My book club is on a morbid roll.
This past ominous year we have, coincidence I’m sure, read and discussed several death-themed classics. Earlier this year Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and now Mann’s Death in Venice.
Several times a year members suggest books within the Wolfsonian Museum’s purview (mid 19th to 20th century), the top-voted are selected with the person who suggested leading the discussion.
While I didn’t offer up Mann’s short classic, the member who did had lead a recent book discussion and asked for someone to pinch hit this one, which I did.
We have a custom where every member in turn gets to share their top-line reactions, getting it off their chest before the conversation flies off or someone dominates.
In mine I admitted that Hans Castorf, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain was one of my late adolescence heroes and that, having first read Death in Venice while visiting the city for the first time in 1980, I was delighted to return to it. Overall it is a dark, difficult and dense book, painfully read. A story about obsession, the protagonist, a famous German author named Gustave Aschenbach, falls in love with an innocent (and very young) 14 year old Polish boy on holiday at the beach with his family. As the title implies, the story doesn’t end well.
Virtual signaling invades even book clubs these days so several members felt compelled to tut-tut that Mann, in killing off a near-pederast at story’s end, was being censorious of the free expression of sexuality. But is this really a story about repressed sexuality?
I beg to differ, which leads to the first discussion topic:
1 1) How sympathetic or unsympathetic is our protagonist Gustave and is it intentional?
Post-modernists discard the need for either heroes or morals in contemporary tales (a good indicator of societal decay), but most recognize that a sympathetic protagonist smooths many a read. Gustave is depicted as the epitome of the arrogant, prissy, ambitious loner German and starts out as deeply unsympathetic. Curiously, as his obsession blossoms so do his innate human frailties and he becomes humanized if ridiculous. Intentionally.
2) What ails Gustave and by association Germany and even Western Civilization prior to WWI?
Some opined that nothing ailed Gustave, he was simply on a path of self-realization. (Correct in so far as self-realization contains a death wish.) Others felt that what ailed him was denial of either his true nature or the fully lived life – the old Southern European bohemianism vs. Northern European repression. (Pop psychology is everywhere: it was noted or claimed that Mann was a repressed homosexual caught in a heteronormative marriage.)
I pointed out the Mann is known as the master of the tortured German soul and that, brilliantly, he was foreshadowing (the book was published in 1912) the utter corruption of a society that fell from the pinnacle of cultural highs (in music, art, literature) to extermination camps. And what was the motive cause? An obsession with the pursuit of beauty – in art and eventually eugenics.
3) What role does beauty play in the novel, and is it divine?
This question seemed to trip up a number of members. Beauty, after all, is the expression of the divine for so much of contemporary culture. It was noted that our protagonist repeatedly found the object of his desire to have a “God-like” beauty and essence. This, correctly, was likened to what the religious call idol-worship.
I noted that finding divinity and God-like beauty in other humans (or art) is pure paganism, popularized today by the Eastern Mysticism infiltrating the Western world. If the divine resides within all, then all are God. Rather than capital G, perhaps the small g of “be as gods” (Satan’s promise in Genesis 3:5) is more appropriate.
4) Why does Mann allow Gustave to indulge in so many classical references?
Gustave’s (and Mann’s) erudition impressed most readers. Yet how could such a well-educated protagonist ignore the cholera outbreak in Venice that would kill him? (Silly comparisons to this past year’s virus were made.)
Most of Mann’s classical references flew over my head. But the first – knowing the power of the first citation – did not. In his early description of Gustave’s illustrious writing career, Mann writes:
…the richly patterned tapestry entitled Maia, a novel that gathers up the threads of many human destinies in the warp of a single idea… [p.12]
When I pointed out that Maia is Sanskrit for “illusion” and that Mann is no dummy, the observation was met with silence. (My secular book club may like to believe I read religion into where it is not.)
5) Compare and contrast Death in Venice with The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (Lots of books about death this year!)
Besides “death” being in both titles, what gives? Earlier in the year I opined that Ivan Ilyich’s denial of death and its ramifications was miraculously broken by the story’s moving end when he repents of his entire materialistic life. (It is a pointedly modern novel as its condemnation of societal blindness is even truer today.) Gustave’s denial, not only of the actual Divine but of the risks of cholera, brings on his utter destruction.
6) Death in Venice compliments most closely what other of Mann’s books?
Mann’s first novel, Buddenbrooks, about the decline of a German family from 1835-1877 could have presaged the family-less and pathetic Gustave. Magic Mountain dealt with disease and moral decay. But it is Doctor Faustus, which Mann published in 1947, which comes closest.
Like Doctor Faustus, and like Germany itself, our creative genius Gustave made a Faustian bargain in the pursuit of fame and beauty and power. And they all paid a large price, as do we who share similar ambitions.
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann, Penguin Modern Classics, Middlesex, England, 1978