Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“DEATH IN VENICE” by Thomas Mann (Der Tod in Venedig written in 1911 and first published in 1912; Helen Tracey Lowe-Porter’s English translation first published in 1928)
I admit that I am no expert on the works of Thomas Mann (1875-1955), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929 and often regarded as Germany’s pre-eminent literary figure in the first half of the 20th century. Years ago (before I started keeping notebooks on all the books I read), I read his novel Doctor Faustus and was impressed by his thesis that Germans are often influenced by music more than by rational thought. I read one or two of his novella, such as The Black Swan (Die Betrogene). But when I tried to read his The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), apparently his most admired novel, I got bogged down about halfway through [it’s a very long novel] and never finished it. And that was all I knew directly of his works.
So recently, atoning for my ignorance, I decided to ease myself into Mann-land again by reading what is now, for various reasons, his best-known novella Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig ) which Mann wrote when he was 36. I have at best a smattering of tourist-phrase-book German, so of course I read the novella in Helen Tracey Lowe-Porter’s English-language translation. I’ll do the crass and obvious thing first by producing a grossly simplified and reductive synopsis to give you your bearings before I launch into a critique.
Gustave von Aschenbach is a novelist and an elderly widower living in Munich. He has one daughter whom he rarely sees. He is dissatisfied with the book he is currently writing and decides to go somewhere far away to clear his head. First he goes to Pola, on the Adriatic coast, but he is dissatisfied there too, so he takes the ferry to Venice, on the other side of the Adriatic. Mann goes out of his way to describe this journey in sordid terms. The cabins are dirty. So are the sailors. Silly young clerks on holiday run around making raucous noise. He is disgusted by an old man wearing a wig and make-up to make himself look younger. And when he gets to Venice, the gondolier he engages, to take him to his hotel, cheats him out of money by taking him to the wrong place. All this upsets an aesthete of delicate sensibility.
But once he is settled in his hotel, and once he takes to a deckchair on the beach, he sees a beautiful 14-year old Polish boy, whom he later learns is called Tadzio. Aschenbach is at once smitten with Tadzio. He does not speak with the boy, but only looks at him from afar while watching him playing with his friends on the beach, watching him and his family in the dining room or passing him in the passageways. All sordid things now pass out of his mind. Tadzio he sees as the epitome of beauty, a Greek god no less, something to worship. And the rest of the novella – that is, the bulk of Death in Venice - is taken up with Aschenbach’s obsession. Tadzio is his private cult. Although the novella is written in the third person, it is Aschenbach’s thoughts alone that we share.
At one point, Aschenbach decides to break off his obsession and leave Venice, but a series of mishaps draw him back. (And one can’t help feeling that the mishaps occurred accidentally-on-purpose.) His watching of the adored Tadzio continues. He idolises the boy. He idealises the boy. In his mind he turns over aesthetic theories on what beauty is. Finally, when the boy happens to smile at him, he says (to himself) “I love you”.
And almost at once, rumours of plague are shared through the city. The number of visitors and tourists reduces dramatically. Finally it is confirmed that Venice is in the grip of cholera. But Aschenbach stays there. His moral compass is twirling in all directions. He knows he is old. He knows he is beginning to be infirm. But he now gets painted with cosmetics and has his hair dyed to be more handsome and acceptable to the child he worships. [In effect, he himself has become the disgusting old man he saw on the ferry from Pola.] And he begins to actively stalk the boy. Here he is thwarted, for in his last attempt to follow in the footsteps of Tadzio and his family, he loses sight of them.
Now he begins to decay physically in sweat and fever. Through his head rushes a Platonic dialogue warning of the perils of worshipping beauty. Severely ill, he has one last sighting of the boy, posed and apparently, wordlessly, calling to him. Then he dies.
I warned you that this synopsis is reductive, especially as Death in Venice is so full of symbolic mannerisms that it is hard to account for all of them. To do so would take many pages of de-coding. Parts of the novella read like a psychotherapeutic confession. However, my first criticism of the novella would be its prose. Thomas Mann (and I am trusting an English-language translation here) shared the later Henry James’ habit of writing in convoluted sentences with very many subordinate clauses and hesitations. This is very much the prose of obfuscation, of somebody circling around what he means to say without getting to the point, all of which sounds like a denial of something important that is left unsaid. Sorry to note this one so early in my critique, but in both James and Mann there was the strain of having to disguise the author’s essentially homosexual impulses. Of Aschenbach early in Death of Venice, Mann writes, in his complex way: “In his youth, indeed, the nature and inmost essence of the literary gift had been, to him, this very scrupulosity; for it he had bridled and tempered his sensibilities, knowing full well that feeling is prone to be content with easy gains and half-perfection. So now, perhaps, feeling, thus tyrannized, avenged itself by leaving him, refusing now to carry on and wing his art and taking away with it all the ecstasy he had known in form and expression…” [etc etc.] Yes indeed, he is bridling and tempering his sensibilities by not admitting to himself what sort of man he really is, and thus his inspiration is dying.
