” 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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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: “Dream Boy” by Jim Grimsley

Dream Boy

I recently finished Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley, the second book of his I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. The author’s Comfort & Joy I liked very much and it made me want to sample more by him. As much as I enjoyed the first book, Dream Boy proved to be even better. Both stories take place in the American South in the recent past. Grimsley grew up in North Carolina and has lived in Atlanta for many years so he obviously knows the mores and fabric of this area very well. Both books deal with the struggles gay men growing up in the South have to endure.

While Comfort & Joy takes place primarily in Atlanta and deals with the difficulties two grown men who love one another must face, the earlier published Dream Boy by contrast focuses on two teenage boys living next door to each other in rural North Carolina. The physical attraction that develops between the two is almost immediate and very profound. The shy, bright Nathan, younger by two years, has recently moved into town with his parents. Roy, the farm boy next door, has a steady girlfriend and is popular in school although academics are definitely not his strength.  The secret love affair that develops between the two teenagers comes at a dear price for Nathan. Roy has made him swear to tell no on about it, obviously afraid or unwilling to admit to himself his true sexual identity. An important subplot to the novel is the relationship between Nathan and his alcoholic, religious zealot father. Early in the book the author hints that there is something seriously wrong between the two but the disturbing nature of their relationship is only later revealed. Before the story’s end, tragic events happen. I will refrain from revealing the details but the conclusion will lead most readers feeling shocked and sad, possibly in tears.

This is by no means a feel good book. It is disturbing and by the final pages the reader may be wondering the specifics of just what has or has not happened. But the story and characters that Grimsley creates in less than 200 pages are truly unforgettable. Enticing, entrancing, powerful, moving, violent, tragic, sparse, brilliantly crafted and executed, immensely satisfying. Those are just a few of the phrases that I would use to describe this work. It is beyond question one of the most compelling though heart-breaking books I have read in a long time.

The story was adapted for the screen and had a limited release in 2008 receiving mostly positive reviews and starring Stephan Bender as Nathan and Maximillian Roeg as Roy.

Thank you Jim for this jewel of a book and for helping me to become a better writer.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Three Junes” by Julia Glass

Three Junes

I’m just now catching up on some delayed reviews of four books that I read over the past month. Today I want to comment on Three Junes by Julia Glass, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2002.

What a superb and totally rewarding novel this proved to be. While a review that I had read made the book sound appealing, it far surpassed my expectations.  I absolutely loved it and since I myself am struggling with writing a first novel I was in awe that this was the author’s debut effort.  The book is not one to be rushed; rather it is best enjoyed by a slower pace of reading to savor the author’s great gift of storytelling, and what a gift she has. Three Junes is actually a literary triptych, with overlapping characters in each of the three stories. The book’s title refers to events that happen in the month of June, 1989, 1995 and 1999.  Each story focuses on people dealing with grief and loss and trying to survive after having their hearts broken. Through effective use of flashback we learn much about the lives of the three main characters and those who are close to them. The first and last stories are told from the third person POV. The middle story is narrated by the book’s main character, a young man named Fenno.

The opening story “Collies” focuses on Paul McLeod, an older recently widowed Scotsman who is trying to put some sense back in his life while vacationing in Greece, six months after his wife’s death. While there he becomes infatuated with a young American female artist named Fern. Even though the two never become sexually intimate Paul is able to envision a brighter future for himself as a result of their encounter. This story’s title is a reference to Paul’s wife Maureen who devoted her life to the breeding and raising of border collies. Through a series of flashbacks we learn much about Paul and Maureen’s relationship with one another and with their three sons. “Collies” won the 1999 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella.

