‘Death in Venice’ by Thomas Mann

William Faulkner, on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1949, proposed that “the human heart in conflict with itself… alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Death in Venice is a superlative (superlative!) example of the “heart in conflict with itself” but it’s also a meditation on the artist’s life – the mental and physical toll of literary production. Gustav von Aschenbach is a world-famous author. He lives in Munich, waking early every day, to his “cold, inflexible, passionate” writerly duty. He has, for the sake of “perfectionism”, ‘curbed and cooled his feelings.” We meet him in May – “a premature high summer” – as he wanders back from the Englischer Garten to Munich’s North Cemetery. There he notices a man – bold, wild, and, so Aschenbach assumes, from “distant parts.” The stranger leaves the cemetery but something in Aschenbach has changed, an “extraordinary expansion of his inner self.” He imagines a place – a tropical swampland: rank, fecund and riotous – with hallucinatory vividness. He understands this vision (Mann’s ironic treatment of Aschenbach’s psychological blindness is foundational to the story’s sinewy architecture) as “a simple desire to travel”. The writer journeys to Venice. He first notices Tadzio, a beautiful Polish adolescent, in the foyer of the hotel. And so begins the emotionalising of his life – the battle (although only fully acknowledged late on) between discipline and duty and sensuous, voluptuous desire.

First published in German by S. Fischer Verlag, 1912; first published in English translation, by Kenneth Burke, in The Dial, March-May 1924. Widely republished, including in Death and Venice & Other Stories, Vintage, 1998

‘Tobias Mindernickel’ by Thomas Mann

My introduction to Thomas Mann was through his early short stories, and as much as I enjoy his novels, it’s the former that love the most. Even Mann was moved to say that the short form was his ‘own genre’ and that he had more confidence in it than his longer works.

I have a particular inclination toward the deeply sad ‘Tobias Mindernickel’. Tobias is an outcast who lives alone and is the butt of the neighbourhood jokes. Children mock him in the street and he avoids the company of others. He is unhappy, but does not seek to change this, except that one day a chance opportunity for charity gives him insight into his caring, nurturing side, and it is transformative:

His eyes looked larger and brighter, he looked squarely at people and things, while an expression of joy so strong as to be almost painful tightened the corners of his mouth.

In short, kindness has made Tobias happy. This small act changes him and he seeks out its rewards further, adopting a dog – who he names Esau – upon which he can dote. But Tobias has misunderstood what love is. He desires it only for what it can bring him and when Esau does not behave in a way that is pleasing, there are unpleasant, then tragic consequences.

I don’t know why I like this story so much, if I’m honest. It’s not a pleasant read (but who said stories have to be?) but there is something about it, something so unbearably sad, that it remains in the head, the heart, long after I’ve read it.

From Death in Venice and Other Stories, Penguin, 1999