Review: Death in Venice and Other Stories

Death in Venice and Other Stories (Vintage Classic Europeans ...

Talk about spicy translators!

This edition of Death in Venice and Other Stories starts with a 50-page-long introduction by the translator. And talk about spilling the tea on previous translators! But, despite the questionably relevant comments on previous translations, David Luke‘s introduction was rather insightful with regards to possible interpretations of the author’s stories.

Thomas Mann’s work is full of auto-biographical strokes. His father was a German business owner and city senator, while his mother was of German and Portuguese-Brazilian origin. The mother grew up in Brazil and was later sent to Germany by her father to get an education there. Mann’s references to his parents are present in several of his works, due to their strong influence on the author. The exotic musical mother helped him develop his artistic side, and the bourgeois father taught him discipline and hard work. These two different approaches to life resulted in a life-defining conflict for Mann: that between art and a bourgeois structure. This is a chasm that the author frequently explores in his stories, such as in Tonio Kröger. 

Having his family’s fortune available to him after his father’s death, Mann never truly devoted himself to his occasional, more “traditional” jobs. Instead, he quickly devoted himself to his literary interests. For a long time, Mann questioned his own contribution to society, given his situation of working as a writer and living off his inheritance. These doubts are the core of his short story, The Joker.

Mann struggled throughout his life, forced to hide his sexual orientation as homosexuality was highly condemned at the time. His hidden romantic desires and encounters were recorded in his diaries, which he went through a lot of trouble to keep secret during his life and which publication he timed for 100 years after his birth. Mann feared his work might lose public interest after his death and he counted on the revelation brought by the diaries to revive this interest. His predictions were correct, as the discovery of Mann’s homosexual nature shed new light on his works and led many to take on the endeavour of re-interpreting these.

In his extensive writing on the author, Mundt mentions that the content of Mann’s diaries represents “an appeal against sexual repression, a call for acceptance of difference, for tolerance and for humanity”. Having led a life of secrecy and inhibition, Mann was more than familiar with the theme of forbidden love. This is the subject matter of many of his works, such as Little Herr Friedemann, Tonio Kröger, and Death in Venice. His characters often love from afar beautiful youngsters that do not share the main character’s interests – this is particularly noticeable in Tonio Kröger. I personally found very intriguing this fascination of the complex character that is Tonio for Hans and Ingeborg, who he considered to lead plainer and, therefore, happier lives. Even more so when an older Tonio in a conversation with Lisaveta alienates himself from this bourgeois normality and slightly ostentatiously highlights the important role of the erudite artist.

I dived into this book expecting it to be a dense read. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Mann’s writing quite accessible! Except for two passages, one in Gladius Dei and one in Tonio Kröger, which I had to reread to fully understand the author’s message, the book is crafted in a beautiful and accessible manner. Mann knew well how to guide the reader through the story balancing elegant descriptions with a moderate action pace. This collection of short stories is quite delightful and my only regret about it is not having read Tristan and Isolde yet, as I feel that this did not allow me to enjoy Mann’s short story Tristan to the fullest.

There are two short stories I’d like to discuss more in detail (having already ramble enough about Tonio Kröger by now): Death in Venice and The Joker.

DEATH IN VENICE

I will focus my points on Mann’s multi-layered presentation of Aschenbach’s obsession with young Tadzio. Firstly and shortly, I think it was a nice touch to have the pandemic’s culmination happen simultaneously to the zenith of the unhealthy romantic obsession of the old writer.

Secondly, the mixed feelings that this story provokes in the reader: I couldn’t help but feel disgusted with the situation, but also feel pity for Aschenbach and curious to see how the story would unfold.

The writer is absolutely blown away by the beauty of young Tadzio which causes an internal conflict in the main character, as Aschenbach positions himself as a man who values intellect over all else. This touches upon the already familiar debate on what constitutes art. Never actually getting to know the boy, Tadzio becomes more of an ideal than a real palpable human being. Tadzio represents aesthetic perfection. And Aschenbach becomes so obsessed with it that he desperately attempts to recover his own beauty and youthfulness by dying his hair and using an exaggerated amount of make-up. This transformation of Aschenbach’s character from a ponderate intellectual to a desperate romantic is fascinating.

Death in Venice is an uncomfortable yet gripping story that confronts the reader with feelings of obsession, inhibition, sympathy and decadence.