The second story “Upright” is by far the longest and most moving of the three stories. It focuses on the life of Paul’s oldest son Fenno who is gay and is now living in Greenwich Village where he owns a popular and successful independent bookstore. Though openly gay, Fenno continually struggles with fully accepting his sexuality and is terrified of contracting AIDS.  The title “Upright” is in fact a reference to this fear and Fenno’s constant reminder to himself; “stay upright and you will stay alive.” While living in New York he develops a very close platonic relationship with a flamboyant music critic named Mal, struggling to survive while living with AIDS. The bond between the two men is poignant and is the most engaging of any of the relationships in the novel. Fenno also has an ongoing sexually satisfying but emotionally unrewarding relationship with a photographer named Tony; the relationship eventually results in Fenno being painfully humiliated by Tony’s chicanery. All of this we learn through flashbacks since the setting of the story is the family home in Scotland where Fenno has gathered with his two younger brothers and their wives following the death of their father. During the visit Fenno is asked to make an important decision which if he agrees to do will dramatically change his life forever. While I felt that the author did an excellent job in drawing the reader into each of the three stories, “Upright” is by far the most endearing and interesting.

The final section “Boys” takes place in the Hamptons, where Tony, Fenno’s ex-boyfriend, is house-sitting. Sharing the house with him is Fern the young artist first introduced in “Collies”. She is dealing with feelings of guilt from the recent accidental death of her husband with whom she had become estranged shortly before his death. Fern has recently learned that she is pregnant and is struggling with how to let the father of the child know. At the invitation of Tony, Fenno comes for a weekend visit. Even though Fenno and Fern never realize the link they share through Fenno’s father Paul, they nonetheless enjoy each other’s company and a bond soon develops between the two. While I felt this was the weakest of the three stories it nonetheless was well written and provided a satisfying conclusion to the book.

If one is looking for a fast-paced action novel, this is not the book to read. But for anyone interested in a character-intensive, beautifully nuanced literary novel this book is almost certain to please.  This was clearly one of the best books I have read this year. I fully intend to read more of Julia Glass’ work since she clearly is a masterful storyteller.

Background Reading for My Novel: “A Boy’s Own Story” by Edmund White

A Boy's Own Story

First published in 1982 and considered by many to be one of the finest works with a gay coming-of-age theme, Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a nonlinear narrative of a young boy growing up in post-World War II middle America and the struggles he has coming to terms with his homosexuality, an all too common occurrence for those of us from that generation or earlier. This is a pretty cheerless story and one that will make most readers feel uncomfortable, despondent or both when they read it. While not an autobiography the novel reflects White’s real-life experiences: a troubled relationship with both of his parents, their divorce when he was quite young, incestuous feelings for his father, and more. As I read the novel I kept thinking of it as a memoir and now find myself pondering where the line is between fact and fiction in this work.

I first started reading this book several months ago but lost interest and set it aside with the intention of giving it another try at a later time. This time I did finish it and must confess that I am somewhat torn in my feelings regarding this book. On the one hand the author’s writing style is nothing less than brilliant. He has an incredible mastery of the English language and many of the passages are quite vivid and beautifully written. His ability to paint a picture with words is profound. Oh to be able to write so well. However I found the story itself to be somewhat dry and dull. It was difficult to read more than about 30 pages at one sitting simply because the pace of the book was so painfully slow. And while I valued the author’s ability to create wonderful images with his words I felt he did so to excess, so much so that at times I found myself thinking “Enough! Let’s dispense with this and move the story line forward.”

I guess a good way to sum up my feelings was that I appreciated the novel and the author’s ability to describe scenes and characters so well, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading it. I am glad to have read this but would hesitate to attempt anything else by the author for fear that I would find it tedious.

Coitus Interruptus

Pardon my being a bit cutesy with my choice of a title for this post. I figured for sure it would draw attention and probably generate some additional readers to my blog. No, this posting is not going to be what one would presume from the title but rather a discussion of books that I withdrew from reading before completion.  Since I first started writing my blog most of what I have discussed have been reviews of books I recently read and how each of them has impacted me on the novel I am writing. Through some combination of good choices and good luck most of what I have read during this time has impressed and inspired me. A couple of works disappointed me but even those I completed reading and I found some benefit from the experience. Today in my “the glass is half empty” mindset I want to briefly comment on books that for one reason or another I did not finish reading. This will be the first of two such postings. Today’s discussion is about works of fiction that I did not complete. Part Two will involve works of non-fiction, or more specifically books that I have explored that deal with the actual craft of writing. Some of these works I do intend to revisit but for various reasons did not finish in my initial effort. So much for introductory comments.

