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Death in Venice

1913_Der_Tod_in_Venedig_Broschur.jpg

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice [Berlin; 1912]

Hey, one of the foundational works of European modernism is a pretty good read, have you heard?

This was the question that kept recurring to me as I read this novella, a chapter a night, and thought about tweeting some banal and obvious praise. This is, to my recollection, the first time I've read anything by Thomas Mann, who has always seemed slightly forbidding: the magisterial bulk of BuddenbrooksThe Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus had me shy away for many years. It's not always the case that the Great Artists of the twentieth century, once you actually start to sit with them, turn out to be as suavely limpid as the best genre fiction, but in this case it was a delightful surprise.

Many competent cultural historians have already drawn lines between the fracturing of the nineteenth-century Western consensus and Mann's concerns here: homoeroticism, "contamination" from the colonial East, the corruption of all ideals as symbolized in the corruption of bodies. But it's worth reading the book anyway: just as an ordinary story, ignoring larger themes, it's gripping; and the care with which Mann constructs the psychological and social realism of what is, nevertheless, essentially an exercise in symbolism means that there's always more to be read into it.

I don't know why people write four-hundred page novels when eighty-page novellas are the perfect literary form.

August 26, 2018