Rating: 3 stars
There is something of E M Forster in the writing. A celebrated writer, creating his own personal myth of existence, full of his sense of worth, taking meaning from the patterns of his life, but realising that he is stuck, needs adventure, needs to flee. It reminded me of Forster’s novels in which bored British people take a tour of European cities, don’t say very much, and are introspective and repressed before falling into a passion they think they should deny themselves.
The observation of fellow passengers by Aschenbach and the descriptions of the journey from a coastal resort to Venice are wonderful. The reverie on the gondola broken by the mundane realisation that the gondolier is doing his own thing and denying his passenger’s wishes fix perfectly on the self absorption of the writer and the rudeness of reality. The slight imperfections in the hotel service add to the sense of oppression created by the weather. Aschenbach is almost suffocating under the weight of expectation of having an adventure in Venice, of freeing himself from his writer’s block. It is only when he is at the beach and in the presence of the beautiful Polish boy that it feels as though he can breathe again.
Death is present from the beginning. Aschenbach passes a monumental mason’s yard and a mortuary chapel at the beginning. The old man on the boat to Venice seems to be denying his mortality by dressing in a youthful way and surrounding himself with young people. The gondolas are described as coffins. The other residents at the hotel seem sickly, with pale skin and red-rimmed eyes. The oppressive heat and unhealthy atmosphere on the Lido add to a feeling of suffocation. Death seems inevitable, and Aschenbach follows fate to Venice – feeling that it’s the place he needs to be to clear his writer’s block and held there by the misdirection of his luggage when he realises he should leave. He accepts his fate when, against the advice of the travel agent, he chooses to remain in Venice, knowing that a quarantine is imminent.
Episodes echo each other. Aschenbach’s hallucination about tigers in a jungle are echoed by the travel agent’s description of the cholera outbreak’s source. The old man on the boat is echoed by Aschenbach’s transformation by the barber.
There are nods to classical Greece through Aschenbach’s references to Greek mythology, and in the way Tadzio is described as though he is a Greek statue, beautiful in a way that demands admiration. The Greek theme extends to Aschenbach’s obsessive love for the boy, which fits with ancient Greek societal norms. Aschenbach’s awoken passion is reflected in a Bacchanalian dream.
There is a coolness to the book at the start, and at first I didn’t feel sympathy with the characters. I felt remote from them, an observer, not encouraged to feel for them. Perhaps because Aschenbach was so self centred – there was only room for his feelings in the book. The writing is beautiful, and I appreciated the switches from past tense to present tense that plunge the reader suddenly into the moment with Aschenbach, but somehow there was something preventing me from loving it. At times it felt like an intellectual exercise in drawing parallels between Ancient Greece and early 20th century Europe. There was a clinical detachment. A switch happens towards the end when Aschenbach, drowning in his abandonment to passion, becomes more human. I found his descent into obsession compelling.
I read this because it was one of the March 2016 books of the month on the Goodreads Shelfari 1001 Books Group.