Book Review: Mann’s ‘Death in Venice and Other Tales’

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This book is a collection of his some of Thomas Mann’s most popular short stories.  For the most part, I don’t care for short stories.  I’m a marathon man when it comes to my literature.  I lace up the shoes, I do my stretches, and run with the novelist.  I know it’ll be a long run, so I don’t burn myself out.  I take my breaks so I don’t hit my walls, but I recover.  With short stories, you’re off and then you’re done, leaving sometimes dizzy-headed and wondering what happened.  In a short story, you have less space to play with, and the pace and development time and so you have a lack of true character development to get into anything really deep or revealing in human nature. They deal with short scenes, revelations, epiphanies, and the such.  

There is some big exceptions, of course.  One of those exceptions is Thomas Mann.

To say that I write like him may have been true years ago, but now he’s become so wound up in my style, my character work, and my philosophy that his influence is very like the one from a master to a student.

-First and foremost, his style is one of the tightest I’ve ever read.  He’s got the beauty of Faulkner, the music of Woolf, the cleverness of Updike, and even the precision of Flaubert, while transcending them all to give us an honestly emotional and intense depiction on the human story thereby lifting the art form to another level.  The sentences, the paragraphs, and the voice work remarkably and efficiently well to not only tell the story but to show the subtle nuances of the emotional and psychological makeup and conflicts of the characters.  It’s really his efficiency that bowls me over because, again, dealing with the short length of space he’s given, he succeeds in giving us just the right metaphor for the situation, just the right turn of phrase, just the right interlude.  He simply raises the genre to another level.  His voice is the equivalent of listening to someone tell a story in that timbre growl and curve made for radio—you are charmed by the funny parts, wooed by the romantic, anxiously enthralled by the sublime, and saddened by the tragic.   

-His subjects are all unique, with more than most pushing towards the odd.  He writes about cruelty in the cruelest forms in the story Little Lizzy.  Little Herr Friedemann, Tristan, Tonio Kroger, and of course, Death in Venice (which I’ll get to in a second) all deal with the complications of love.  He writes about being an artist as well.  Several of his characters in his short stories and novels are writers, and he delves into their heads, hearts, and minds with remarkable intimacy.  Bizarre, funny, strange characters inhabit his stories, but not without the sense of humor that accompanies such people.

-His intimacy with us and the honesty in which he describes emotions is evident in the stories Tonio Kroger, Death in Venice, and The Starvlings.  He wears his heart on his sleeve, but always through his characters without getting in the way.  Even when he’s describing the yearnings and frustrations of Detlef in The Starvlings, who is portrayed as every young artist is with his pain of isolation and blown up ego, he allows the character to be a three-dimensional figure and not just a mouthpiece for his own thoughts and feelings.  The same goes for Tonio Kroger.  We feel the awkwardness of childhood, witness the struggles of acceptance of young adulthood, and smirk at the self-aggrandized woes of a young artist in his prime.  He possesses the quintessential trait of a masterful artist—to be an observer of the human condition in such an honest and gifted way that it calls forth a better thing from the marriage of life and art.

-Another trait of Mann’s work, in small or large form, is his strangeness.  I love strange characters, from Dostoevsky to Vonnegut, and idiosyncratic characters with their odd foibles and passionate flaws marry well with the choice of passionate and deeper-meaning themes.

-‘Death in Venice’ is one of the best short stories ever written because when you take such a fine and precise and beautiful voice such as Mann’s and match it with story of the longing for lost beauty and innocence, you show us one of the oldest stories in our history.  But first, a word on the taboo subject.  Yes, it’s a story, cut of all of its justifications and theories and ideas, about an older man infatuating over a young boy.  This will always be a controversial subject, and it was no less than that back in his own day.  What an old pervert, some would say, most likely the same ones that rail Nabokov for writing Lolita.  On reading it, the subject matter would be too glaring, too disturbing to finish; and if the story was written sloppily, if the writer didn’t care for his audience enough to approach the subject with more than just a story of a man with a thing for a boy, if it was written without the mastery of language or a grasp for images and themes, or if it was done tastelessly with the in-your-face style of a Palahniuk or any other writers in that school of ‘subtly’, then that’s exactly what it would be.  But read Death in Venice.  And what you find as you get to the young Polish boy in the story is Mann’s awareness and control of the subject.  You witness slowly and with heart-breaking pity Aschenbach’s eventual and inevitable mythologizing of a young boy into god-like proportions.  All this is devoid of any sexual references whatsoever, but that doesn’t free us from being uncomfortable and for him to seem strange.  This is the genius of Mann, to put us close enough to a part of life without tipping into the boxes of either good or evil.  Is Aschenbach right for obsessing over the young boy?  No, and we feel that; and again, in the hands of an amateur, it would get creepy real quick.  But slowly before our eyes,Mann transforms a story of an aging man obsessed with a boy into an artistic piece on death, on lost youth, and on the fear and frustration that goes with it.  He never talks with the boy, how could he?  He watches him on the beach, the games the boy plays, the places he goes.  Soon, he follows him as the boy is taken with his family to places around Venice.  And the boy becomes aware of him too, and notices the tense but powerful space the two inhabit, and almost detects his own place in it, as if he knew the man desired his youthful power but could never possess it again.

Death in Venice, like all of his stories in some way or another, shows Mann confronting characters and stories and human emotions and feelings from a side entrance, allowing us in to observe these ambiguous and sometimes darker forces of human nature without the intrusively loud voice of one who knows exactly what the score of the game is.  He doesn’t shrug, though; he simply doesn’t know everything.  And that’s all any true genius can do in the end—give you his take and let you decide.

Thomas Mann speaks to me.  When Tonio Kroger gets his heart broke by his boyhood friend Hans, when Detlef voices both the pain and relief of being an outcast, when Paolo dies, when Aschenbach dies happy, Mann has shown me myself as a beam of white light shot into a prism and radiating out as shards of every color.  No matter how strange or different or terrible or wonderful or frustrated all of his characters are, they are human and they are me.  They are us.  That more artistic mastery and emotional honesty could be seen more in today’s contemporary literature, if only briefly, to give me a little more faith in the future of my art form, I would read more short stories.  

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