Death in Venice, Deathly Menace

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Looking morbid…

As Thomas Mann is a fellow German, I am glad that our nation -somewhat sidelined for engineering and precision- was represented in the literature-classics-to-be-read list. However having read Death in Venice, I now vote that it should be removed from said list, even if it means Germany is once again shunned.

Famously a short-story, I was expecting Death In Venice to be packed with electrifying plot twists and wildly unexpected turns. At 70 pages, there is plenty of room for a proper character arc and plot development, however it seems that Mann didn’t get the memo because he spent 47 pages just dwelling on the beauty and seeming greatness of Tadzio.

‘a page and a half of sublime prose based on Tadzio’s beauty—the purity, nobility, and quivering emotion tension of which would soon win the admiration of many’

Now I’m sure Aschenbach would have rejoiced at the modern era; Facebook and Instagram are the perfect tools for stalking certain individuals, and there would hardly be a millennial who would say that they weren’t guilty of this, but- an essay on Tadzio? The following of him around? The commitment to him even at the risk of death? It’s all very hyperbolic and excessive, which I understand is the point of Death In Venice so I cannot criticise that. What is problematic is the extent of time that Mann dedicates to the same scenes of wonder and adoration; of course content should reflect the feelings of the protagonist, but readers don’t need 70% of the book solely focusing on the description of a secondary character. It was unsurprising that Ascenbach would die in the end, as unfortunately Mann gave that away in the title, but I thought that the end still wouldn’t be so blindingly predictable? There are only so many ways that the protagonist could die, and dying cholera was the first and most probable on the list.

SUPPOSEDLY BRILLIANT WRITERS SHOULD NOT BE PREDICTABLE

If only Mann were alive to read this. He would learn so much. You see there is utterly no point in reading if the plot resolution can be visualised preemptively, otherwise the thrill and engagement aspects are eliminated, which are what makes the process so enjoyable in the first place. And as a short story, Mann has a particular duty to finish surprisingly or with a twist, but the death was obvious (again, title), so there was nothing to make up for the long drawn out descriptions. It is even difficult to find a climax at any point. So superficially, the book’s awful. It just blabbers on.

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me waiting for the part where it becomes interesting

So, what are the deeper meanings? Can they save Mann and catapult him back into literary greatness? Clearly pederasty is a major theme and is ultimately what shot the story to fame. It is rarely discussed in a literary form now and even less then, and so many people are be fascinated by this notion of infatuation, and exploring this within the context of a book is a rather comforting way to deal with the problem. Paedophilia often haunts newspapers but is rarely spoken about as a society unlike murder or theft due to embarrassment or awkwardness, and so it seems that ultimately in the novella form allows people to see it and truly stare it into eyes, and sit by themselves and decide what they think of it and why, as discussion of the topic is somewhat limited. Fundamentally Aschenbach is a paedophile and it’s written from his perspective, but interestingly Aschenbach justifies his lust by comparing himself to the ancient Greeks, saying he was acting the warriors did then. Nice try, but the Greeks also forced women to wear veils and stay indoors, and I don’t Aschenbach endorsing that part of society. One cannot pick and choose parts of culture to emulate, if one is going to hold up that entire culture to form the basis as justification for what is a modern day crime.

The one redeeming feature of Death in Venice could be the cholera. Cholera was the sriracha to the otherwise bland bowl of rice the plot was. Ironically, in the opening Aschenbach longs for far-off countries with unconventional scenes and happenings. Guess what, Aschenbach didn’t have to go to India to experience the fun, India (in the form of cholera) came to him. (If cholera could be called fun. Who knows? Aschenbach lived a very sheltered life, so perhaps anything goes for the thrill-factor.) Cholera could even represent the way his lust for Tadzio consumes him, and even kills him; his emotions cause him to stay in Venice even when he knows it’ll eventually lead to his physical decline, just as chlorea actually leads to his death. It’s a double-edged symbol and rather fun once thought about. But Mann, there needs to be more than one turn per 70 pages. Come on now.

The secondary characters are worth considering, and although there is analysis, it’s not particularly mind-blowing. The man at the graveyard, for instance, is masculine with his bulging Adam’s apple and also hideous because of his ‘permanent facial deformity’. So he’s everything which Tadzio isn’t. This doesn’t mean that the Graveyard Man is a precursor or foreshadows the relationship, but if we’re searching amongst scraps for something to say to help merit Mann, then maybe it reveals that Aschenbach who is describing him, is only focusing the features which revolts him the most ? He craves youthfulness and beauty, so the antithesis of these attributes shock him and captures his attention. This line of argument applies to the man on the boat with the make-up, feigning adolescence whilst the ugliness part can be applied to the minstrel. Curiously, towards the end of the story, Aschenbach metamorphisms into that which he hates, and becomes more leering and even has that session in the salon to make himself seem younger, and then doesn’t seem like an imposter himself. Interesting.

