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Death in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)

The first time I tried this collection, I read the first story, “Little Herr Friedemann”, and the last, “Death in Venice”. I thought they were both very good: powerful, moving, and mysterious. But I didn’t try any of the other stories, except for a little of “Gladius Dei”. I felt somehow that they wouldn’t be worth it.

Now I’ve come back to the book and tried to read it from beginning to end. I’ve failed and my reluctance to try the other stories seems to have been justified. “Little Herr Friedemann” was still good and so was “Death in Venice”. The others I found variously trite or impossible to finish. “The Road to the Churchyard”, about an unhealthy drunk on foot encountering a healthy youth on a bicycle, reminded me of Maupassant. But Maupassant would have done it much better.

At least, I’ve found Maupassant very good in French. But the same stories have been less good when I’ve tried them in English. Maybe that was part of the problem here. I can’t read Mann’s stories in German and if I could I still wouldn’t be sure of judging them right. But I assume it’s easier for a good story in the original to become a bad story in translation than for the reverse. And “Death in Venice” is a very good story in this translation. After you’ve read it, David Luke’s clever and insightful introduction to the collection will make it even better.

As he points out, “Death in Venice” is in part an updating and expansion of “Little Herr Friedemann”, which is also about thwarted passion and the eruption of Dionysiac energies in an Apollonian life. But the earlier story is tragic and realistic, the later tragicomic and dream-like:

Aschenbach bedeckte seine Stirn mit der Hand und schloß die Augen, die heiß waren, da er zu wenig geschlafen hatte. Ihm war, als lasse nicht alles sich ganz gewöhnlich an, als beginne eine träumerische Entfremdung, eine Entstellung der Welt ins Sonderbare um sich zu greifen, der vielleicht Einhalt zu tun wäre, wenn er sein Gesicht ein wenig verdunkelte und aufs neue um sich schaute. – Der Tod in Venedig (1912), Drittes Kapitel.

Aschenbach put his hands over his forehead and closed his eyes, which were hot from too little sleep. He had a feeling that something not quite usual was about to happen, that the world was undergoing a dreamlike alteration, becoming increasingly deranged and bizarre, and perhaps this process might be arrested if he were to cover his face for a little and take a fresh look at things. (section 3)

The world will indeed become increasingly deranged and bizarre, as the distinguished novelist Gustav Aschenbach allows his infatuation with a young Polish boy to strip him of his reason, his dignity and, finally, his life. The title tells the reader that his doom is inevitable, so Mann has to make the journey there interesting. And it is: psychologically, symbolically, allegorically, and literally too. Aschenbach couldn’t have stayed in Munich: he needed a rich, fantastic, southern and sea-washed setting for his doomed romance.

The boy, Tadzio, is delicately and skilfully depicted – “presented,” as David Luke says in the introduction, “with extraordinary subtlety, mysteriously yet very realistically paused between innocence and a certain half-conscious coquetry”. I was reminded of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), who also visits Venice with the protagonist. But that’s a novel and the protagonist will see Sebastian grow old and lose his beauty. Aschenbach will never see that happen to his object of desire: Tadzio’s beauty enthrals and destroys him, successfully tempting him to stay on in Venice as cholera rages and tourists flee.

“Death in Venice” is also reminiscent of Lolita (1955) and you could call it the homosexual variant on the same paedophilic theme. But I found Lolita too repulsive to finish the last time I tried it. “Death in Venice” is more ironic, more comic and more moral. Its unnatural love-affair is never consummated and it will be news of Aschenbach’s death that shocks the world, not news of his arrest. Where Lolita has undoubtedly encouraged crime, “Death in Venice” may occasionally have admonished those contemplating it.

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The Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Janice RobinsonThe Oxford Companion to Wine, ed. Janice Robinson (Oxford University Press 2006) (third edition)

Another big book for another big subject: wine. Because it’s organized alphabetically by topic, you can open it anywhere and begin zigzagging through the world of wine. The antiquity of the world is reflected in the antiquity of the word, which entered English so long ago that it preserves the original pronunciation of Latin vinum, with initial “w”, not “v”. “Vine” is from the same root but comes from Old French. The word has deeper roots in Indo-European – “wiyana and wayana are quoted from the ancient Anatolian languages” – and may have cognates in Hebrew and Arabic. But what is its ultimate origin? “No theory is convincing,” concludes the linguist Dr Leofranc Shelford-Strevens, “except after a few glasses” (entry for “Wine”, pg. 768).

That’s a good name for someone writing about wine and that Johnsonian humour enlivens other entries: “wine writing” is a “parasitical activity undertaken by wine writers enabled by vine-growing and wine-making” (pg. 772) and “Siegerrebe” is a “modern German vine crossing grown principally, like certain giant vegetables, by exhibitionists” (pg. 630). Wine apparently encourages high spirits in its writers, not just its drinkers, but there’s also an entry for “bore, wine”. The next entry is for “borers”, about “beetles and their larvae”. Then comes the entry for “boron”, about an essential trace element. So three entries span sociology, entomology and chemistry. Each has a separate author too. This book had to be a collaboration, because no-one could possibly be an expert on all aspects of oenology, as the study of wine is called (from Greek oinos, whose earlier form is woinos).

So different entries have different flavours, like wine itself: simple or complex, sweet or astringent. All wine-making countries and regions have their own entries, from Alsace to Zimbabwe, from Georgia to Japan, and almost every conceivable aspect of wine and viticulture is discussed and described, from the gustatory and linguistic to the botanical and medical, from Dionysus and drunkenness to bottles and the shape of wine-glasses. You’ll learn here how the Greek writer Athenaeus (fol. 200 AD) wrote a book called Deipnosophistae, “The masters of the art of dining”, in which the “two most frequent topics are Homer and wine” (pg. 38). But Athenaeus isn’t systematic about wine: he assembles “curious facts”.

This book is systematic, but it has a lot of curious facts too. What are the differences between macro-, meso- and microclimate? They’re explained here. What did the Roman poet Martial think about Egyptian wine? His astringencies are quoted not just in translation, but in Latin too (pg. 429). Which Roman emperor ordered vineyards rooted up and which ordered them re-planted? Domitian (pg. 234) and Probus (pg. 548), respectively. Which wine did Napoleon drink to console his exile on St Helena? Constantia (pg. 193). Which wine is celebrated in the national anthem of its homeland? Tokaji (pg. 699) – the Hungarian anthem praises God for ripening wheat tokaj szőlővesszein, “in the grape fields of Tokaj”. But I couldn’t find anything on wine and the visual arts. It would have been good if they had been discussed and some wine-paintings and wine-sculptures had been included with the other photos. The closest the book comes is a photograph of a barrel cellar owned by the Mastroberadino firm in Campania, Italy, which incidentally shows a beautiful and mysterious painting on the roof. Why are the naked female figures hiding their faces? Who was the artist?

Dionysus (c. 70 A.D.) (see also)

Dionysus (c. 70 A.D.) (see also Prometheus Unbound)

You won’t learn that here. You won’t learn how to pronounce unfamiliar names and terms either, because no pronunciation keys are given. So no art, no articulation. Apart from that, this big book is worthy of its big subject. Is wine one of the glories of life? Some don’t think so: they go further, as the entry for “Rome, classical” reveals (pg. 589). “Vita vinum est!” proclaims Trimalchio in the Satyricon (late 1st century A.D.): “Life is wine!” Petronius may not have lived to drink himself, but he surely made his life better with wine. Two millennia later, you can make your wine better with the words in this book.

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