Top positive review
14 people found this helpful
on 20 June 2013
One of the great European writers of the twentieth century, Thomas Mann is one of those figures who still looms large over literature. 'Death in Venice' is (rightly) regarded as one of his finest works, forming an appropriate ending to this collection, but many of the other stories in this volume are also excellent and everything here is worthy of any thoughtful reader's time.
Aside from collecting so many of Mann's finest early works, this collection is worth commending for its excellent introduction, which does much to illuminate Mann's life and work and the cultural context which gave birth to his extraordinary writing. Not knowing what to expect, I delved into the introduction first and already found that a certain sadness pervaded my view of Mann, merely from the biographical aspects of it. This became very potent as I read through the stories, and it was hard not to make comparisons between the life described in the introduction and the lives we glimpse in the stories.
Many of the stories in this collection form variations on a similar theme: that of young men who waste their lives only to come to their senses all too late. Naturally, this makes it a rather melancholic read at times but the death (or non-birth) of youth is a fascinating theme. Although this may make some of the works seem like templates, this is definitely not the case - Mann's real skill is his gift for relating the high emotions of his characters, even when they are not obvious to those around them. Because of this, the reader has to approach them with empathy; although Mann's writing is not as formally inventive as some of his contemporaries, perhaps the 'difficulty' of his work lies in its emotional nuances. Fortunately, he shares the empathy of the reader in bringing his characters to life.
No matter how good the likes of 'Little Herr Friedemann' are, the two best works come last. 'Tonio Kroeger' is the archetypal kunstlerroman (novel of artistic development). This novella forms something of an analogue for Mann's own development as a writer, setting up sublimation as a key aspect of Mann's writing. The idea of sublimation becomes even more important in 'Death in Venice' itself. Deservedly regarded as a literary classic, the final part of this collection forms one of Mann's greatest achievements. Amidst a world of decay, Gustav von Aschenbach goes on holiday to Venice only to develop an obsessive infatuation with Tadzio, a young Polish boy staying in the same hotel. The protagonist's obsession is so great that even a cholera outbreak is not enough to drive him away from the object of his desire as he becomes increasingly in thrall to his infatuation and loses touch with everything else. In spite of the obvious sadness of von Aschenbach, the experience creates something of an artistic awakening in him, giving us a glimpse of the strange genesis of artistic inspiration.