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.

Day’s End and Other Stories by H.E. Bates

Days End Herbert Ernest Bates is best known as the author of The Darling Buds of May and My Uncle Silas, both of which have been adapted for television (in the 1990s and early 2000s respectively) but he also wrote a large number of other novels, novellas and short stories. I have never read any of his work so when I saw that Bloomsbury Reader were reissuing some of his books as ebooks, I decided to try Day’s End and Other Stories, a short story collection which was available on NetGalley.

Day’s End and Other Stories is one of Bates’ earliest books, originally published in 1928. The title story takes up almost a quarter of the book but there are twenty-four others in the collection as well – and this new edition also includes a bonus story called In View of the Fact That.

Day’s End is the story of Israel Rentshaw, an elderly man who lives on his farm in the countryside with his daughter, Henrietta. Israel is growing too old for heavy work but Henrietta is unable to persuade him to leave the farm that has been his home for forty years and go to live in the village. But when Israel receives a letter informing him that the land he rents is going to be sold, he has some big decisions to make and could be forced to face the very thing he has been trying to avoid.

Day’s End sets the tone for the rest of the book: almost every story features a beautifully described rural setting and a lonely, bored or troubled character who is trying to deal with a difficult or miserable situation. A baker’s wife trapped in an unhappy marriage; a shepherd lost in the snow while his wife gives birth alone; a little boy having his first encounter with the death of a loved one; a piano-tuner whose daughter has committed suicide. It’s hard to believe that Bates was only twenty-three years old when he wrote these stories. They are so mature and poignant, so filled with themes of regret and lost hope that they feel more like the work of a much older author.

Apart from the title story, the others are all very short, often just a few pages long. The beautiful writing made the stories worth reading, but unfortunately there was nothing very memorable about them and I didn’t find any of the stories particularly satisfying. I couldn’t see the point of some of them – there was no plot, no message, and the characters, despite being well-drawn, didn’t seem to learn anything or make any attempt to change the situation they were in. The descriptions of feelings and emotions were moving and insightful and the depiction of the countryside was lovely, but that wasn’t quite enough and I was slightly disappointed with this collection overall.

Because this is one of the earliest examples of his work and because I liked the writing, I think I would still consider reading something else by Bates. Recommendations are welcome!

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

ACW-badge-23 This week Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia of Postcards from Asia are hosting an Angela Carter Week. I have to admit that I had dismissed Angela Carter years ago as an author just not for me, based on one or two failed attempts at reading her novels as a teenager. Seeing the announcement of the Angela Carter Week and knowing that she is a beloved favourite of so many people, I decided it was time to give her another chance – with some short stories this time.

In The Bloody Chamber, Carter takes ideas and themes from fairy tales and legends – vampires and werewolves, Bluebeard and Puss in Boots, dark forests and gloomy castles – and works them into a collection of new short stories. There are ten in the book – The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger’s Bride, Puss-In-Boots, The Erl-King, The Snow Child, The Lady of The House of Love, The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice. Some are quite long (The Bloody Chamber is more than forty pages long in this edition) while others are very short (less than two pages for The Snow Child) and all of them are steeped in feminism, violence and sexuality.

The Bloody Chamber I’m glad I chose this book to try again with, because I did enjoy it. However, I had quite an uneven reaction to the stories in this collection and found that I liked some of them much more than others – though I suppose that’s normal when reading short story collections. I was interested to read in the introduction by Helen Simpson that they should not actually be described as retellings because Carter herself said that her intention was to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”.

By far the strongest, in my opinion, is the title story, The Bloody Chamber. The Gothic atmosphere and imagery in this story reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. Inspired by the Bluebeard legends, it’s the tale of a young woman who travels to the castle of her new husband, a Marquis who has already been married and widowed three times before. When the Marquis goes away on business he leaves his wife with a bunch of keys and strict instructions not to unlock the door of one of the rooms. Not surprisingly, she is unable to resist the temptation and discovers something shocking within the forbidden chamber.

I also loved The Courtship of Mr Lyon, a romantic and beautifully written story based on Beauty and the Beast. I preferred this one to The Tiger’s Bride, which gives a completely different perspective on the same fairy tale. Puss-in-Boots, although not one of my favourites, stands out from the others in the book as it is written in a very different style. While most of the others, particularly The Bloody Chamber, are elegant and haunting with rich, elaborate descriptions, this one is a lively, amusing story narrated by the cat himself. The Snow Child is equally memorable, though for different reasons – for such a short story, it’s one of the most disturbing in the book.

