My God, network prime time TV programs, not to mention PG-13 movies and contemporary music have stronger language. Only shows I guess just how uptight and narrow-minded a large number of people are.

This is a very enjoyable and quick read and a book I would highly recommend. It is in fact I think a must-read novel for every literate person. Be sure to read or possibly re-read it.