Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice When I decided to participate in this year’s German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline and Lizzy) I discovered that I already had two books by German authors unread on my shelves: Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann and Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada. I chose the Thomas Mann simply because the book was a lot shorter and I could be sure of finishing it before the end of the month, but now that I’ve read it I wish I had gone with my heart and chosen Hans Fallada, whose books I have read before and loved. I did find a lot to like and appreciate in Mann’s writing, but I’m not convinced yet that he’s really an author for me.

As well as the title novella, Death in Venice (1912), this edition includes six other stories by Thomas Mann. I read all of them, but will concentrate here on Death in Venice as it is by far the most famous story in this collection and the one I was most interested in reading.

Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an ageing author suffering from writer’s block. He decides to travel in the hope that it will clear his mind and provide inspiration and the destination he settles on is Venice. Mann’s descriptions of Venice are beautifully written, even though at the time of Gustav von Aschenbach’s arrival the weather is dark, gloomy and oppressive, matching the overall mood of the story. I have been to Venice myself, so I found the descriptions of Aschenbach’s approach over the lagoon, his ride in the gondola and his trip across to the Lido particularly vivid.

While in Venice, von Aschenbach becomes intrigued by Tadzio, a beautiful young Polish boy who is staying with his family in the same hotel. Day by day, his infatuation with Tadzio grows; he finds himself watching out for the boy entering the breakfast room each morning and then tries to secretly follow him around Venice. Even when he learns that it may not be safe to remain in the city any longer, von Aschenbach is unable to tear himself away from Venice and Tadzio…and eventually, as the title suggests, his obsession will lead to a death in Venice.

Reading Death in Venice in 2015, it’s difficult not to feel disturbed by the story of a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a teenage boy – although I should point out that Aschenbach never touches or even speaks to Tadzio. The focus is on Aschenbach’s private feelings for the boy and how he chooses to deal with those feelings. I think at least part of his obsession can be attributed to an appreciation of beauty and the despair of a man who is growing older, knowing that his own youth is lost forever (towards the end of the novella, we see Aschenbach dye his hair and cover his wrinkles with make-up in an attempt to look younger). I found out after finishing the story that it was based on Thomas Mann’s real-life experiences and this made me think again about what he was trying to say and how he may have wanted it to be interpreted.

I found the other six stories in this collection a bit uneven, but they are all worth reading. Little Herr Friedemann (1897) – one of the earliest examples of Mann’s work included in the book – is a sad story of a man who was dropped on the floor as a baby and grew up with physical disabilities. Herr Friedemann has learned to cope with his lot in life and things aren’t going too badly for him…until he falls in love. The Joker (also 1897) has some similar themes, but I have to admit the details of this particular story have faded from my mind just a few days after reading it.

The Road to the Churchyard (1900) is a very short story about a widower who sets out to visit the churchyard and becomes irrationally angry with a boy (referred to only as ‘Life’) who is riding his bicycle along the path. This is followed by Gladius Dei (1902), in which a man called Hieronymus enters an art gallery in Munich and loses his temper when he sees a piece of immoral artwork displayed in the window.

Tristan (1903), one of the longer stories in the book, is a love story set in a sanatorium. It contains allusions to the legend of Tristan and Iseult, as well as some musical references and an exploration of attitudes towards life and death. Finally, Tonio Kröger (1903), another novella, follows the course of a man’s life from childhood to adulthood and, like Death in Venice, has some autobiographical elements.

I’m pleased to have finally read some of Thomas Mann’s work, but I found this an interesting book rather than an enjoyable one. I am not a huge fan of short story collections, though, so now I’m wondering whether I would have a better experience with one of his longer novels.

Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver

Master of Shadows There were several things that drew me to Master of Shadows: the setting (the fall of Constantinople in 1453) was one, and the protagonist (the Scottish engineer, John Grant) was another. Most of all, I was curious to see what Neil Oliver’s fiction would be like. Oliver is best known as a television presenter and historian – he recently presented the BBC series Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice – and although he has previously published some non-fiction, Master of Shadows is his first novel.

I have mentioned Constantinople, but much of the first half of the novel is actually set in Scotland, where the soldier Badr Khassan has come to fulfil a deathbed promise, having sworn to protect the wife and child of his friend, the late Patrick Grant. He finds Jessie Grant and young John just in time to interrupt an attempt on their lives by the men of Patrick’s enemy, Sir Robert Jardine of Hawkshaw. Pursued by the vengeful archer, Angus Armstrong, Badr and John leave Scotland and travel across Europe, making a living by fighting as mercenaries. Along the way they meet a mysterious female warrior called Lena who is also a target of the same group of Scots and who is hiding some important secrets regarding her own identity and John’s.

