Saturday, November 14, 2009

When Falls the Coliseum

A short while ago, while writing about the journals of Andre Gide, I mentioned that many critics considered Gide one of the three great luminaries of 20th century literature, the other two being James Joyce and, today's focus, Thomas Mann. These writers may have fallen out of the pop limelight, but their works continue to speak to those who revisit them.

Mann's Death in Venice has always been on my short list of favorite novellas, so it was with great pleasure that I stumbled upon a very cool blog the other day titled When Falls the Coliseum, subtitled a journal of American culture [or lack thereof] in which Christopher Guerin recommends this magnificent volume.

A blog name like that is magnetic in and of itself, and the May 11 entry reinforced my premonitions about the site. "Now read this! Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice". Guerin, in this review makes a case for Death in Venice being possibly "the finest novella of the 20th century" and in the opening paragraph he lays out his case.

Here's an excerpt from the review, beginning with paragraph two.

Within the first few pages, you know you’re reading something special. Gustave von Aschenbach is a famous author, well into middle age, whose nerves are beginning to fray from overwork. On an afternoon walk near a cemetery in Munich, he encounters a stranger.

(Aschenbach) was brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico, above the two apocalyptic beasts that guarded the staircase, and something not quite usual in this man’s appearance gave his thoughts a fresh turn . . . . He was of medium height, thin, beardless, and strikingly snub-nosed; he belonged to the red-haired type and possessed its milky, freckled skin . . . and the broad, straight-brimmed hat he had on made him look distinctly exotic . . . . In his right hand, slantwise to the ground, he held an iron-shod stick, and braced himself against its crook, with his legs crossed. His chin was up. So that the Adam’s apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt: and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes, while two pronounced perpendicular furrows showed on his forehead in curious contrast to his little turned-up nose . . . . the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless, air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums.

Leaving his gaze a bit too long on the face of the stranger — an apparition of Death, or the Devil? — Aschenbach receives a hostile gaze in return. He blinks first and walks away, feeling strangely “a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes,” and this singular moment inspires Aschenbach soon to take a vacation to the perennially romantic city of Venice.

From the moment of his arrival there, he encounters images to warn him of what is to come — an old man, made up to look younger, trying pathetically to fit in with a group of young men, and another red-haired stranger, an unlicensed gondolier, who would steer him astray.

Toward the end of this review there is a summing up.

Death in Venice is as perfect as a lovely, sad and disturbing dream, with multiple layers of meaning that cause it to resonate in the mind long after you’ve finished reading it — a book to read and reread with ever-increasing reward.

I not only recommend the full text of Geurin's review, I strongly encourage you to find a copy of the book itself, new or used, and to relish it.

I'll also be adding When Falls the Coliseum to my favorites links later today. The site's name is drawn from a poem by Lord Byron.

“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls—the world.”

Like Byron's pithy observation, Guerin seems to have established himself at a vantage point from which to make keen observations on our current scene, and the scenery is not entirely pretty.

A little over a dozen years ago I assembled a list of some favorite novella length stories by a handful of favorite authors. If you're looking for a good read, and not inclined to something at ponderous as War and Peace, here's that list from a page of my favorite things. Feel free to comment or add to my list. And have a great day.

Favorite Novellas
1. The Tenth Man, by Graham Greene
2. Of Mice and Men, by Steinbeck
3. Barabbas, by Par Lagerkvist
4. Theseus, by Andre Gide
5. A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
6. Isabelle, by Andre Gide
7. Seize the Day, by Saul Bellow
8. Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann
9. The Sybil, by Par Lagerkvist
10. The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
11. Mr. Majestyk, by Elmore Leonard
12. Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton


cguerin said...

Thanks, Ed. I, too, am a fan of the novella form, and that's a great list. I also write for, and recently talked about great American novellas in the context of Philip Roth's most recent book.

Take care. Christopher Guerin

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for pointing us to Roth's book... will check it out, along with your popmatters blog. I get the impression we're cut from the same piece of cloth.

Best to you... keep sharing your vision.