Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice

If you like short stories about disgusting sexual attractions, suicide, and self-absorbed German narcissism, you'll love Death in Venice. Me, I don't much cotton to such themes in what I read, so I had trouble wading through this morass of early 20th century European bourgeoisie decadence. But as this book was the choice of our book club, I had to persevere.

Of the eight short stories contained in this book, I found only the three middle ones, Mario and the Magician (1929), Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925), and A Man and His Dog (1918) to be of any worth. The others--Death in Venice (1911), Tonio Kröger (1903), The Blood of the Walsungs (1905), Tristan (1902), and Felix Krull (1911)--range from simply tedious and uninsightful to gross and perverse. Interestingly, it is Mann's earlier stories that fall into that category. I suppose these stories were meant to have shock value in their day. But in an era when the most disgusting pornography is only a mouse-click away, they seem painfully trite and pedestrian today.

Mann's later stories are better, possibly because as he matured, Mann became a more skillful observer of the beauty and joy of everyday life. But if tinged with sentimentality, these stories don't really inspire. Of all the stories, Mario and the Magician is the only standout. It was the singular tale which kept me riveted with larger than life characters and underlying themes which got beyond the mundane or the merely sexual.

As a whole, this is exactly the type of work that made me dislike studying modern literature as a student. The prose is dense and despite Mann's impressive descriptive ability, the stories do little to uplift the human spirit. Instead, the reader is left encumbered with a myriad of very negative ideas and disturbing notions of humanity.

Of course, as I am reading Mann in an English translation, it is not impossible that his genius as a writer was more easily discerned in the original German. In English, it was fairly invisible to me. I say this as someone who loved writers like Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy in English translation.

No comments: