Monday, 18 April 2011

Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' - a very brief summary

In his novella 'Death in Venice' Thomas Mann portrays the final days of his protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach, a revered German novelist, who has reached the autumn of his life. Aschenbach, a widower, is described as a paragon of self - discipline, who has dedicated a lifetime to his craft and denied himself any opportunity for self - indulgence.

When Aschenbach is plagued by a lack of artistic inspiration (or more aptly put: an onslaught of writer's block), he decides to take a holiday, which, as he hopes, might remedy the situation. Instead of spending the summer in his summer house, Aschenbach settles on the Grand Hotel des Bains, located on Venice's Lido Island.

Shortly after his arrival in the hotel, he notices Tadzio, a fourteen - year - old Polish boy, who is staying in the hotel together with his mother, his sisters and their governess. From the moment Aschenbach sets eyes on Tadzio he is mesmerized by the boy.

Initially, Aschenbach admires Tadzio's aesthetic beauty, but soon his interest spirals out of control. Aschenbach either follows him around or observes him for hours whilst Tadzio is playing on the beach with other children. Aschenbach's obsession intensifies against the backdrop of a cholera outbreak in the city, which both  the Venetian authorities and those economically dependent on the tourist trade try to cover up. However, even when Aschenbach receives confirmation that the rumours in respect of the cholera outbreak are true, he still does not leave the City.

Eventually, Aschenbach himself starts feeling unwell. When emerging from his room to have breakfast one morning, he finds the Polish family in the midst of preparations for their departure. Seeking out Tadzio, Aschenbach makes for the beach and it is here that he dies in his chair whilst observing Tadzio one final time.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Finding Thomas Mann

The other day, I was watching a travel documentary on Germany. The programme, which last aired on BBC 4 on 2nd April 2011, was presented and researched by Al Murray, a comedian well known amongst the British public. Murray was looking at Germany's cultural heritage, thereby examining the legacy of German artists, architects, composers and novelists. His journey led him to the Hanseatic town of Lübeck, the city where Thomas Mann was born in 1875.

Murray quoted Mann, who is alleged to have stated during his time in exile in the US that where ever he went, there was Germany. In the context of its time and rather than demonstrating a good dose of self - importance, Mann aimed to challenge the narrow definition of what the Nazi elite prescribed to be German or, for that matter, Ungerman.

Being a German and living abroad, I was able to identify with Mann's statement. What was true for Mann, is true for me: where ever I am , I will always be taking a part of Germany with me. As a consequence of this, I will consciously or subconsciously project my particular and subjective brand of "Germanness" to others around me; not because I am keen to let it hang out or eager to thrust my nationality down people's throats, but simply because my nationality, the culture that surrounded me throughout childhood, ultimately shapes my identity. And yet, just like Mann's, my "Germanness" is unique. The same will probably apply to the remaining 80 million of us. For me, Mann's statement works on many levels, but I think it beautifully captures the notions of individuality and commonality in the context of national identity.

Because Mann's statement intrigued me, I thought it a good idea to actually read one of his books. I hear people ask: How can you be German and not have read Mann? Well, I asked myself the same question. Quite frankly, I was unable to come up with an answer. Let's face it, a German who has never read Mann is the equivalent of a Brit who has never seen a Shakespeare play.

I remember my mother's bookshelf contained a copy of Mann's Buddenbrooks. I also remember her talking about 'The Magic Mountain'. As an adolescent I never had great urges to venture into "fat book territory" and both works definitely fall into this category. My irrational fear of big boks possibly explains why I would have not given his epic works a chance during my teenage years. Having said that, I cannot recall Mann being part of my school curriculum either, which, considering Mann's literary accolades, seems rather bewildering - a point I will return to at a later point.

To close this gap in my literary education once and for all, I ordered a copy of "Death in Venice" from the local library. I chose Death in Venice since it is probably one of the better known novellas and my library happened to house a copy in German. This particular edition contains a collection of six novellas by the author and was located on the ethnic minority shelf, quietly cuddling up to the Russian edition of Stephenie Meier's Twilight. (I am somehow convinced Mann would have not objected to me disturbing this questionable union.)
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