The Erl-King and The Lady of the House of Love also deserve a mention, both for their atmospheric settings and the beauty of the language used. Interestingly, I think the stories I enjoyed least were the three final ones which incorporated elements from Little Red Riding Hood and werewolf folklore. I’m not sure why that should be, unless they just suffered from being last in the book.

I can see why Angela Carter’s books are so widely studied in schools and universities because her writing is packed with symbolism and imagery. I know I would have to read this whole collection again to even begin to fully appreciate everything she was trying to say in each of the ten stories.

Have you read this book? Which was your favourite story?

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

The Birds and Other Stories I have never enjoyed reading short stories as much as full length novels and my various attempts over the years at increasing the number of short stories I read have generally failed. However, one of the few authors whose short stories I do enjoy is Daphne du Maurier (in fact, I’ve loved almost everything I’ve ever read by du Maurier, whatever the format). I have actually read The Birds before (soon after reading Rebecca for the first time as a teenager) but I never went on to read the other stories in this collection so when I saw that this book was available through NetGalley, it seemed a good opportunity to rectify this.

I read another du Maurier collection a few years ago – The Rendezvous & Other Stories – which contained some of the earliest examples of her work, but I found the stories in The Birds and Other Stories much stronger – the work of an accomplished author rather than a beginner. There are six stories in the book, including The Birds, and all of them are excellent, although I felt that two were slightly weaker than the other four.

The Birds, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, is the first story in the book and one of my favourites. For those of you not familiar with the plot, this is the story of Nat Hocken, a farm worker who lives with his wife and two young children. When Nat notices an unusually large number of birds in the skies above him, he senses that the weather must be about to change. The next day a national emergency is declared: Britain is under attack from huge flocks of birds. Nat begins to board up the windows and doors, but will he and his family survive the night?

This is such an atmospheric story; you can feel the claustrophobia inside Nat’s house, you can hear the sounds of pecking and tapping at the windows, and you can see the birds gathering in the sky:

He walked down the path, halfway to the beach and then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent.

I loved this story and it was certainly worth re-reading, but the next two that followed were also very enjoyable. Monte Verita is a haunting tale of a lonely monastery high in the mountains, an isolated community of priestesses and a village of superstitious peasants. The Apple Tree is a great little story about a man who becomes obsessed by the old apple tree in his garden, believing that it is taking on the characteristics of his dead wife, Midge. Whether this is really happening or whether it’s all in his imagination you will have to read the story to decide.

Stories four and five were the ones I didn’t like as much as the others. The Little Photographer tells the story of a beautiful married woman who has a summer affair with a photographer and gets a lot more than she bargained for when she tries to end the relationship. In Kiss Me Again, Stranger, the narrator remembers a girl he once met and fell in love with, only to have his heart broken when he makes a macabre discovery. There was nothing wrong with either of these stories, but they didn’t have the eerie, otherworldly feel of the previous three.

Finally, The Old Man is the shortest story in the book, but also the cleverest. I’m not going to give any more details except to say that when I reached the end of this particular story, I was so surprised and delighted that I had to go straight back to the beginning and read it again!

So, a very impressive selection of stories! They contain many of the same elements that du Maurier uses in her full-length novels, such as the male narrative voice, the unnamed characters, the ambiguous endings, the wonderful use of atmosphere and the vivid sense of place. They are the ideal length too – each one is long enough to allow the reader to be fully drawn into the story, but short enough to read in one sitting. I would highly recommend this collection even to those readers who, like me, don’t often choose to read short stories.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for providing a review copy via NetGalley

Irish Short Story Month Year 3: Two from Oscar Wilde

Irish Short Story Month

Irish Short Story Month is an annual event hosted by Mel U of The Reading Life. To participate all you need to do is read at least one Irish short story during the month of March. In 2011 I read Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu. I didn’t manage to take part in 2012, but as I’ve been neglecting my short story-reading in recent months, I decided to join in again this year.

