I find this a difficult work to review. On the one hand, I’m awed by the complexity of the narrative, its haunting imagery, the richness of the symbolism and the layers of meaning which Mann was able to give such a short work. On the other hand, a plot involving an older man becoming obsessed with and stalking a beautiful young boy is designed to make 21st century readers feel uncomfortable. Or at least, it’s designed to make me feel uncomfortable. I have difficulty seeing the Ancient Greek practice of paiderastia - the socially acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult man and a teenage boy - which is part of the inspiration for the work, in positive terms. I also have difficulty with the idea that a young male is – or should be - the personification of ideal beauty.
However, Mann didn’t write this novella to make readers comfortable. There is painful self-reflection, passion and truth in his writing. The themes he explores - artistic choices, the meaning of beauty, the struggle to accept the inevitability of decay and death - are confronting, challenging and ultimately deeply moving.
As I listened to the audiobook I regretted once again my lack of a classical education. I know little about Greek mythology, allusions to which are an important part of the narrative. Not being familiar with the stories to which Mann refers didn’t lessen the intensity of the experience. Familiarity with them would have added an extra dimension to it.
Images from this work will haunt me forever. And I’ll never think of Venice in quite the same way again.