Death in Venice and Other Stories (Signet Classics)

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9780451526090: Death in Venice and Other Stories (Signet Classics)

During a holiday in Venice, an aging German writer becomes intrigued by a youth whose remote beauty embodies the classical ideal, in a new translation of Mann's classic story from a collection that also includes "Tristan," "The Child Prodigy," and "Hour of Hardship." Reprint.

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About the Author:

Thomas Mann (1875?1955) was one of the finest and most prolific German novelists of our century. His most famous works include Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and the Joseph tetralogy.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Thomas Mann (1875–1955) was born in Lübeck, Germany. In 1901, his first novel, Buddenbrooks, won critical acclaim. Succeeding works, such as the novellas Tonio Kröger (1903) and Death in Venice (1912) and the novel The Magic Mountain (1924), established him as the leading writer of his generation and as the first twentieth-century representative of the great German literary tradition. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, he left Hitler’s Germany in 1933, eventually settling in 1938 in the United States, where he was an outspoken supporter of the Allied war effort. His most important late work was Doctor Faustus (1947), a novel exploring the cultural and psychological reasons for the rise of Nazism in civilized, bourgeois Germany. He eventually returned to Europe and died in Switzerland.

 

Jefferson S. Chase holds a doctorate in German literature from the University of Virginia, where he was also a President’s Fellow. From 1994 to 1996, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Institute for German and European Studies. He collaborated on the English version of Gregor von Rezzori’s Oedipus at Stalingrad and his translations of Heine, Borne, and Saphir appear in his book Inciting Laughter: The Rise of Jewish Humor in German Culture. He is currently lecturer in German at the University of Nottingham.

 

Martin Swales was born in 1940. He studied German at the universities of Cambridge and Birmingham and has held teaching posts in German at Birmingham, Toronto, King’s College London, and University College London, where he was a professor from 1976 to 2003. He has written widely on modern German literature, publishing monographs on Goethe, Stifter, Schnitzler, and Thomas Mann and on German realistic fiction, the Novelle, and the Bildungsroman. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Acknowledgments

I would like to take this opportunity to thank some of the people who supported and assisted me in the long process of preparing this edition, to wit: Julia Moskin, Don Hymans at Signet, Jonathan Long, Walter Sokel, Wiebke Sievers, Julie Gregson, and Irmela Plamann. Many of my ideas about translating and reading these stories arose during enjoyable conversations with Alex Ross, a true Mann enthusiast and an insightful critic. Above all, my thanks go out to Lara Brekenfeld, to whom my translations are also dedicated.

Thomas Mann: An Introduction

“For an imaginative work of any significance to make an on-the-spot impact that is both broad and deep,” writes Thomas Mann in “Death in Venice,” “there must be some unspoken affinity, indeed basic agreement between the individual destiny of the author and the general one of his contemporaries and fellow citizens.” Mann might well have been writing of himself. Together with Franz Kafka, Mann overshadows all other twentieth-century German authors in world fame and importance. He sold millions of books during his lifetime, exerted a literary influence to rival that of Faulkner or Joyce, functioned in American exile during World War II as the premier voice of Germany’s humanist tradition, and is still read today throughout the world by both popular and academic audiences. Yet he remains a difficult, problematic figure. Unlike Kafka, whose works take place in a singular alternative nightmare world and whose name spawned an English adjective, Mann wrote in a variety of modes ranging from the everyday-realistic to the surreal, and his authorial presence always seems to hover outside his fictional creations, apart and separate from them. There is no adjective Mannian except among Mann scholars. Instead, there is a continuing fascination with him as a person and with the circumstances surrounding the composition of his works. No fewer than three Mann biographies appeared in 1995.

