“Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann

“Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann (1916) – 160 pages  Translated by David Luke

“Once betray your own self-contempt and the world will unhesitatingly endorse it.”
Thomas Mann in “Death in Venice”

A long time ago, I read the novella “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann. I didn’t like it very much at that time. The main protagonist, author Gustav von Aschenbach, seemed pompous and humorless to me, and I just couldn’t get into the story at all. Because of my experience with that book, I steered clear of Thomas Mann for several years. Finally after reading much praise for Thomas Mann, I decided to read his long novel “Buddenbrooks”, That book was excellent, so I went on to read another of his long novels, “The Magic Mountain”, which I also found to be a fine novel.

So it was time to re-read “Death in Venice”. It has happened before that a book I read long ago and didn’t like much at the time would redeem itself and become one of my favorites upon re-reading. Theodore Dreiser and George Eliot are two authors whom I did not much like the first books of theirs I read, and yet now both of these authors are favorites of mine.

Upon re-reading “Death in Venice” now, unfortunately I still do not ‘get’ this novel. My criticisms are still pretty the same as they were thirty years ago, when I first encountered this novel. I still do not much care for the main character Gustav von Aschenbach. He still seems terribly pretentious and without humor, not good company for an entire novel. He seemed tired and depressed throughout the novel. He only has the one enthusiasm which is the young beautiful fourteen year-old boy Tadzio whom he constantly watches and exclaims over. I notice that now there are several blog entries about the homosexual theme in “Death in Venice”, and I have considered whether or not that might be the reason I don’t like the novel. However I’ve read, enjoyed, and admired several fine novels about homosexuals including “A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Manuel Puig, “Gemini” by Michel Tournier, and “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” by James Purdy.

Gustav von Aschenbach strikes me as the classic manic depressive. Perhaps fatigued from writing his books, he drags himself off to Venice for this vacation. Nothing really interests him there until he sees the boy Tadzio, and then Aschenbach is swept up in paroxysms of joy. Tadzio is there in Venice with his older sisters, and it probably is a good thing for Aschenbach that Tadzio’s parents aren’t there to get suspicious of all the attentions this old man is paying their son. In the novel itself, there is no hint of erotic attraction, just an old man admiring and sometimes following this young boy. Aschenbach never even speaks one word to Tadzio.
 

“Solitude produces originality, bold and astonishing beauty, poetry. But solitude also produces perverseness, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.”

Perhaps the line I just quoted and the line which started this article indicate what Thomas Mann is up to in “Death in Venice”, the warping effect that solitude can have on an individual. “Death in Venice” may have been a courageous book for its time. I just wish it were more interesting to read now.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. A slight tremor disturbed my hand as I went to click on this review. “If Tony likes it,” I thought, “I will have to re-read it.” I closed my eyes as the page loaded. My foreboding only grew with paragraphs one and two.

    Then paragraph three: You didn’t like it. You really didn’t.

    My experience with this book was at university. I found it terribly dull. No one else in the class seemed to like it either, except for the professor, of course. We even watched an old, black-and-white movie adaptation. That was better only be virtue of taking less time to get through.

    You have freed me to explore other Mann and to avoid re-reading this one. Thank you.

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    • Hi Kerry,
      I’m happy to help you avoid reading ‘Death in Venice’. Maybe I should specialize in negative reviews of books as many people might appreciate it. The tendency of myself and others in blogging seems to be to praise too much. Perhaps a weekly feature ‘Why I Hate This Book’. You have given me a fine idea. Thanks.

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      • It’s the least I could do for making me feel less bad about not wanting to re-read ‘Death in Venice’. You’re welcome! I look forward to the new feature….and if you ever need ideas…..

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  2. I actually read Death in Venice as an attempt to reconcile myself with Mann, after utterly failing to get into The Magic Mountain. I did not like it. Period. I didn’t get what it was trying to say, even if there was a point at all. So your review is making me breathe a little easier – I am not alone! I think I’d be better off going back to try to read The Magic Mountain. Maybe now that I’m a bit older and have more patience, I’ll appreciate it better…

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  3. Hi Biblibio,
    “Death in Venice” probably ranks near the top of classics which are least easy to like. I’d put a couple of the later novels of Henry James up there near the top too.
    My ‘Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature’ by Martin Seymour-Smith, says that ‘Buddenbrooks’ is Thomas Mann’s best novel. I agree, though did really like ‘The Magic Mountain’ also.

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  4. Tony, I haven’t read any Thomas Mann at all, but I would like to. Which one would you recommend for me?

    Also, please visit my new website (linked to my name) and if you like it, please do follow!

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  5. Hi Amrito,
    My favorite Thomas Mann is “Buddenbrooks”. It is a long book, a history of a family epic, but there are no short books of his I have found to like so far, definitely not “Death in Venice”.
    I checked out your new website and am now following you. I will make sure my link points to your new site.

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