Thursday, October 09, 2014

Book Review - Death in Venice and Other Tales

This book was assigned for a college course that I ended up dropping but I had already purchased the book. I decided to keep it because the book buyback/refund was ridiculous and because Mann's work is hailed as a quintessential part of German literature as well as insight on the concept of literature as art and of the relation between art and reality/humanity. Now years later, I finally picked the book up and worked through the dozen stories it contains.

From a high level I can say that I found the stories very evocative, descriptive and full of detailed emotion. A common tone that I felt throughout the reading was one not necessarily of despair but of longing...of a desire or yearning for something more. The exact focus varied somewhat from story to story but generally speaking we were usually presented with a protagonist who was an artist of some kind and who is struggling with balancing his passion and desire with the mundane and disappointing real world around him. That tone produced an overarching depressive feel that lingered throughout my entire reading. Even the happy and vibrant moments had a shadow of sadness behind them that I just couldn't escape.

A lot of the depressive nature came from the conflict between the desire and the ability to fulfill on those desires. In most cases, the yearning of the character in question was for something inaccessible or forbidden. Specifically, in the title story the artist/writer is an older man who is having romantic longings towards a younger boy...thus a yearning that is taboo and forbidden on multiple levels. By making these desires more taboo or forbidden, I felt less directly tied to the protagonist but Mann still presented the situation in a way that allowed me to feel the oppressive emotions of the struggle. In other cases the struggle is just one between a desire to create that great artistic masterpiece and the feeling of constantly falling short. It's hard to be an artist and it's easy to be hard on yourself as an artist.

Random review interlude -- A couple of favorite quotes:
"We are only as old as we feel in our hearts and minds."

"Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous - to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd."

I certainly appreciated the artistry of the story and I was impressed by the depth and detail added to the environments, characters and stories of this book. Some of the stories were a bit more engaging to me than others but generally I felt a bit disjointed from the stories and had a hard time really appreciating the various plots. What I probably enjoyed most (beyond some of the beautiful descriptions) were the semi-frequent existential and philosophical moments. Mann puts together some interesting thoughts that sat with me after closing the book. Mostly he left me feeling unsettled and dissatisfied and like I should get out and do something productive and worthwhile. To that extent, I applaud the effort of the book. Otherwise, this is a bit of classical literary artistry that I can appreciate but really don't feel like it was a "must read" or that my life is significantly improved by reading. I didn't hate it but I didn't love it. Overall, it just sort of exists on a menial plane for me.

3 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

eh, when all else fails...i now have a book to turn to...