There is plenty of Freudian analysis of Aschenbach online and in books, which will be doubtless more absorbing that what I can say because I have no interest whatsoever in investing that sort of time into a story I find dull. But what is captivating is the notion that Aschenbach is a queer contemporary icon. Of course, throughout history literature has not been exactly kind to the LGBT community, so icons are taken as they come, but Aschenbach is a problematic choice. He may claim pederasty at the best of times but morally his actions are perverse and ought to be treated as such, not exalted because of his sexuality. And in some ways, it does seem like Aschenbach is not actually gay, but more is in love with the concept of divine beauty, in whatever form that may be. Tadzio just happened to be extremely beautiful, and so Aschenbach craved the look and the form of Tadzio more than his personality or character, just like a sculptor admires a figure for the shape and dimensions as opposed to any emotional attributes. In many ways Tadzio could easily have been female, without any qualms to the plot, and then the plot would be relatively unchanged, but leave the world with one less icon.

 

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

Owens River Valley
So take a left at the T junction, go straight past Eden and then take the third exit at the roundabout. Then you’re East of Eden.

Steinbeck said that ‘everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this’ novel, and he was certainly correct in saying that East of Eden was the literary finale compared to all his previous works.

At a hefty 602 pages, it may seem daunting at first, but unlike many of other long novels (like Tess of the D’Urbervilles), the content deserves to sprawls across hundreds of pages. In fact, sprawl seems to the wrong word. Each word seems to be carefully chosen, like Steinbeck was a gardener picking only the best fruit that the English language could offer. It is remarkable to think how Steinbeck could even begin to plan a novel of this magnitude; in no places does it, like an under-baked pie, sag under the need to get to the next exciting event. All of the plot is gripping and thought-provoking, and the meanings span across so many levels. Although I may indeed regret saying this, (the old adage being careful what you wish for!), it seems that in spite of its length, this novel would be a joy to study as there is just so much to unpack.

The first thing to comment on is obviously the book’s namesake, East of Eden, referring to how the plot loosely links to the story of Adam and Eve and ultimately Cain and Abel. Adam is both Adam from the Book of Genesis and Abel; Charles is Cain. This makes sense because if Cyrus, their father, is God, then Cyrus’ rejection of Charles’ pocketknife and adoration of Abel’s stray puppy mirror wonderfully God’s praise for the lamb and hatred for the crops offered by Cain. Following this cruel dismissal from God, Cain famously kills Abel, and so Charles beats Adam almost to death, before running off to get a hatchet to finish Adam before he eventually escapes. Again Cain becomes marked by God to prevent others from killing him, and so Charles becomes scarred when working in his fields. Lastly Cain didn’t have any descendants whilst Adam did, which can be a direct parallel to the lives of Charles and Adam. The interesting thing about the way Steinbeck did this was that it was never glaring obvious that the two stories paralleled each other, nor was the next chapter ever predicatable, whilst still holding true to the Bible original.

Furthermore Adam and Cathy can be interpreted as Adam and Eve from the Bible. When considering the original sin, it can traced entirely back to Eve, as she was responsible for all the acts of wrongdoing in Eden due to the loss of the pair’s innocence. In this way, Cathy can be regarded as a solely evil character because of all the ‘monstrous’ manipulation, lying, cheating and murder she carried out in her lifetime. Scholars believe her to be a representation of a debased form of Eve, as she seduces men at every opportunity for her own means; for example, from framing her parents’ death without remorse, to using the whoremaster to engineer a better circumstance to herself, to her betrayal of Adam and ultimately her own kin. The list of the other devious happenings she organised goes on, but essentially it’s clear that Cathy is undeniably a gruesome and perhaps hyperbolic version of Eve in the context of the Book of Genesis.

The important thing to remember when reading East of Eden, too, is that it’s not necessarily meant to be realistic. The narrator even mentions that Cathy has a ‘deformity’ within her soul, meaning that she is crueler and harsher than an average person. Cathy is an exaggeration of humanity’s worst qualities and yet she is still somewhat plausible, in a twisted sort of way. It’s worth mentioning this just because many critics at the time of the novel’s publication argued that the characters were unruly and unimaginable, making this not such a fantastic read after all, but then again these same critics did believe a certain man to walk on water, and so these contradictions in what is plausible and what isn’t make their arguments rather hypocritical.

All in all, although I was initially quite unenthusiastic about taking the plunge into East of Eden, when I did I was amazed by the vivid characters and plot that lay before me. So come join me! The water’s lovely…