Eventually John arrives in Constantinople, one of the final strongholds of the Byzantine Empire, now under threat from the mighty Ottoman army. As the Emperor Constantine XI prepares to defend his city and Sultan Mehmet II gathers his forces outside the walls, two more characters come to the forefront of our story: Prince Constantine, the Emperor’s crippled son, and Yaminah, the girl he loves. The lives of John, Yaminah and the Prince come together during the dramatic Siege of Constantinople and the final days of the Byzantine Empire.

Master of Shadows is a combination of history, adventure and romance set against a backdrop of what is surely one of the most fascinating and significant periods in Europe’s history – the collapse of one empire and the expansion of another. I thought the book was generally well written and, knowing that the author is an archaeologist and historian, I also felt confident that it would have been well researched. However, he does take some liberties with certain historical characters; I really disliked Lena’s story, although I can’t explain why without telling you who she really is and that would be a spoiler! There’s also a supernatural aspect to the novel – John Grant is able to feel the Earth moving through space and can sense the people around him without using sight or touch – but this didn’t become such a big part of the story as I’d feared at first.

I had previously encountered John Grant as a character in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series (under the slightly different name of John le Grant) and was quite fond of him, so I was looking forward to seeing how he would be portrayed by another author. Very little is known about the real John Grant; records show that a Johannes Grant was employed as an engineer by the Byzantine Empire and his expertise in counter-tunnelling prevented the Turks from invading Constantinople from under the walls. He was originally thought to have been German but more recent research suggested that he was actually Scottish. This lack of historical information has allowed Neil Oliver to create a whole backstory for John to explain how he came to be in Constantinople. The character is quite different from the one in Dunnett’s novels, but I did still like him (although I found it irritating that he is always given his full name of John Grant, sometimes multiple times in the same paragraph, and is never just referred to as John).

Master of Shadows is an interesting first novel – I particularly liked the Scottish chapters near the beginning and the romance between Prince Constantine and Yaminah – but there were too many little things that didn’t work for me. As well as the Lena storyline and the supernatural element I’ve mentioned above, there’s a lot of jumping around in time which makes it slightly difficult to follow what is happening. I’m not sure whether I’ll read any more of Neil Oliver’s fiction, but I might try one of his non-fiction books instead.

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

The French Lieutenants Woman I feel I’ve been making a lot of progress with my Classics Club list recently. I have just finished two books from the list – one by Thomas Mann and another by Robert Louis Stevenson – but before I tell you about either of those, I wanted to post my thoughts on a book I read almost a month ago. It has taken me a while to motivate myself to write about The French Lieutenant’s Woman because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say. I didn’t dislike it but I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would or as I feel I should have done.

The story is set in the 1860s in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis (which Jane Austen readers will know as the place where Louisa Musgrove fell down the steps in Persuasion). Sarah Woodruff, the ‘woman’ of the title, spends her days standing alone on The Cobb, the town’s harbour wall, staring out to sea. Nicknamed ‘Tragedy’ by the people of Lyme, Sarah is considered to be a disgraced woman following a brief relationship with a French naval officer who abandoned her and married another woman on his return to France.

Charles Smithson, who is staying in the town with his fiancée Ernestina Freeman, encounters Sarah while out walking one day and is intrigued when he is told about her background. The more he learns about Sarah, the more fascinated he becomes, but as he is still engaged to Ernestina, he will soon be faced with making some important decisions.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an unusual novel and I can definitely understand its appeal. Published in 1969 but set in 1867, there are times when it feels almost like an authentic Victorian novel and others when the author intrudes into the story to make an observation from a very contemporary perspective. In John Fowles’ own words:

“You are not trying to write something one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write; but perhaps something one of them failed to write. And: Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must have relevance to the writer’s now – so don’t ever pretend you live in 1867; or make sure the reader knows it’s a pretence.”

This novel, then, is a mixture of old and new. It’s a book about the Victorian period – the culture, the science and literature, the conventions of society – as well as a book set in the Victorian period. The author (or the narrator – it’s difficult to distinguish between the two) plays an important role in the story, giving us his opinions of the characters and their actions, and even appearing as a character himself later in the novel. And this, I think, is probably why I had a problem with the book. It doesn’t bother me at all when a Victorian author stops to talk directly to the reader – Anthony Trollope in particular uses that technique a lot and it always seems very natural to me – but when a modern author does it, I don’t think it ever feels quite the same.

