I almost feel something of a fraud. Having posted last about how I needed a break from crime and how Italy wasn't quite seizing me, here I am writing about a book with not only death in the title, but Venice to boot. The death however this time is not a murder, but rather a treatment of youth's passage into age and ultimately death, all cast against the decaying backdrop of Venice.
Just because “Death in Venice” isn't a crime novel per se doesn't reduce its somewhat unsettling nature. Like Ruskin before, and Simon Raven afterwards, to say nothing of the obvious connections with Nabokov's “Lolita”, Mann deals with the difficult concept of paedophilia in an unflinching way. For all that the eroticism and lust is unfulfilled, and the distance in time allows an argument to made that Mann and his cast of characters inhabited a different moral universe, the overall reading experience sits a touch uneasily in the early 21st century.
Thomas Mann confirms that portraying Venice as a glorious yet thoroughly decaying, sinking, corrupt city is nothing new. Indeed the pre-World War I atmosphere of Venice, draped with cholera's miasma, is even less a picture-postcard tourist advert than that of Donna Leon's Brunetti series.
While Thomas Mann isn't an everyday banker as an author, and generally you really have to be in the humour for him, he does capture the sense of place and setting enormously effectively. More arresting is how contemporary his writing sometimes feels, belying the fact that “Death in Venice” is practically a century old. In particular von Aeschenbach's encounter with the sole unlicensed gondolier in Venice feels like something much more akin to a 'modern' comedy of manners from the likes of Alexander McCall Smith.
As I say, Thomas Mann probably isn't for everyone, and it's certainly not for me every day. “Death in Venice” works in a British spring, much like “The Magic Mountain” worked in a hot early summer, where the slow pace of the Nemunas River past dismal sanatoria (pictured) matched the gradual personal evolution of Hans Castorp. So, books very much in and of their place. I'm very pleased to have read “Death in Venice”, but I must say I'm rather looking forward to a return to something a little more mainstream.