Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann
Of course you know of my obsession with everything Thomas Mann. I mean, man was a genius. His books are beautiful, brilliant, and they make you use your brain until it hurts but IN A GOOD WAY.
And while The Magic Mountain is my favorite novel (of all time. Ever. End of Story), I'm recommending Mann's Death in Venice here because it is one of those stories that you'll read and then think about long after you've put it down. You'll think about it when reading other books, sitting on the beach, acknowledging an attraction. You'll think about it when you travel and when you dream about traveling. It will stay with you.
Briefly, it's a novella about a writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, at the pinnacle of his powers, lauded, respected, but lonely and frustrated nonetheless. His decision to vacation in Venice registers his unspoken desire to "let loose" and indulge his senses. Indulgence becomes compulsion when he finds himself overwhelmingly attracted to a young Polish boy, Tadzio, whose family he keeps running into. Aschenbach moves from admiring Tadzio's classically beautiful features to desiring him to the point of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. The sensual ultimately overwhelms the aesthetic.
I first read it for a high school book club, and when several of the other students called it weird and gross and bizarre, I argued that it was about so much more than an old dude chasing a boy around Venice. Aschenbach wasn't grasping after the boy Tadzio as much as he was running after youth, beauty, innocence, and the divine. Despite fame and respectability, Aschenbach was filled with dread, realizing that his life and career were nearing an end. Tadzio represented so much that Aschenbach was shocked to realize he was losing or had already lost. And his asceticism in the name of his art had become too exhausting to maintain. Tadzio invited him to become a Dionysian. Aschenbach, therefore, was attracted to Tadzio on a number of levels, both aesthetic and physical.
Needless to say, I was shouted down. But whatever. I've read Death in Venice now many times, and every time I find it to be more nuanced and complicated than before. This, my friends, is a must-must-must read.