Thomas Mann, Death in Venice (1912), trans. David Luke
What it’s about: Venice, the 1910s. Gustave von Aschenbach, a respected and successful writer, widowed and in his mid-50s, has recently been appointed to the German nobility. On his afternoon walk through a cemetery, he is suddenly inspired to travel abroad. After an aborted first holiday, he travels to Venice. On his arrival, he is accosted by an elderly man, effeminately dressed with make-up and a wig, who mockingly wishes him a pleasant stay and gives “our compliments to your sweetheart”. von Aschenbach stays at the Hotel des Bains, a luxury hotel on the Lido. At dinner, he catches sight of an extraordinarily beautiful Polish boy in his early teens, Tadzio, who is holidaying with his family. von Aschenbach becomes obsessed with Tadzio, likening him to a Greek sculpture, and follows him and his family discreetly around the city. Though they never speak or meet, von Aschenbach senses that Tadzio is aware of and possibly enjoys the attention. The summer heat makes von Aschenbach sick and he makes plans to leave Venice, but when his luggage is lost at the train station, he returns to the hotel, secretly overjoyed to be reunited with Tadzio. von Aschenbach’s obsession deepens, and he structures his days around the boy. When he learns that a cholera epidemic is sweeping the city, he considers telling Tadzio’s mother to take her family away, but stays silent so as not to risk losing the object of his affection. von Aschenbach visits the beauty salon and has his hair dyed and make-up applied to make himself look younger. As the other hotel guests flee the diseased city, von Aschenbach takes his place in his beach chair, watching Tadzio wrestling with another boy. Tadzio walks into the waves and appears to smile at him and beckon him with his hand. von Aschenbach collapses and dies in his chair; later that day, the world is “respectfully shocked” to receive the news of his death.
Why it’s a classic: Clocking in at just 70 pages, and written in the mannered, florid prose style of the late 19th century, Death in Venice has had an extraordinarily long and enduring influence on world literature. Early critics admired Mann’s expert handling of place and atmosphere, his intelligent discourse on the nature of art, and his literate references to Plato and Nietzsche. Through the story of von Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio, Mann dramatised Nietzsche’s theories about the warring forces of the god Apollo (representing order and restraint) and Dionysus (representing passion and excess). Death in Venice has also been praised (and occasionally condemned) for its honest portrayal of the desire of a man for a young boy. Unsurprisingly, Mann’s work has attracted the interest of later generations of gay artists: Luchino Visconti, whose stunningly beautiful 1971 film adaptation, starring the brilliant Dirk Bogarde as von Aschenbach, took the love affair seriously and played it as a stately Greek tragedy; Benjamin Britten, whose 1973 opera seems to have been an outlet for his own interest in young boys; and Gilbert Adair, whose 1990 novella Love and Death on Long Island updates Mann’s story to modern-day America, in which the elderly British author Giles De’Ath (get it?) falls in love with a pretty but clueless American B-movie actor. There’s also been biographical speculation that von Aschenbach is a portrait of composer Gustav Mahler (whose music features heavily in the Visconti film) or Sergei Diaghilev, the openly gay impressario of the Ballets Russes who regularly took his young male lovers to the Lido.
Over 100 years after its publication, Death in Venice is still an engrossing read, exercising a mysterious spell over its readers – which has something to do, I think, with Mann’s deft fusion of jarring literary styles. At first glance, it’s an elegant example of early 20th century realist fiction, focusing on the neurotic and vaguely decadent European bourgeoisie on the cusp of war. Mann is also – surprisingly – an extremely funny writer, aiming a well-sharpened satirical dagger at the pretensions of von Aschenbach, clinging to his pompous notion of “dignity”, and at the falsity of the tourist trade, hawking an artificially romantic image of Venice that’s at odds with the poverty and squalor on display. There’s also a macabre fairytale aspect to the story that bubbles beneath the social satire. von Aschenbach’s death is foreshadowed from the beginning when he visits a cemetery, and along the way he meets a series of men (all, it seems, with red hair) who predict his demise. After a Freudian dream involving a bloody Bacchic orgy, he finally gives himself over to “the lascivious delirium of annihilation”, fully in the grip of powerful desires he can’t control.
