Why We Like These Stories: A Personal Essay on Death in Venice

The sense of smell is most often associated with memory, but sound and color and touch can also transport you into a particular memory—sometimes a significant one, sometimes one that seems perfectly trivial. The same is true for stories. The first time I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was in a class on Mann’s novellas in my first or second year as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Reading it again, I can see the small classroom in the campus’s Classics building and the serious professor who took us, line by line, through the hero Gustav von Aschenbach’s poignantly tragic journey.

It is surely due at least in part to the annotations I found, in pen, throughout my copy of the story. I would never write (even in pencil!) in my books today, but as a young undergraduate majoring in Germanic studies, I was determined to do things right, and that meant lots of underlining and bracketing and adding significant notes to the text. “Already beginning to fade,” I wrote ominously in the margins of the very first paragraph of the story, underlining and bracketing the text that describes Aschenbach’s waning energy.

The experience in that classroom was unlike any I had before or after. The professor, Samuel Jaffe, followed a style of close reading that I suspect is no longer in style (and probably was not in style even at that time). Each day when we came into the class, he would begin a passage of the story and read through it with the class, providing his own interpretation of each sentence. We would listen silently until the class ended, and then we would pick up at the same place the next class. Occasionally, someone would ask a question and divert him to another section of the story. He would pick up there and continue to move along, word by word. I can’t say for certain anymore, but I believe that we started the semester off with Death in Venice, which is perhaps why my attention was so captured by this story in particular.

The result is that the story, already extraordinarily descriptive and evocative, became even more immersive for me. Although, until this past week, I hadn’t read Mann’s story since I was in college, I could visualize Aschenbach’s initial walk through Munich, where he encounters a mysterious and slightly sinister man in the cemetery; his time on the beach in Venice, watching the young boy who so fascinated him that he could not bring himself to leave the city even after plague broke out.

I also came to view Aschenbach as Thomas Mann, an association that is reinforced in my annotations in the book and that was certainly introduced by Professor Jaffe. It is a vast oversimplification, of course, but it does feel like in this book Mann grants the reader a bit of a window into his own daily struggles—with the constant demand for productivity placed upon a professional writer, and, more significantly for critics in the second half of the twentieth century, with his repressed homosexuality.

None of the later courses in literature that I took had quite the same effect on me. As I began registering for graduate seminars, I encountered a new environment where students were expected to contribute to and even lead discussions. I had more and more material to read, often in German—a language I was fluent in but one that was, of course, not my native tongue—and as a result I read it less and less closely, without pondering the meaning of every word. Though in many ways I enjoyed these courses more, it was this very first course in German literature that has stuck in my brain.

Perhaps it is also because, as an editor at Boydell & Brewer, I now spend my days reading texts word by word and inserting significant comments that I think fondly of this course and of what I got from it. The danger of this method, of course, is that my interpretation of the text is strongly filtered through, entwined with, and in some respects wholly indistinguishable from Professor Jaffe’s interpretation. This was no training ground for independent thought and critical engagement. But, it is a large part of why I like this story.

Managing Editor, University of Rochester Press

Interested in approaching Mann from another critical angle?
Joshua Kavaloski explores how Thomas Mann and other writers of high modernism privilege form as a means to activate the sociopolitical power of literature in High Modernism: Aestheticism and Performativity in Literature of the 1920s.

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