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900
Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

I have previously read one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale collections for children, A House of Pomegranates, but none of his short fiction for adults. For Irish Short Story Month I’ve read two of his stories – The Model Millionaire and The Sphinx Without a Secret. Both of these are available online and can easily be read in just a few minutes. They also appear in the collection, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

In The Model Millionaire we meet Hughie Erskine, who is in love with Laura Merton, the daughter of a retired Colonel. Hughie is handsome and good-natured but unfortunately has no money and the Colonel will not let him marry Laura until he has ten thousand pounds of his own. One day, Hughie visits his artist friend, Alan Trevor, and finds him painting a portrait of an old beggar dressed in rags, who is standing in the corner of the room.

The beggar himself was standing on a raised platform in a corner of the studio. He was a wizened old man, with a face like wrinkled parchment, and a most piteous expression. Over his shoulders was flung a coarse brown cloak, all tears and tatters; his thick boots were patched and cobbled, and with one hand he leant on a rough stick, while with the other he held out his battered hat for alms.

‘What an amazing model!’ whispered Hughie, as he shook hands with his friend.

‘An amazing model?’ shouted Trevor at the top of his voice; ‘I should think so! Such beggars as he are not to be met with every day. A trouvaille, mon cher; a living Velasquez! My stars! what an etching Rembrandt would have made of him!’

‘Poor old chap!’ said Hughie, ‘how miserable he looks! But I suppose, to you painters, his face is his fortune?’

‘Certainly,’ replied Trevor, ‘you don’t want a beggar to look happy, do you?’

Hughie asks his friend how much he will be paying the beggar for modelling for him and is shocked at how little the amount is compared to the amount Trevor will make from selling the picture. Although Hughie himself is very poor, he feels sorry for the old man and as soon as his friend leaves the room he gives the beggar all the money he has in his pocket. Later that night he discovers that his act of generosity has had a surprising result.

I thought it was very easy to predict what was going to happen in this story, but I enjoyed it and despite it being so short, I still found it satisfying – and very well written, of course.

The other story I read, The Sphinx Without a Secret, is another very short one. The narrator meets his friend, Lord Murchison, in Paris and seeing that something is wrong, asks him what the problem is. Murchison tells him about the beautiful Lady Alroy, whom he had loved and planned to marry.

He took from his pocket a little silver-clasped morocco case, and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside there was the photograph of a woman. She was tall and slight, and strangely picturesque with her large vague eyes and loosened hair. She looked like a clairvoyante, and was wrapped in rich furs.

‘What do you think of that face?’ he said; ‘is it truthful?’

I examined it carefully. It seemed to me the face of some one who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil I could not say. Its beauty was a beauty moulded out of many mysteries – the beauty, in face, which is psychological, not plastic – and the faint smile that just played across the lips was far too subtle to be really sweet.

Finding her to be very secretive and surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery, Murchison decided to follow her one day and saw her entering a boarding house where she stayed for a few hours before returning home. When Lady Alroy tried to deny visiting the house, Murchison became convinced that she was hiding something – but what could it be?

Although I didn’t find either of these to be particularly memorable stories, I did enjoy them both as I love Oscar Wilde’s writing style. I liked the ambiguous ending of The Sphinx Without a Secret; despite the suspense that builds up throughout the story it’s not hard to guess what Murchison is going to discover as the title does give it away, but we are still left with something to think about at the end. This story may have been intended as a satire on Victorian sensation fiction, in which everybody had a secret to hide and an ulterior motive for every seemingly innocent action, as well as being a study of a person’s desire to pretend to be something they’re not.

Have you read any of Oscar Wilde’s short stories? Who are your favourite Irish writers?

A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde

Last week I posted my thoughts on Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu for Irish Short Story Week. I then wanted to read another short work by an Irish author and remembered that A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde was one of the free ebooks that came with my Sony Reader. Perfect!

A House of Pomegranates contains four short fairy tales by Wilde. I originally intended just to read one of them but ended up reading the whole book! Each story has a moral lesson for the reader but first and foremost they are enjoyable fairy tales – although quite dark in tone, as many fairy tales are.

Wilde apparently said that the stories in A House of Pomegranates are “meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness.” Having read the book I would agree with this assessment of it. Although I’m sure there are a lot of children who would enjoy the stories (I know I would probably have loved them if I’d read them when I was younger), I think they might be too long and too heavy on description for some, and in many ways will be appreciated more by adults.