THE JOKER

I feel like the The Joker is an often undervalued tale of Mann’s. There are two topics that this stories delves into which were very personal to the author and I still find to be very relevant today.

Firstly, the topic of work. Much like Mann, the joker lives off his family fortune while leading a life of leisure. Such a life, with little work, is typically idealised but in this story we learn what other implications it might have. When the joker meets other characters who are part of the bourgeoisie, he is left questioning the usefulness of his life and his contribution to society. Due to his lifestyle, the joker spends most of his time by himself and this loneliness leads to a lack of identity – he feels lost, without structure. The role of work and leisure and how these shape our identity has remained an important topic until our days.

Secondly, the debate between an artistic existence and a bourgeois lifestyle – which stems from Mann’s relationship with his parents, as mentioned before. The joker falls for a blissful aristocratic lady and, while pursuing this passion, he is comforted with an internal dilemma. The main character preaches against the tedious bourgeois lifestyle but he now finds himself fascinated by these blissfully happy souls who are well-integrated in society. His choice of an artistic and creative life no longer seems exciting but rather embarrassing. The previously “unimaginative people” now seem like appealing happy souls to the joker.

This short story does not give the reader a straightforward answer. Rather it helps us ponder what it means, what value it brings and what costs it has to be integrated in society.

 

(References: David Luke’s introduction to the Vintage European’s “Death in Venice and Other Stories” edition and Hannelore Mundt’s “Understanding Thomas Mann”)

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Review: Little Women

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott - eBook - BertrandOh, how I’m glad for contextual essays and supporting material!

When I finished reading “Little Women”, my first impression was that this might have been a relevant and somewhat disruptive book for its time, but it also conforms with a lot of presently outdated beliefs. By reading the contextual essays which the 150th Anniversary Annotated Edition includes, I was able to realise exactly how much change this tale brought about but also what and how cultural and social forces of the time influenced Alcott’s work.

The story of the March family is largely based on the author’s own family. Jo can be easily traced back to Louisa herself, while Meg, Beth, and Amy correspond to the author’s sisters Anna, Elizabeth, and May. The dreams and aspirations of the beloved characters can be spotted in the lives of these four women who also grew up in a family with fewer means, with a father who was often away from home, and a mother who the daughters idealized as having given her all to the family and the community.

Jo’s story, in particular, can be closely tied to that of Louisa Alcott. Standing out from her sisters due to her tomboyish and independent nature, the author too found a safe space in writing and developed literary ambitions early on in her life. This was an uncommon path for women at that time, which meant female authors had to work harder than their male counterparts in order to prove themselves and were often frowned upon even after achieving success. As one of Alcott’s neighbours, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “elegantly” puts it: “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance at success while the public taste is occupied with their trash – and should be ashamed with myself if I did succeed.”

Given the social landscape at the time of publication of “Little Women”, it is undeniable the impact that a character such as Jo had in young female readers in the 1800s. Jo unapologetically opens up a path for girls to be less feminine and delicate if they wish to and, to some extent, to follow their ambitions and pursue independence. Note I say “to some extent” here because indeed Jo ends up abandoning her seeking for literary greatness so as to dedicate herself to her marriage and children. This turn of events after Jo had stood her ground and repeatedly refused Laurie’s proposals disappointed me significantly. Enter contextual essays and supporting materials: Alcott would probably have chosen for Jo the same faith she chose for herself – that of a successful “literary spinster”. But due to pressure from the readers and her publisher to follow the conventions of the time, the author found a compromise in Mr Bhaer. The German character represents Jo’s possibility to remain herself, be her partner’s intellectual equal and contribute to the household evenly. Some theorise this was also Alcott’s way of rebelling against the public’s desire to see Jo and Laurie together, instead, marrying her off to a far less attractive character. This example shows perfectly how multi-layered and complex the tale of “Little Women” truly is once we take into account the author’s life story.

Throughout the entire book, we notice that Alcott takes her time, bringing the reader close to the characters. She crafts the story in a beautiful manner which results in a sense of familiarity and an emotional investment from the part of the reader. This reaches its zenith in Beth’s death scene, an intense episode which is notably based on a real-life experience with the author’s sister, Elizabeth. I can only imagine the impact of this chapter on younger readers, as Beth is an adorable character which we grow very fond of throughout the novel. Alcott manages this scene genially, guiding the readers through it in a sheltering manner, allowing them to peer into Beth’s last moments and to see their pain replicated in the rest of the family’s actions during and after the death. The feeling of proximity to the character and those who cared for her is what makes this scene so brilliant.

