Gustav von Aschenbach, a German literary giant in his twilight years, decides to leave home for reasons barely understand. His vague desires lead him to travel to Venice where he comes across his own version of perfection, embodied in the figure of a Polish boy.
The first time I read this book, it was all about the sentences.
I had read the more contemporary British interpretation, Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death in Long Island, a book filled with wonderful sentences. After reading that book, I thought to myself, let me learn about the origins of that book in the earlier German version.
And so I did.
I read these books in my early university years, hoping to master the art of the very short novel with the postcard-thin plot. I came away with a fascination for sentence-level writing. Both books had prose so beautiful it could easily be called poetry.
Now, about fifteen years later, I’ve read “Death in Venice” for the second time. And…I had that feeling all over again. Even translated from German, the sentences sparkle.
What else is there to say about this novel?
This is essentially a novel about a writer and writing. If you’re someone like me, someone about 20 years into a decadent writing addiction, it will make you think about the great questions of writing.
As Thomas Mann writes, mirroring the thoughts of the protagonist, good writing comes “out of daily increments of hundreds upon hundreds of bits of inspiration” (p. 15). Or what about this quote on the quandary of becoming a writer: “Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden” (p. 43).
I might never write anything so wonderful about the act of writing and the problems of the writer’s life.
The novel violates many of the “rules” of good writing (at least by American standards) — it lacks scenes in many parts, it has internal narration, a great deal of the book is spent telling instead of showing.
It also has a character who rarely acts.
The book is a marvel.
The first two chapters demonstrate how to write a character study, a useful thing for a story or novel but something perhaps best left out of the story itself. These character elements should be revealed slowly through scenes and dialogue, or even better, action.
And yet, it is forgivable.
There is action — there is the decision to travel, there is the decision to leave, the decision to stay, and finally, during the end, Aschenbach’s decision to risk his life to see the face of beauty just a little longer.
Then there is that other bit to talk about — to name the story.
No matter how many Greek myths are invoked, no matter how much Gustav von Aschenbach frames his journey as passionate, dignified, noble, and spiritual, he is a German author stalking a Polish boy.
It is a stalker tale. A literary stalker tale, but a stalker tale none the less.
This is something wonderfully captured in Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island. Both are books about the “Real of Desire” and looking foolish in the pursuit of that Desire. Most real love is a fool’s errand, no matter how you try to tell it (so why not tell it as the tale of a fool or the tale of a dignified man made foolish).
In the end, the book is instructive about the limits of writing about the inner world, about the possibilities of the minimalist plot, and the power of beautiful language. The book can be read as a dark comedy or as something dreadfully serious, depending on how you interpret the aristocratic tones. For my own tastes, I like to think of the book both as the death of a particular character and as the death of the self-aggrandizing aristocratic author.
Any way you choose to read it, it is a masterpiece.