The first book I want to mention is A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. By all accounts this is a book I should read. The book is the first of White’s trilogy of autobiographical novels that deal with a young man’s coming of age and dealing with his homosexuality. Good grief, this is exactly the theme of the novel I am writing so it should have been a no-brainer to finish, right? To be honest I never got very far into the book, found it to be agonizingly slow and simply lost interest. The Publishing Triangle, the LGBT publishing association, has listed this as #14 on its list of 100 best lesbian and gay novels so I have to believe that the book deserves a second chance on my part. I think part of the problem for me was that I had just finished several novels which I found stunning and White’s book was taking too long to get me intrigued so I moved on to something else which I found more appealing. I have this back on my To-Read list and probably will give it another shot before long.

Best American Gay Fiction #2 edited by Brian Bouldrey and published in 1997 is the second volume in a series of short story collections which deals with gay life in contemporary America. By nature of its being a collection of twenty-one short stories, the reader has an opportunity to sample a host of authors and writing styles in one book, which I believed would be beneficial. Unfortunately I only got through four stories, finding just one of them to be worthwhile. That was the first story, “Il Paradiso” by Andrew Holleran, author of the widely read novel Dancer from the Dance which I had recently read. This was a rather depressing story of an afternoon an older man spends in a gay bath house where he frequently goes. During the time there he is consumed with self-loathing, longing to touch the young men he sees there, knowing how much they would reject his advances and refusing to fulfill his sexual cravings with men of his own age. Pretty much of a downer theme but still well written. The other three stories I found totally unsatisfying and as a result the book sits on my shelf now collecting dust. There may be some gems in the book. Since each of the stories is typically 20 pages or less, I might open it up again to find out. My hunch though is that I probably won’t; too many other books I want to read including one I am currently reading  Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trumble. I will be reviewing that soon.

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 IV: Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

I just completed reading Call Me by Your Name, an amazing first novel by André Aciman, published in 2007. Without question this is one of the most powerful, well crafted, beautifully written novels I have ever read. It is a book I know I could easily pick up and re-read once or twice more and each time finish with new insights and an enormous sense of satisfaction. Were it not for the fact that I have a long list of other works I am hoping to enjoy in the months ahead, I would do just that. This is a book that I believe the reader wants to read slowly to savor both the language and impressions. I liken it to a well-aged bottle of wine that one uncorks and allows to aerate before sipping slowly, letting the rich flavors delight the taste buds before gently swallowing.  Or an incredible meal at a favorite five-star restaurant where you have dined before and where you want to linger over a long dinner with an old friend or new love. The author has an amazing mastery of language and paints superb images and characters in this very sensual literary novel.

The story is told through the eyes of a man who recounts his experience from 20 years earlier when he was 17 years of age. Elio comes from a well-educated and wealthy family who live on the Italian Rivera. Each summer his father a literature professor has a house guest for six weeks to assist the young academician prepare a manuscript before publication. One summer Oliver, a young handsome American Columbia University grad student comes to stay and very quickly Elio becomes passionately and obsessively drawn to him, a new sexual awakening for the teen. The two eventually do consummate their relationship but not before Aciman slowly and sensually describes the longings Elio is feeling and the incredible game of cat and mouse the two play. The affair becomes very heated and ends when Robert returns to the U.S. immediately following their passionate and memorable trip together to Rome.  Even with the passage of 20 years, the powerful influence Oliver has had on Elio remains.

From start to finish Aciman somehow captures raw human emotions in a way that very few authors are capable of doing. Some readers will no doubt become bored with the slow pace but for someone who truly enjoys well written prose, the journey is fantastic. Longing, passion, romance, tenderness, remorse are all in abundance here, not in some romance novel sort of way but in a manner that rings authentic. I have been very fortunate in my choice of authors and titles to read preparing for my novel. This one to date is my favorite.