Three short classics from the 746 for #NovNov

With a third lockdown coming into force this morning for Northern Ireland. I’ve been feeling like I’ve run out of steam a little this week. I had hoped to review each of these reads separately, but time constraints mean that a round-up of my final Novellas in November reading is in order.

No 453 Death in Venice by Thomas ManN,translated by David Luke

Thomas Mann’s novella portrays a famous writer, Aschenbach, who feels his intellectual powers are at an impasse. He takes a restorative holiday in Venice where the very quality he most prizes — his complete control of his passions and artistry — slips away as he becomes hopelessly obsessed with Tadzio, a beautiful Polish boy who is staying in the same hotel.

Aschenbach’s silent infatuation leads him to remain too long in the city despite knowing that a cholera outbreak is spreading, with fatal results for him and presumably the boy (and his family)as well, because Aschenbach selfishly fails to warn them of the outbreak in case they leave and he is separated from the object of his desire.

But form and naivety, Phaedrus, lead to intoxication and lust; they may lead a noble mind into terrible criminal emotions, which his own fine rigour condemns as infamous; they lead, they too lead, to the abyss.

Despite a rather slow start, I very much enjoyed Death in Venice. It was strange to read in the middle of our very own pandemic. Mann might set his fictional writer’s struggle within the world of classical language and imagery, but Death in Venice remains relevant in part because here is a self-absorbed man of privilege, who choses to ignore the moral code of the world to satisfy his own wishes. Imagery of death and decay abound and as Aschebach descends into becoming the very thing he once despised, Mann wisely leaves his judgement of him open-ended and ambiguous. I read Death in Venice for German Literature Month

Read on: Kindle, Number Read: 293, Number Remaining: 453

No 452 The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

I have to admit, I did not get on with The Day of the Locust at all. This 1939 novel is set on the fringes of Hollywood in the Great Depression era and features none of the glitz associated with that milieu. Instead we have a novella filled with extras rather than stars. Talented artist Tod Hacket has been reduced to painting sets on Hollywood lots. He is in love with aspiring actress Faye who isn’t interested as Tod hbas nothing that will help her become a star. As Tod pursues his romantic notions, he comes into contact with a range of grotesques including Stetson-wearing unapologetic cowboy Earle Shoope; Abe Kusich, a book-keeping dwarf and lovelorn deadweight Homer Simpson.

Being with her was like being backstage during an amateurish, ridiculous play. From in front, the stupid lines and grotesque situations would have made him squirm with annoyance, but because he saw the perspiring stage-hands and the wires that held up a tawdry summerhouse with its tangle of paper flowers, he accepted everything and was anxious for it to succeed.

Filled with grotesque characters and critiquing the myth of the Hollywood dream, The Day of the Locust is good at exploring the often savage underbelly of an environment built on illusion and glamour. However, I found the characters particularly unpleasant and the narrative disjointed and exaggerated to the point of annoyance. Not for me.

Read on: Kindle, Number Read: 294, Number Remaining: 452

No 451 The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The recent vogue for retelling Greek myths was possibly kicked off back in 2005 with Canongate’s Myth series which saw famous writers revisit ancient tales.

In The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood retells the story of Penelope, immortalised in legend and myth as the devoted wife of the glorious Odysseus, silently weaving and unpicking and weaving again as she waits for her husband’s return. Here Atwood gives the telling to Penelope and her twelve hanged maids and takes a decidedly feminist and at times wickedly funny approach.

While the image of the maids’ execution runs through the account, Atwood uses poetry, burlesque and even a mock trial to great effect. Penelope is depicted as less a faithful wife and more a stoic survivor, maintaining an enjoyably bitchy feud with her ‘intolerably beautiful’ cousin Helen of Troy. Atwood does enjoy an intense female rivalry after all.

Never mind. Point being that you don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

The Penelopiad sucessfully serves as a feminist re-telling of a deeply masculine story, but Atwood’s version of events doesn’t just echo an epic. Penelope’s authority and wit come from her feminine sex and the power that she has in this patriarchy is undoubtedly derived from subtly undermining the men who take that femininity for granted. In Atwood’s retelling, it is the women of Ithaca who are the cunning heroes, weaving their own destinies.

I read The Penelopiad for Margaret Atwood Reading Month.

Read on: Book, Number Read 295, Number Remaining, 451

Novellas in November The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

30 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I got a copy of the Atwood to ease myself into her writing but have to launch into it. Ditto her Hag Seed—It appears I’m waiting for the right moment, the mood, to do her work justice, but this year I seem to have gone more for comfort reads. Can’t think why.

    All I know of the Mann is the Bogarde film and its use of Mahler as a soundtrack; otherwise the only novel of his I’ve read so far is The Holy Sinner, based on a medieval tale with incest as a major theme. But my wife has copies of his better known titles so I’ll ransack her bookshelves; I suspect any of them will have equal relevance to contemporary events!

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    • I’ve seen the movie – quite a few years ago now! – but this is the first Mann I’ve read. The first few pages were a bit of a slog, but necessary I think to set the tone for the character. I’d love to hear how you get on with some of his other work, and the Atwood!

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  2. I read Death in Venice a very long time ago, and really hadn’t remembered anything about it. The Penelopiad is one of the Margaret Atwood’s I was less keen one, her writing is excellent of course, I’m just not into this whole myth re-telling thing.

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  3. The Day of the Locust is quite sordid, isn’t it? I read it last year and didn’t like it nearly as much as Miss Lonelyhearts.
    Good job making two of these count towards multiple challenges 🙂
    I feel like you’ve really chipped away at the 746 this month!

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  4. I read both The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts back in college….oh, about 14 years ago. I don’t remember anything about them other than I liked them more than the other books we were reading, such as the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos. Your review actually makes me want to go back and read them again.

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  5. I really enjoyed The Penelopiad, I was so upset by the treatment of the maids in The Odyssey that I was very thankful to MA for coming along and telling their story. I haven’t tried any of the other myths though.

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  6. I just managed to pick up a Thomas Mann omnibus before the libraries closed again so I’ll be reading that one and a few others by him soon, I’ve never read anything by Mann before.

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  7. I never thought I’d be interested in reading The Penelopiad until MARM started and everyone’s reviews make it sound like fun. I just love MA’s humour!

    I feel like grouping reviews together is all I do now… I am constantly behind!

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  8. I’ve long wanted to read Death in Venice. Your review has reminded me I need to see if I can borrow it from the library. Hope your lockdown doesn’t last too long… I have been super lucky here in WA. Life is practically back up normal, except we can’t travel anywhere because we have a hard international and state border.

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