Death in Venice is also, quite unapologetically, a text about art and the role of artists, though his conclusions are somewhat difficult to identity. The first two of the novella’s five chapters are given over to a forensic examination of von Aschenbach’s literary career and his conservative beliefs about what art should be. Through hard work and discipline, he has made himself a great artist, rejecting skepticism, irony and knowledge in favour of “dignity” and an appreciation of beauty. The final three chapters relate the spectacular unravelling of von Aschenbach’s theory: we follow him as he abandons his dignity and ignores his own health, succumbing to Tadzio’s sensual beauty and the acknowledgement of his own forbidden desires. “What could art and beauty mean to him now, when he might reap the advantages of chaos?“, van Aschenbach concludes. Exactly what those advantages are is less clear. Aschenbach ends up a pathetic figure with make-up dripping sweatily off his face, dying alone and unnoticed on a deserted beach, suggesting that his giving into chaos hasn’t served him well. But this is perhaps Mann’s point. “[W]riters can be neither wise nor dignified,” he tells us. “[H]ow can one be fit to be an educator when one has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency towards the abyss? We try to achieve dignity by repudiating that abyss, but whichever way we turn we are subject to its allurement.” Chaos is inevitable, and those who attempt to repress their baser natures will explode with the effort of it.
Or is this the case? While I’m not fond of biographical interpretations as a rule, it’s tempting to read Death in Venice as Mann’s psychological projection of his own conflicted desires. Like von Aschenbach, Mann was also a married man, a respected writer and a pillar of society who struggled secretly with his desire for men and boys. His diaries revealed years of unconsummated crushes and unsatisfactory affairs, and even his erotic attraction to his infant son. With this in mind, Death in Venice can be read as a kind of sexual wish-fulfilment, in which Mann’s fictional character gets to live out the desires he himself repressed, but also acts as a cautionary tale to Mann and other men of his kind about the dire consequences of giving into forbidden passions. Perhaps too, the filth and disease of Venice represents the destructive dangers of unchecked sexuality. While this is no longer a fashionable view of homosexuality, Death In Venice rings resoundingly true for generations of gay men who, like van Aschenbach, weren’t able to act on their desires, and could only look and savour the objects of their affection.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A resounding bouquet. I was astounded at this book, both as a brilliant literary achievement, and for the haunting power of its story. I loved Mann’s assured use of the omniscient third-person voice, moving towards and away from his characters, letting us peer over their shoulders and then view them objectively under a petri dish, and I was surprised by the ease and playfulness of his humour. He has a gorgeous use of language and an uncanny ability to describe landscape in psychological terms: “Under the turbid dome of the sky the desolate sea surrounded him in an enormous circle. But in empty, unarticulated space our mind loses its sense of time and well, and we enter the twilight of the immeasurable.” He manages to both take art seriously and satirise the pretentiousness of artists who take themselves too seriously. Most of all, I was dazzled by how expertly he traced the agonies and occasional ridiculousness of forbidden desire. I grew up in the age of HIV/AIDS before the development of anti-retroviral medication, and spent most of my early adult life believing a free expression of my sexuality could kill me – so in that sense, I’m not quite as far away from the closeted Victorian sensibility of von Aschenbach as I’d like to believe. For this, more than any other reason, I think Death in Venice deserves its place as a classic, and one that I’ll return to again.
Quotable Quote: “The observations and encounters of a devotee of solitude and silence are at once less distinct and more penetrating than those of the sociable man his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness. Images and perceptions which might otherwise be easily dispelled by a glance, a laugh, an exchange of comments, concern him unduly, they sink into minute depths, take on significance, become experiences, adventures, emotions. The fruit of solitude is originality, something daringly and disconcertingly beautiful, the poetic creation. But the fruit of solitude can also be the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.”