I've tried to read Thomas Mann a few times and I always failed. While I love to read about him and his family, his own works were not to my taste. I chose Death in Venice for yet another attempt because the story appealed to me and I found myself enjoying the book a lot more than I anticipated.
The writer Gustav von Aschenbach comes to Venice where an extremely beautiful boy catches his eye. Aschenbach starts to watch the boy as discreetly as possible, eventually following him around, but is content with imagining getting to know him. When cholera breaks out in Venice, Aschenbach chooses to stay, risking his life, rather than giving up seeing the boy.
Death in Venice is a novella, only a little more than 100 pages long and a good choice if you find the sheer length of Mann's other works intimidating. I don't know how well this shines through in translations, but Mann certainly was a master of language and wrote an extremely refined German. It's not something you can read between things, although I did read it on my commute to and from work. A knowledge of Greek myths helps with understanding this book as well, there are numerous allusions.
But never fear, the basic story can be understand perfectly well even when you know zilch about Greek gods. I guess we all can relate to developing an obsession about something or someone. Aschenbach ultimately sacrifices his own life for the sake of his obsession, while never really acting upon it, preferring daydreams and fantasy. I can certainly identify with the latter part.
Even though I have never seen Visconti's film, I kept imagining Dirk Borgade as Aschenbach. The book is actually very much about Thomas Mann himself, who had in fact discovered a very attractive boy during a stay in Venice a few years before writing the novella. It's a revealing story and it played its part in the development of the strange, but strong marriage of Katja and Thomas Mann. If you have never read a biography of Thomas Mann, you really should, he and his family are fascinating. I don't know if there's an English version, but the documentary Die Manns is both highly entertaining and educating.