In addition to the narrative style, Fowles also incorporates other experimental or postmodern elements. The most intriguing of these, I thought, was his use of alternate endings. He gives us three to choose from: one traditional ‘happy ending’, another which offers some hope, and a third which isn’t very happy at all. By the time I had reached this stage of the novel, I had accepted that I wasn’t going to be drawn into the story emotionally and had no real preference as to how the story should end, so I found it interesting to read all four endings and think about which might have been the most likely.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this book. I loved the early chapters, particularly the memorable opening scenes where we see for the first time the lonely figure of Sarah gazing out to sea, and I also enjoyed the subplot involving Charles’ servant, Sam, and Mary, Ernestina’s aunt’s maid. I’m sure The French Lieutenant’s Woman must be a fascinating book to study at university or to discuss with a group, but when I’m reading for pleasure I prefer a novel that I can lose myself in, rather than one like this where I am constantly being pulled out of the story. Despite this, I did like John Fowles’ writing and would be happy to try more of his books, but maybe someone who has read them can let me know if they are all like this one?

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Lustrum Lustrum (also published under the title Conspirata) is the second of a trilogy of fictional biographies of the Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first book in the trilogy, Imperium, was one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed Lustrum even more. A note from the author at the beginning of the book states that both novels can be read independently, but my advice would still be to read them in order, particularly if, like me, you have never read about Cicero’s life before.

The three novels (the third is called Dictator) are narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, a real historical figure believed to have invented an early form of shorthand and thought to have written a genuine biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Imperium is a recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and covers the beginnings of Cicero’s political career, ending just as he is elected one of Rome’s two consuls. Lustrum continues the story, taking us through the year of Cicero’s consulship and the four years that follow (the term ‘lustrum’ is the name given to a five-year period in Ancient Rome).

The period of Cicero’s life covered in Lustrum is a time of highs and lows. As consul for the year 63 BC, he faces the biggest challenge of his career so far when he uncovers a conspiracy led by the senator Catilina to assassinate him and overthrow the Roman Republic. Cicero is awarded the title “Father of the Country” for the part he plays in dealing with this threat to Rome, but even his newfound popularity can’t protect him from the further plots and machinations of his enemies Gaius Julius Caesar and Publius Clodius Pulcher.

What a great book this is! I was completely gripped from beginning to end, immersed in Cicero’s world, watching as he struggles with his conscience, tries to make difficult moral decisions and attempts to outwit powerful men like Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the Great (the First Triumvirate). I realise a book about Roman politicians may not sound very exciting, but this one really is.

While I found it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters and the relationships between them (bearing in mind I have very little knowledge of Ancient Rome) there is some great characterisation when it comes to the more well known names. I particularly loved the portrayal of Cato the Younger! Caesar comes across very much as the villain in this trilogy, but remembering that we only see things from the perspective of Cicero (via Tiro), we are obviously being given a biased view of his actions. The same story told from Caesar’s point of view would clearly be very different.

By Glauco92 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome
Tiro himself remains in the background, as he did in Imperium, but there is a small amount of character development for him; he even finds a love interest, although nothing really comes of it. But at the heart of the story, of course, is Marcus Tullius Cicero. The portrait of Cicero given to us by Tiro is generally very positive – he is clever and ambitious and usually (though not always) tries to do what he believes is best for the Roman Republic. But he also has a lot of faults and flaws: his arrogance and overconfidence lead him to make some poor choices and he is not above entering into dubious political alliances with men such as his fellow consul, Hybrida, whom he knows are corrupt or incompetent and don’t have Rome’s best interests at heart.

One of the things I love about the way Robert Harris portrays Rome is that he manages to make it feel historically accurate yet strangely contemporary at the same time. There are debates over foreign policy, a court case involving a sex scandal and questions asked over politicians’ expenses, all things which still happen in modern politics. As with Imperium, the scenes set in the senate are particularly dramatic and full of tension, making me wish I had been there to hear one of Cicero’s famous speeches for myself.

Lustrum was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2010. I am grateful to the Prize for pointing me in the direction of Robert Harris; as well as the two Cicero books, I also loved An Officer and a Spy (the 2014 winner). I’m now looking forward to finishing this trilogy with Dictator and also to reading more fiction set in the Roman Republic and seeing how other authors portray the same characters and events.

Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay

Non-Combatants and Others Rose Macaulay is an author I’ve been interested in trying for a while (since reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram, which is set in Trebizond, and discovering that Macaulay had written a book called The Towers of Trebizond). I don’t have a copy of the Trebizond book, though, and do have a copy of Non-Combatants and Others, so it made sense to start with this one.

Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916, is set during the First World War and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of ‘non-combatants’ and other people who didn’t or couldn’t take an active part in the war. Our heroine, twenty-five-year-old art student Alix Sandomir, is the daughter of a Polish activist father who died in a Russian prison and an English mother, Daphne, who is a pacifist. As the novel opens, Daphne has gone to New York to promote peace, while Alix has remained in England, staying with family in the countryside.

At first Alix may seem to be a rather selfish character. She takes no interest in politics or in helping the war effort; unlike her aunt and cousins, she refuses to get involved in volunteering, nursing, driving ambulances, helping refugees or knitting for the soldiers. Instead she buries herself in her drawing, and at the first opportunity she goes to London to lodge with another set of cousins while she continues her studies at art school. She finds her new companions easier to live with, as they, like herself, are doing their best to ignore the fact that the country is at war.

We soon find, though, that this is just Alix’s way of trying to cope. Her health is not good – she walks with a limp following a childhood illness, and she has a very sensitive, nervous disposition which means she has trouble handling stressful situations. She is also worried about her younger brother, Paul, and the man she loves, Basil Doye, who are both fighting on the front line. Although Alix would love to be able to help in some way, she is frustrated by her own uselessness and decides that the solution to this is simply not to think about it. It is only when she learns the truth about Paul’s experiences in the trenches that she finally has to face up to reality – and when her mother returns from her latest conference, Alix must decide whether she too should join the battle for peace.

Non-Combatants and Others is an unusual novel but a very interesting one. I think what fascinated me the most about it was that it was published in 1916! With hindsight, we know that in 1916 the war would continue for another two years; when Rose Macaulay wrote this book she had no idea how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be. The novel is only two hundred pages long but manages to touch on a wide range of issues which affected those involved – or not involved – in the war: the role of women, the work of the VAD nurses (there’s a very moving chapter set during a visit to a London hospital), the reintegration of wounded ex-soldiers back into society, and the effects of shell shock.

I read an edition of this book published by Capuchin Classics which has a foreword by Sarah LeFanu. When I turned back to read the foreword after I finished the novel I was surprised to find that LeFanu was also discussing a short story called Miss Anstruther’s Letters as if it should have been included in the book. It seems there must have been another edition which included both Non-Combatants and Others and Miss Anstruther’s Letters, but this one does not, which was slightly disappointing. I hope I’ll have a chance to read that short story at some point in the future. I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I was looking for historical fiction novels written by classic women authors and I have since discovered that Rose Macaulay wrote a book called They Were Defeated, set in the seventeenth century. Has anyone read it?

The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

The Silvered Heart This is Katherine Clements’ second novel, following her debut The Crimson Ribbon, which I read last year. Both books are set during the English Civil War, but while The Crimson Ribbon is written from a Parliamentarian perspective (the main character is a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell), The Silvered Heart takes us into the Hertfordshire countryside and shows us what life was like for the Royalists after they found themselves on the losing side. Our heroine this time is Katherine Ferrers, a legendary seventeenth century highwaywoman, known as “the Wicked Lady”.

The story begins in 1648 in an England divided by war – a war which seems to be entering its final stages following a series of Royalist defeats and the imprisonment of the King at Carisbrooke Castle. Orphaned heiress Lady Katherine Ferrers is on her way to Ware Park, home of Thomas Fanshawe to whom she is being married off, when her carriage is attacked by a band of highwaymen. She survives this encounter, but what she experiences that day will go on to shape the course of her life.

Katherine’s marriage to Thomas is not a happy one, even after the war ends. Her husband spends most of his time in London plotting with his friends and dreaming of the day the monarchy will be restored, while Katherine struggles to get by at Ware Park, now impoverished and neglected, like many of the once great Royalist estates. With her own inheritance – her childhood home, Markyate Cell – lost to her, Katherine’s future looks bleak, especially as she is unable to give Thomas the child he so desperately wants. It’s only after meeting Rafe Chaplin, brother of her maid Rachel, and learning about his way of life, that Katherine discovers another option is open to her…if she chooses to take it.