Paul Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875, in Lübeck, the second child of Senator Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann. The Manns had been citizens first-class of the Hanseatic trading city for over a hundred years before Thomas’s birth, possessing a large import-export firm and holding office in the autonomous city-state’s government. Thomas’s mother, Julia da Silva-Bruhns, was of Brazilian descent: his mixed parentage would later become a subject he would explore in his semi-autobiographical “Tonio Kröger” and “Death in Venice.” Success for Thomas came early, despite the swift demise of the family business after his father’s death in 1892. After his father died, Thomas’s family moved to Munich, where he was educated and worked as a clerk in an insurance office and served on the staff of the Munich journal Simplicissimus before taking up writing as a career. He published his first novella at the age of nineteen. By 1904 he had completed Buddenbrooks, the novel that was to bring him international fame. In the years to follow, despite occasional financial crises brought on by the vicissitudes in Germany’s political fortunes, Mann never seriously questioned his calling as an author and a public figure. Indeed, he saw his career as following in the great tradition of the twin idols of German literature, Goethe and Schiller. After he completed Buddenbrooks, Mann married into a wealthy Jewish family, composed the short stories collected in this edition, and experienced his second novelistic triumph with the epic The Magic Mountain (1924). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929.

Thomas Mann was an enthusiastic, indeed chauvinistic supporter of the German cause in World War I, which led to a prolonged estrangement from his older brother Heinrich, a successful and important novelist in his own right, with whom Thomas had worked closely in the incipient days of his career. The experience of German defeat, however, converted Mann from an adherent of Imperial monarchism to a committed, if culturally snobbish, proponent of democracy. His opposition to the politics of the National Socialists, together with his wife Katia’s Jewish background, led to his emigration shortly after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, first to Switzerland, then to the United States (1938). He became a U.S. citizen in 1944, took up various academic posts, and worked closely with the U.S. State Department on scores of anti-Hitlerian essays and radio addresses. In 1947, while he was living in Los Angeles, he completed his last great novel, Doctor Faustus, a fictional reckoning with what the historian Friedrich Meineke was to term “the German catastrophe.” He returned to Europe in 1953 and settled near Zurich, Switzerland, where he died on August 12, 1955. He was the father of the author Klaus Mann (1906–49) and the historian Golo Mann (1909–94).

Mann’s works are remarkably philosophical, very much the product of the intellectual environment of their time. Though a poor student, Mann was an avid reader and absorbed a great deal of the philosophical views that were popular during his formative years, chiefly those of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. From Schopenhauer, he incorporated the idea of an irrational, destructive will—a natural force of life described as present alternately in the world itself and deep within the human psyche—which was fundamentally opposed to the stabilizing, constructive efforts of the rational mind. From Nietzsche, he took insights concerning human psychology, especially the psychology of the artist as outsider vis-à-vis Western civilization. This view ran contrary to the popular nineteenth-century idea of the artist as a heroic representative of bourgeois society. For Mann, as well as for Nietzsche, the artist was a dubious figure, a creature of sickness and longing for death, motivated by resentment of society’s stronger self-perpetuating impulses. As such, however, the artist was emblematic of a basic conflict between individual desire and civilized behavior.

Mann was also influenced by his contemporary Freud, who likewise focused on sexual desire as a nexus of frustrated individual will and likewise came to perceive a death-wish, or thanatos, embedded within the human subconscious. Still another, less frequently noted influence was the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, with its methodological emphasis on descriptive perception as a means of insight into the human condition. Some of Mann’s maddeningly detailed, at times seemingly hair-splitting prose can be understood as an attempt to do in fiction what the phenomenologists of his day pursued in philosophy.

Surprisingly, Mann’s thematic interests are rather narrow—although he did often quote from outside sources, he was not the writer to be inspired by newspaper curiosities or second-hand anecdotes. First and foremost among his favorite themes is the relationship between the artist and bourgeois society. This topic had long been a literary preoccupation before Mann, but no writer had ever depicted the entwined impulses toward integration and rebellion characteristic of the artist with quite the complexity that Mann did. The artists in Mann’s works are not Romantic bohemians who sacrifice themselves in struggle against bourgeois constraints. More often than not, they are profoundly bourgeois souls who long for complete integration into the everyday world of the warm-hearted and the banal. Their central dilemma, which Mann treats both tragically and comically, is that the very artistic talent that earns them social acclaim also makes them creatures of anti-emotional irony, musical frenzy, or destructive passion. Mann challenges traditional conceptions of the artist as a heroic figure by portraying the creative impulse as a compensatory mechanism for individual weakness, for the artist or art- lover’s inability to fit into a “normal,” healthy world. Mann pursues this theme most satirically in “Tristan,” whereas the writer-protagonists of “Tonio Kröger” and “Man and Dog” (two directly autobiographical works) reconcile their social and destructive impulses in much the same fashion as Mann did in real life. In “Death in Venice,” it is debatable as to whether Gustav Aschenbach’s fatal lapse into forbidden passion represents ridiculous foible or tragic triumph.

