A German Classic 2020: Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig
Wikimedia: Foto H.-P.Haack
Although we were unfortunately unable to run it as a competition this year, we were delighted to invite students to read with us Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (1912) – one of the most famous novellas in German literature and a masterpiece of European modernism. In his inimitably elegant and sumptuous style, Mann tells a transgressive story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging German writer, who falls in love with Tadzio, a teenage boy from Poland, during a holiday in Venice in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Often hailed as a break-through work for the queer community, Der Tod in Venedig might resonate differently now, in the era of the #metoo movement and the coronavirus pandemic.
Students were invited to sign up for free to receive a physical copy of the German original and an English translation of Mann's novella, watch a specially recorded lecture that guided them through the text, and had the opportunity to get feedback on their written commentaries on a passage from Der Tod in Venedig from an Oxford academic. Even though logistic challenges this year mean that we were unable to compile extensive study materials and conduct our usual essay competition, a record number of students joined us for an exploration of 'A German Classic' in this adapted format. We received nearly 200 expressions of interest from students across the UK and some 75 commentaries were submitted at the end of the summer. It was a pleasure to see that so many dedicated sixth formers chose to spend their time over the summer reading Der Tod in Venedig, exploring the additional resources on it that we put together, and writing about Mann's story. You can see the 2020 participation guidelines here and our tips for writing a good commentary here.
'A German Classic' was launched in 2017 thanks to a generous donation by Jonathan Gaisman, QC. It is designed to celebrate a different literary classic each year and encourage in-depth study by creating a wide range of resources that open up different perspectives on the concerns at the heart of the work. The links to interviews and discussions, articles and performances remain available on our website to inspire ongoing interest in these works beyond the year of the competition and you can access them here. So far, we have featured Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (in 2017), Freidrich Schiller's Maria Stuart (in 2018), and E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann (in 2019).