I enjoyed The Silvered Heart – I thought it was a better book than The Crimson Ribbon – but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I had imagined lots of scenes involving moonlit roads, coaches appearing out of the mist, and shouts of “stand and deliver”. There was a little bit of that, but not as much as I was hoping for. I was disappointed that I was almost two hundred pages into the book before there was any hint of Katherine’s new career as a highwaywoman – and when it did happen, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the woman I had been getting to know in the first half of the novel would have chosen to turn to a life of crime.

Where The Silvered Heart does excel is in its portrayal of England in the aftermath of civil war, during the period known as the Interregnum: a time when those who had been loyal to their king find that they have their homes taken from them or are so heavily taxed and fined they can no longer afford to live in the manner they are used to; a time when men with Royalist sympathies risk exile or imprisonment in the Tower of London, and when networks of spies and double agents are formed as loyalties shift and allegiances change. This is the world in which Katherine finds herself and the backdrop against which her story is played out.

While the highway robbery aspect of the novel isn’t given as much attention as I would have liked, there is a lot of focus on Katherine’s romantic entanglements and relationships with the other main characters in the novel. I have already mentioned her unhappy marriage to Thomas Fanshawe and her partnership with Rafe Chaplin, but there are two more characters whom I found particularly interesting: Rachel, Katherine’s maid, whose relationship with her mistress is much more complex than it appeared to be at first, and Richard Willis, a scheming Royalist officer who knows more about Katherine than she is comfortable with.

I enjoyed reading the author’s note at the end of the book in which Clements tells us about the real life Lady Katherine Ferrers and shares with us a picture of the only known portrait of our heroine. It seems that there is a lack of actual evidence to link the real woman with the Wicked Lady of legend – Clements has drawn on both the historical facts and the details of the legend to create her version of events – but it’s interesting to consider the circumstances that may have led to these stories springing up around Katherine.

It appears that Katherine Ferrers has inspired a number of other novels (Deborah Swift’s recent young adult novel, Shadow on the Highway, is one) and also some films, including a 1945 adaptation starring James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. I’m surprised that I had never heard of her before reading The Silvered Heart, but I’m pleased to have been introduced to this fascinating woman at last!

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Keep the Aspidistra Flying For a long time I only associated George Orwell with Animal Farm and 1984 and it never occurred to me to look into what else he may have written…until last year when I read Coming Up for Air and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I wanted to read more of his books, so a few weeks ago I picked up his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the story of Gordon Comstock, a struggling poet who gives up a secure job at an advertising agency to escape from what he calls “worship of the Money God”. Determined not to live a life ruled by money and capitalism, Gordon takes a poorly-paid job in a bookshop in the hope that this will free his soul and allow him to concentrate on his poetry. In reality, all that happens is that he finds himself living in a squalid lodging house with no money for food or cigarettes, unable to afford to go out with his friends or his girlfriend, and failing to make any progress with his masterpiece, London Pleasures.

Even as he begins to feel disillusioned and depressed, Gordon still insists that he is doing the right thing and refuses to even consider going back to his old, well-paid job. In the corner of his room he keeps an aspidistra, a house plant popular in the 1930s, which he views as a symbol of the middle-class respectability and conformity he is trying to avoid. Eventually, though, he receives some unexpected news that will force him to make an important decision about his future and to decide what is most important to him.

Gordon is the sort of character some readers will be able to identify with while others will find him completely infuriating! I did have some sympathy for him at first; I admired his principles and could understand his desire to escape from convention and the worship of money. But as the story progressed, I found him more and more frustrating (my sympathies quickly shifted to his long-suffering girlfriend, Rosemary). Far from freeing himself of money-dependency, he was more obsessed with it than anyone else in the novel, blaming every negative thing that happened in his life on his lack of money. The world is full of people doing jobs they would rather not be doing just so that they can make ends meet; I couldn’t feel sorry for someone who was choosing to impose poverty on himself while taking money from his hardworking sister, knowing that he would never pay it back.

I don’t know much about George Orwell as a person, but I guessed that parts of Gordon Comstock’s story were probably autobiographical and I confirmed this when I turned back to read the introduction after finishing the book. I also discovered that Orwell himself didn’t rate this novel very highly and I do certainly think it was the weakest of the four books of his that I’ve read so far – although I did still enjoy it. As well as telling Gordon’s personal story, Orwell also paints a vivid picture of life in 1930s London and I really liked this aspect of the book – and I loved the opening chapter in which Gordon describes the customers who come into the bookshop where he works.

I still have two of Orwell’s novels left to read as well as his non-fiction; I’m looking forward to reading more of his work, especially Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.