Mann is not a “political” writer in the typical sense of the word. He largely eschews depictions of class conflict, political events, and technological transformations of society in his works. Yet his treatment of the individual-versus-society theme does have broad relevance. For Mann, the destructive, antisocial impulses at work within the artistic psyche reveal the potential for violence and warfare latent in civilized society, of which art is a major institution. Public attitudes toward war during Mann’s time differed markedly from our own. World War I was greeted by some as a positive development that would cleanse Europe of the torpor and malaise into which it was perceived to have fallen at the turn of the century. Mann lived through both of the great European wars and witnessed the near destruction of the culture with which he identified most. It is not surprising, then, that references to war are scattered throughout his late works: the evocation of the politically explosive atmosphere of the early 1910’s in the beginning of “Death in Venice,” for example, or allusions to war-time privation in “Man and Dog.” In these and other passages, Mann suggests that individual “artistic” antipathy toward civilization is indicative of a self-destructive impulse at work within European culture at large. He would develop this view with unambiguous reference to fascism in later works such as “Mario and the Magician” (not included here because of copyright constraints) and Doctor Faustus. For Mann, European society, like the artist, was sick.

A third major theme in Mann’s work is homoeroticism. As his recent biographer Anthony Heilbutt points out, Mann repeatedly developed crushes on attractive young men of the sort depicted in the first chapter of “Tonio Kröger.” Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio in “Death in Venice,” too, had its origins in a real-life fascination to which Mann succumbed while on vacation with his brother and wife. However, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that Mann consummated any of these relationships sexually. What seems more probable is that, like Tonio Kröger, Mann restricted his homosexual leanings to fiction and led a life of heterosexual “normality.” In any case, his exploration of homosexuality enabled him to develop a unique understanding of the situation of the social outsider. In drawing the connection between artists and homosexuality, Mann directly confronted an issue that had been lurking scandalously within German literature at least since the Heine-Platen feud of 1828. Mann does not take up a clear moral position in regard to homosexuality in his works. Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are described in sympathetic detail, but at the same time Mann’s overall depiction of his protagonist is ironic and therefore calls Aschenbach’s sensibilities—artistic as well as erotic—into question. It was thanks to this ironic distance from his subject matter that Thomas Mann—who otherwise placed enormous value on respectability—could create one of the most frank depictions of homosexual desire the world has ever known.

Mann’s distanced perspective as author is reinforced by the style in which he writes. The first and perhaps most obvious feature of his style is parataxis—long-windedness. Owing to its syntactic structure, German is a “long” language, but even so Mann constructs mammoth sentences. Contrary to initial impressions, though, Mann’s long-windedness is motivated by a desire to be as precise as possible. True to the phenomenological belief in the intrinsic worth of descriptive perception, Mann leaves no impression about his subject matter unrecorded. It is a signature move of Mann’s, for instance, to juxtapose two or more seemingly synonymous adjectives or verbs in order to point out the subtle differences in meaning and perception they entail. He also exploits syntactic vagaries to create revealing ambiguity: this occurs most prominently in “Death in Venice,” in which ambiguously referring relative pronouns are employed to depict Aschenbach’s own confused and conflict-ridden thought process. Even when its sense does eventually emerge without ambiguity, the typical Mann sentence is not necessarily immediately comprehensible. It is a puzzle that one has to put together, and this putting together is an important part of the pleasure and the profit of reading Mann.

A second major aspect of Mann’s style is the protean quality of his narrative voice. Much like his contemporary Alfred Döblin, the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Mann was a great lover of found material, and his writing often takes on the character of quoted pastiche. “Death in Venice,” for example, contains strategically altered citations from Plato, Cicero, Homer, Xenophon, Plutarch, and August von Platen, as well as an encyclopedia entry on Asiatic cholera. This penchant for quotation feeds into two other stylistic idiosyncrasies: an inscrutable authorial perspective and periodic ruptures of hermetic fictionality. Because Mann’s narrators so often speak through the voice of a quoted source, authorial opinion is placed at double remove, filtered through narration that...

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