We are also given early in the novel Aschenbach’s fetishisation of masculine beauty, in effect the aestheticization of homosexuality: “The new type of hero favoured by Aschenbach, and recurring many times in his works, had early been analysed by a shrewd critic: ‘The conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side’. That was beautiful, it was spiritual, it was exact, despite the suggestion of too great passivity it held. Forbearance in the face of fate, beauty constant under torture, was not merely passive. They are a positive achievement, an explicit triumph; and the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here.” Here his stoicism, his forbearance and passivity (not to mention the dying martyr Sebastian) suggest a longing for male dominance over himself.
From the very first moment Aschenbach sees Tadzio, he ignores the boy’s carefree boyishness and places him on a pedestal: “Round a wicker table next to him was gathered a group of young folk in the charge of a governess or companion – three young girls, perhaps fifteen to seventeen years old, and a long-haired boy of about fourteen. Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture – pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity...”
Such observations continue as he takes to habitually watching the boy: “He [Tadzio] turned and ran back against the water, churning the waves to a foam, his head hung high. The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky, outrunning the elements – it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods…”
Later, after many times gazing at the boy playing harmlessly on the beach, he reaches a complete idealisation of the boy: “Mirror and image! His eyes took in the proud bearing of that figure there at the blue waters edge; with an outburst of rapture he told himself that what he saw was beauty’s very essence; form as divine thought, the single and pure perfection that resides in the mind, of which an image and likeness, rare and holy, was here raised up for adoration. This was very frenzy and without a scruple, nay, eagerly, the ageing artist bade it come.” At which point he persuades himself that he is considering an abstract ideal where “only through the medium of some corporeal being” can he be raised to “contemplation of higher things”. And, lo, in a trice he is contemplating “Greek love” – essentially aestheticized pederasty where “Socrates held forth to youthful Phaedrus upon the nature of virtue and desire, wooing him with insinuating wit and charming turns of phrase…” By this stage, is Aschenbach seeing a real boy at all? He is overlaying the boy with his own ideas of what is beautiful and is ignoring the living child who does not deserve such scrutiny.
Thomas Mann is himself aware of the danger of Aschenbach’s obsession, which borders on the perverse. When Aschenbach first arrives in Venice, and before he sights Tadzio, Thomas Mann notes of him: “A solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels, has mental experiences which are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man. They are sluggish, yet more wayward, and never without a melancholy tinge. Sights and impressions which others brush aside with a glance, a light comment, a smile, occupy him more than their due; they sink silently in, they take on meaning, they become experience, emotion, adventure. Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd…” There is a clear warning that Aschenbach could be heading for “the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”
There is an undertone of guilt when Aschenbach sets himself up on the beach to watch Tadzio: “When Aschenbach put aside his work and left the beach he felt exhausted, he felt broken – conscience reproached him, as it were after a debauch.” Considering that Aschenbach does not really know the boy he idealises, Thomas Mann throws in a reminder of reality when he says: “For one human being instinctively feels respect and love for another human being so long as he does not know him well enough to judge him; and that he does not, the craving he feels is evidence.” That is the situation that Aschenbach is in.
Then there is that crucial moment when the boy happens to smile at the elderly man. Here we can’t help noticing Aschenbach’s underlying guilt. This is a man desperately sublimating what he really knows – that he should not be thinking about a juvenile in the way he does. “Aschenbach received that smile and turned away with it as though entrusted with a fatal gift. So shaken was he that he had to flee from the lighted terrace and front gardens and seek out with hurried steps the darkness of the park at the rear. Reproaches strangely mixed of tenderness and remonstrance burst from him: ‘How dare you smile like that! No one is allowed to smile like that!’ He flung himself on a bench, his composure gone to the winds, and breathed in the nocturnal fragrance of the garden. He leaned back, with hanging arms, quivering from head to foot, and quite unmanned he whispered the hackneyed phrase of love and longing – impossible in these circumstances, absurd, abject, ridiculous enough, yet sacred too, and not unworthy of honour even here: ‘I love you!’ ” Remember, it is almost immediately after Aschenbach thinks these words “I love you” that Mann throws in the first intimations of the plague striking, as if he is enlisting nature to chastise Aschenbach. And when Aschenbach starts wilfully stalking the boy we are told “Mind and heart were drunk with passion, his footsteps guided by the daemonic power whose pastime is to trample on human reason and dignity.”