In The Young King, we are warned against the love of beauty and luxury. On the eve of his coronation, the young king, who loves all the beautiful things in life, has three dreams in which he learns exactly where his magnificent new robe, sceptre and crown have come from – and suddenly, they don’t appear so beautiful after all.

The Birthday of the Infanta is a poignant story about the King of Spain’s daughter, who is celebrating her twelfth birthday. Among the entertainments that have been arranged for her is a performance by a dwarf, who later becomes convinced that the Infanta is in love with him. It quickly becomes obvious that the Infanta has a very sad and lonely life, but my sympathy was for the dwarf, who can be seen to represent anyone who is the victim of cruelty and prejudice. Even the flowers in the palace garden ridicule him.

The Flowers were quite indignant at his daring to intrude into their beautiful home, and when they saw him capering up and down the walks, and waving his arms above his head in such a ridiculous manner, they could not restrain their feelings any longer.

‘He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are,’ cried the Tulips.

‘He should drink poppy-juice, and go to sleep for a thousand years,’ said the great scarlet Lilies, and they grew quite hot and angry.

The Fisherman and his Soul is the longest of the four stories and to be honest, I didn’t think it needed to be quite so long. It felt very repetitive, which was a shame because it was otherwise an excellent story about a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and sacrifices his soul for her. It can almost be seen as a re-working of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, but instead of the mermaid longing to become human as in Andersen’s story, this is the reverse.

My favourite story in the book was The Star-Child, about a child who is found by a woodcutter after a shooting star falls from the sky. The child grows up to be selfish and conceited, but finally gets a chance to redeem himself.

A House of Pomegranates is certainly worth reading if you’re looking for something a bit different or if you like Oscar Wilde’s writing (although the wit and humour which shines through in his other works isn’t really present here). I would be interested in comparing this book with Wilde’s other, more popular, book of short stories, The Happy Prince & Other Tales, but I’ll have to wait until I’m in the mood for some more fairy tales!

Have you read either of Oscar Wilde’s two books of fairy tales?

Laura Silver Bell by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (Irish Short Story Week)

This week (14-20 March) Mel U of The Reading Life is hosting an Irish Short Story Week. If you’d like to participate all you need to do is read at least one short story by an Irish author. There are plenty of these available to read for free online, including stories by classic authors such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Bram Stoker.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to try a short story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu is probably most famous for his vampire novella, Carmilla, and gothic novel Uncle Silas, but has also written a lot of shorter fiction. As I’m not familiar with his short stories at all, I chose one at random from The Literature Network.

Laura Silver Bell is a simple but effective story. It is set in the north of England, in an isolated rural area. Laura Lew, known as Laura Silver Bell, has been raised as a farmer’s daughter after the death of her mother.

So Farmer Lew called the little girl Laura; and her sobriquet of “Silver Bell” was derived from a tiny silver bell, once gilt, which was found among her poor mother’s little treasures after her death, and which the child wore on a ribbon round her neck.

When Laura falls in love with a tall man dressed in black whom she meets while walking home one night, she receives a warning from Mother Carke, a former sage femme (midwife) who is believed to be a witch. Mother Carke suspects that the man is a fairy and she advises Laura to stay away from him. But will Laura take her advice or will she be tempted to go with the fairy – and what will happen to her if she does?

“Say yer prayers, lass; I can’t help ye,” says the old woman darkly. “If ye gaa wi’ the people, ye’ll never come back. Ye munna talk wi’ them, nor eat wi’ them, nor drink wi’ them, nor tak a pin’s-worth by way o’ gift fra them – mark weel what I say – or ye’re lost!”

Although this is not a horror story exactly, it does have quite an eerie atmosphere, due to the lonely setting and the grounding in traditional folklore – there are frequent references to fairies, witchcraft and black magic (fairies, in this sense, are not the pretty winged creatures that are often depicted in modern culture, but something more sinister). It seems that Le Fanu had a particular interest in the legends of humans being stolen away by fairies – after reading this story I read another one by the same author called The Child that Went with the Fairies which, as the title suggests, is on the same theme as Laura Silver Bell.

Have you read this story or anything else by Le Fanu? Which of his stories or novels would you recommend I read next?