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.

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?

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?

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.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia Between now and December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by the Classics Club. There are many classic female authors whose work I’m looking forward to reading, but I decided to begin with a book by Willa Cather. I read my first (and until now, my only) Cather novel more than five years ago; it was The Professor’s House and, although I did like her writing, I wasn’t very impressed. I suspected, though, that it just wasn’t the right book for me and that I would enjoy a different one more. My Ántonia, probably Cather’s most well-known and well-loved novel, seemed the obvious choice for a second attempt.

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a lawyer, who is looking back on his childhood and his relationship with Ántonia Shimerda. Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim leaves his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as the Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian immigrants who are hoping to build a new life for themselves on the plains and who will become the Burdens’ closest neighbours. Ántonia is only a few years older than Jim and a friendship soon forms between the two of them.

I loved the first part of the book, showing the struggles faced by a family of immigrants trying to adapt to a new country and a new lifestyle (the Shimerdas are completely unprepared for the harshness of their first winter in Nebraska). Written in the beautiful prose I remembered from The Professor’s House, there are some wonderful, vivid descriptions of the landscape, the sod houses and rough dugouts in which the pioneer families live, the tall prairie grasses and the changing seasons.

Later in the novel, Jim’s grandparents decide they are growing too old to work on the land any longer and the family move to Black Hawk, their nearest town. It’s not long before Ántonia also comes to town, to work as a housekeeper, and she and Jim renew their friendship for a while – but due to differences in background, gender and education, their lives eventually take them in very different directions. Although Jim and Ántonia grow apart over the years, both characters continue to cherish their childhood memories and their shared experiences of life on the Nebraska plains.

While Ántonia is the title character, the whole story is seen through Jim’s eyes and there are long sections, particularly in the second half of the book, where Jim is discussing his time at university or his relationship with Lena Lingard (another immigrant girl) and Ántonia is barely mentioned. However, it is when Ántonia is on the page that the story comes alive and I think this is why I enjoyed the book more at the beginning than I did towards the end.

I’m glad I gave Willa Cather a second chance and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books in the future. If anyone else is considering reading Cather for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I would definitely recommend starting with My Ántonia!

Beau Geste by P.C. Wren

Beau Geste When choosing what to read for Karen and Simon’s 1924 Club, I was pleased to find two unread books already on my shelf that were published in the required year: Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren. I do still want to read Precious Bane at some point (I’m curious to see what I think of it, having read some very mixed reviews), but I decided on Beau Geste instead as it sounded like a book I would be almost certain to enjoy.

Beau Geste is many things: an adventure novel set in North Africa; a tale of the French Foreign Legion; an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. But if I was asked to describe it in one sentence, I would say that it’s a book for people who like puzzles.

It begins with a particularly fascinating and perplexing puzzle – the discovery by Major Henri de Beaujolais of a fort in the desert manned entirely by dead soldiers, their bodies strategically positioned around the walls and ramparts. Their commander is dead too, with a bayonet through his heart, a revolver in one hand and a letter in the other. Telling this story later to a friend, the Major is still trying to work out what could have happened at the fort and what the sequence of events could have been. His friend, however, is more interested in the contents of the letter in the dead officer’s hand: a letter which leads us to a second puzzle – the disappearance of a precious sapphire known as ‘the Blue Water’.

Before we can solve either of these two mysteries, we need to go back in time and meet the Geste brothers – Michael (nicknamed Beau because he is so good and honourable), his twin, Digby, and the youngest, John. The Gestes are orphans and live with their aunt, Lady Brandon, to whom the Blue Water belongs. All three brothers are present when the jewel disappears and all three decide to take the blame. One by one, they confess to the crime and run away to join the French Foreign Legion. Eventually they find themselves at the Fort of Zinderneuf in French North Africa, where Henri de Beaujolais stumbles upon the scenario described at the beginning of the book.

Most of the novel is narrated by John Geste and through his eyes we are given some fascinating insights into life in the Foreign Legion, where people from a mixture of backgrounds and nationalities live and work together. During their time in the Legion, John and his brothers form some lasting friendships but also witness treachery and betrayal as a group of their fellow soldiers begin to plan a mutiny. And this provides yet another puzzle, as John tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted, who knows about the mutiny and who does not.