Also “That night he had a fearful dream – if dream is the right word for a mental and physical experience which did indeed befall him in deep sleep, as a thing quite apart and real to his senses, yet without seeing himself as present in it. Rather its theatre seemed to be his own soul, and the events burst in from outside, violently overcoming the profound resistance of his spirit; passed him through and left him, left the whole cultural structure of a life-time trampled on, ravaged, and destroyed.” The morality he has hitherto stood by has fallen apart. Just before Aschenbach dies, there is an oration based on a Platonic text which warns that aestheticism is destructive. It includes the lines “preoccupation with form lead[s] to intoxication and desire [and] may lead the noblest among us to frightful emotional excesses” and this could “lead to the bottomless pit” and “us who are poets… by our natures are prone not to excellence but to excess.” This is a judgement upon Aschenbach the novelist himself, a “poet” who runs to unreasonable excess in his feeling for the boy. His last dreams include an orgiastic Bacchanal, suggesting that Aschenbach’s unconscious is telling him that it is not disinterested beauty that he his seeking in the boy, but sex. [And if you think this is a strained Freudian interpretation, please bear in mind that Mann had been studying Freud’s work before he wrote this novella.]
What, then, is Thomas Mann giving us in Death in Venice? The story of a man who has the privilege of seeing pure beauty before he dies? Or the story of a man dangerously deluded and seeking an ideal in the wrong place? Clearly the novella could be read either way… or both ways. Ambiguity and irony are (so I have been told, not being a Thomas Mann expert) the habitual tools of Mann’s work. But, at the risk of seeming an uncouth philistine, I find it hard to read this novella without seeing it as the story of an old pederast fixated on a young boy, and saved from being a full paedophile only by the fact that he never interferes with the boy physically. How crass I am! How unfeeling about the deep and heartfelt ideas of beauty that the novella expresses! How un-aesthetic! But often the finest and most philosophic words cannot disguise hard and unpleasant realities. You can celebrate beauty. You might even, as an adult, find real beauty in young boys (and girls) and you may be legitimately nostalgic for your own childhood and adolescence. But if you become fixated on the beauty of children, you are taking a very perverse path – as Aschenbach does. Leave the kid alone, mister.
Footnote: There have been three other English language translations of Death in Venice since Porter-Lowe’s translation, and it has been suggested that later translations have been more explicit in their sexual references and homoeroticism… but I think I have picked up enough of such references from Porter-Lowe’s version to fully understand this tale..
Further Footnote: It is well documented that Thomas Mann wrote this
novella after having holidayed (with his wife) in Venice, and that he based
Tadzio on the real Polish boy Wladyslaw Moes, who was in fact only eleven years
old when Mann saw him. Moes, an aristocrat, went on to be an officer in the
Polish army, married happily and readily recognised himself as the source of
Mann’s novel, noting that Mann had described Tadzio wearing exactly the same
clothes as Moes had worn. But the erotic suggestions of Mann’s novella were of
no interest to him. It is hard not to see Mann himself as Aschenbach, even if
he was only in his thirties when he wrote Death in Venice. He was married
and eventually had six children (the eldest, Erika, who was lesbian, had a “lavender
marriage” with W. H. Auden so that she could get a British passport and flee
from Nazi Germany). But Mann’s diaries – which became unsealed for public
scrutiny in 1975, 20 years after his death - and the memoirs of family and friends, show
that he was homosexual by inclination and often longed for a male partner. Do
note that Aschenbach in Death in Venice is freed of women, his wife
being dead and his daughter distant. [Talk about wish fulfilment.]
Mildly Depressing Footnote: I am not perpetuating the old slur that homosexuals are also paedophiles, but it is true that Death in Venice has been very interesting to many creative homosexuals. Benjamin Britten made an opera out of it. Luchino Visconti made a film out of it and Dirk Bogarde played Aschenbach (who was presented in the film as a composer, not a novelist, so that the film could use the music of Mahler). It was this film which made Death in Venice the best-known of Mann’s novella. I remember seeing the film when it first came out in 1971 and finding it draggy and ponderous, though gorgeous to look at. The fact is that the novella is virtually unfilmable. So much of it consists of Aschenbach’s internalised aesthetic and philosophical theorising which cannot be reproduced on screen. In retrospect, I find it very funny that I heard two pundits lamenting the fact that Dirk Bogarde had been given the starring role, because the actor was well known to be homosexual and, said the pundits, this would give the impression that Aschenbach was something other than a disinterested searcher for beauty. Oh, dear innocent days! Anyway, the film won many prizes and in more recent years it has often been cited as one of the best Queer films of all time.
But here’s the depressing part. In the film, the role of beautiful young Tadzio was played by beautiful 16-year-old Scandinavian boy Bjorn Andresen. As told in the book The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Andresen was and is heterosexual. Aged sixteen, he was angered when Visconti made him come to a gay bar where he was pawed by predatory men and pederasts. Over the years he repeatedly had to ward off such unwelcome advances, especially when members of the film community tried to hawk him around as a sexual object for men. He resisted their plans and he hated the image of himself that the film had created. He retired from virtually all acting, preferring to be a musician and have the quiet life with his wife.