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