However, there is one point in the storyline where it seems that the author almost purposefully rushes a development and risk its realism. After growing up in love with his best friend, being so blinded that he repeatedly asks her for a chance, Laurie only needs a few months to fall out of love with Jo and in love with Amy. Upon Laurie and Amy’s return from Europe, the young man is described as acting towards Jo in a brotherly manner which only adds to the contrast of this transition. Having Alcott loyally accompanying the reader throughout the majority of the story, and then rushing through this change of heart, made it hard for me to take the change seriously.

“Little Women” is dotted with moral and religious lessons, clearly attempting to teach young readers what is proper and what is not. Some critics praise Alcott for building a novel where these lessons are presented by a compassionate mother figure, speaking to young readers as someone on the same level as them rather than talking down to them as most works until then did. While I very much agree with this statement, I must also add that, as someone reading the book 150 years after it was published, I felt some of these lessons are significantly outdated and dare say they may have seemed so to Alcott already at the time. The book’s supporting material allowed me to learn Alcott did indeed fight her publisher on this topic. She won a discussion on whether the characters should go to Sunday school instead of performing plays at their house on a Sunday morning – this was a risky move as Sunday schools seem to have commanded a lot of sales at the time. It’s therefore evident the author’s struggle with the need for tradition and her desire for reform.

The mother figure in “Litte Women”, Marmee, is one of the strong points of the novel. She dances the line between some of the traditional beliefs and her progressive questioning of part of the status quo. Marmee shines in her one on one talks to her girls. I especially appreciated her honest advice to Jo on how to handle a quick temper, exposing her own flaws and challenges she faced. This scene allows us a glimpse at a more complex character than a first glance at Marmee might have shown.

Lastly, when we hear “Little Women” being talked about, there is a tendency for people to identify with one of the four sisters. “I’m a Meg!” “Oh, I’m most definitely an Amy with a little bit of Jo.” I find this oversimplification of the characters slightly problematic. It delineates the tastes, ambitions, and traits of each character and fixes them in place as if almost forever unchangeable. On the other hand, I can recognise that such treatment can be comforting for younger readers, who are often struggling with defining themselves. The use of a widely held idea of a character allows for the creation of a group of people who identify with it. This, in turn, allows each individual to experiment within the group, learn where the similarities and differences lay, and, eventually, learn about themselves.

“Little Women” remains representative of the period it was written in, directly presenting some ideas ahead of its time, and hiding a lot of Alcott’s progressive and rebellious messages between the lines.

Ramble #37: Hey YouTube, waddup? 😎

Books and Messy Buns has had a YouTube channel for a while now, because I need it to upload the videos I put here. Today I decided to clean it up a bit, give it an intro and organize the content already there.

To do the intro I used the text I have in the “About Me” page of this blog and gave it life. Check it out and let me know if you like the end result as much as I did! 😉

YouTube Channel: https://tinyurl.com/ybrereao

Intro Video: 

Ramble #36: “I’m Back” number 12803

So….. I’m back. Again. And with a 25 minutes long video to make up for it. 😇

Some things you will find in this video:

  • an apology
  • a hair update
  • reviews of over 20 books
  • the word “interesting” over 300 times
  • some variation of the phrase “have been wanting to read this for forever” over 120 times

Everything else is in the video. 💕

Dane’s Poem: Gimme the Words!

Exciting news people!

I’ve just established a partnership with author and book blogger Dane Cobain and we’ve already arranged a few projects together! The first is for us to come up with 5 words, I’ll send them over to Dane, he’ll write a poem with them and they I’ll publish it here for you guys to see the result 😀

So all you have to do is hurry up, think of a word and leave it in the comment section below. First 5 will be sent to Dane! Hurry hurry 😉

(Check out Dane’s work here: http://www.danecobain.com/ )

Top 5 Books I Want for Christmas

Christmas time is just around the corner! These are the top 5 books I would like to find under my Christmas tree this year, what are yours? Feel free to share in the comment section below! 😉

  • NUMBER FIVE: DASH AND LILY’S BOOK OF DARES

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  • NUMBER FOUR: A MONSTER CALLS

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  • NUMBER THREE: ILLUMINAE

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  • NUMBER TWO: NOVEMBER 9

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  • NUMBER ONE: OUR MEN DO NOT BELONG TO US

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