This book was, obviously, published in 1924 and it does feel very dated now, particularly in its attitudes towards race and class (it’s definitely not what you could call politically correct). Many of the characters – for example, Hank and Buddy, two American cowboys who befriend the Geste brothers – feel like stereotypes or caricatures. It’s so much fun to read, though, that it’s easy enough to overlook any flaws; the only thing that did spoil the book slightly for me was a long section near the end which takes the story in a different direction – this didn’t really seem necessary and only delayed the resolution of the mystery.

1924-club I enjoyed Beau Geste as much as I expected to and was pleased to find that P.C. Wren wrote more books featuring some of the same characters. I’m looking forward to reading Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal!

The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott

The Heart of Midlothian In 2012 I read my first Walter Scott novel, Ivanhoe, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Having found Scott less difficult to read than I’d expected, I decided to add another of his books to my Classics Club list and something drew me to this one – possibly memories of the Scottish football results being announced on the television on a Saturday afternoon (Heart of Midlothian is the name of an Edinburgh team).

The novel – which predates the football team, being published in 1818 – takes its title from the Old Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh, which was in the heart of the county of Midlothian. Scott based his plot on two real historical events: the Porteous Riots of 1736 and the story of a young woman who walked all the way to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister who had been wrongly charged with infanticide. In Scott’s version, the young woman’s name is Jeanie Deans and she lives on a dairy farm at St Leonard’s Crags with her father, Davie, a strict Cameronian (a Presbyterian faction).

Jeanie’s younger sister, Euphemia – known as Effie – is in the Tolbooth facing the death penalty, having been accused of giving birth in secret and murdering her newborn child. Jeanie is sure Effie is innocent, but with no witnesses to the pregnancy or the birth and no way to prove what happened to the baby, she is guilty in the eyes of the law. If Jeanie would only tell the court that she had known her sister was pregnant, Effie could be freed, but she is unwilling to tell a lie and instead she decides to go to London to ask Queen Caroline for a pardon. Armed with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Argyll and some money borrowed from an admirer, the Laird of Dumbiedikes, Jeanie sets off on foot to save her sister’s life.

The first half of the novel sets the scene, describing a riot that breaks out in Edinburgh during a protest over the hanging of two smugglers. When Captain John Porteous orders the city guard to fire into the crowd, causing the deaths of several people, he himself is imprisoned in the Tolbooth. The prison is then stormed by a mob and Porteous is lynched and killed. These events become entwined with Effie’s story and provide the historical backdrop for the novel. The second half of the book concentrates on Jeanie’s journey to London, which includes encounters with some characters we previously met in Scotland: George Robertson, the father of Effie’s child; and Meg Murdockson and her mentally ill daughter, Madge Wildfire, two women who could hold the key to the mystery of the missing baby.

Well, The Heart of Midlothian was not the relatively easy read that Ivanhoe was! I found it much more challenging, for several reasons. First, as the novel is set mainly in Scotland, the dialogue is written almost entirely in Scots. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with this, but added to the fact that the book was written in the early 1800s, it did slow down the pace of my reading quite a lot. I find that whenever a book uses a large amount of dialect – even one you’re familiar with – a little more effort is required to read it and that was definitely the case here. If you think you might struggle with the dialect, I would recommend choosing an edition of the book with a good glossary!

Also, unlike Ivanhoe, which is a medieval adventure story packed with sword fights, sieges, villainous knights and feuding noblemen, this is a very different type of novel. While Jeanie’s personal story was gripping, I have to admit I had very little interest in the long passages describing the religious situation in eighteenth century Scotland and the discussions between Jeanie’s father, Davie Deans, and his neighbours on their different moral beliefs. I also thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidence, with Jeanie meeting people from her own small community in Scotland hundreds of miles away in England – and I felt that the final few chapters of the book were unnecessary as the story had already reached a more natural ending point.

I did enjoy parts of The Heart of Midlothian, though. Jeanie is a strong heroine who behaves with honesty and integrity throughout the novel, and although some of her choices were frustrating, I did like her. There is a romantic interest for Jeanie too – the schoolmaster, Reuben Butler – but this only forms a small part of the story. I was also interested in the descriptions of eighteenth century life and the relationship between Scotland and England in the years following the union of 1707. And there are plenty of memorable scenes, from the storming of the Tolbooth near the beginning to Jeanie’s meeting with Queen Caroline, wife of George II, towards the end.

I certainly didn’t love this book the way I loved Ivanhoe, but I’ll still read more of Scott’s novels and will hope that the next one I pick up is more to my taste than this one was!