Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann
“It is most certainly a good thing that the world knows only the beautiful opus but not its origins, not the conditions of its creation; for if people knew the sources of the artist's inspiration, that knowledge would often confuse them, alarm them, and thereby destroy the effects of excellence. strange hours! strangely enervating labor! bizarrely fertile intercourse of the mind with a body!” ― Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
This may be the best short novel ever written and is certainly one of the best I have read. The plot tells the story of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach who travels to Venice, where he falls in love with an adolescent boy before subsequently dying in the cholera-stricken city. Mann’s masterly command of language and play with mythology, his psychological profile of the artistic mind, and the novella’s contrast between cold artistic discipline and the power of love has generated great admiration.
Aschenbach is introduced as an esteemed author who has produced literary works known for their formalism and neo-classical style. He has chosen an ascetic, disciplined life, a life of “noble purity, simplicity and symmetry”, for the sake of his creativity, success and national reputation. At the beginning of Death in Venice, we find the fifty-three year old writer unable to write a perfectly balanced work. He decides to take a walk by the north cemetery in an unnamed town that can be identified as Munich. The year, presented in the text as “19—”, is actually 1911. Since Mann opted not to provide a precise date, the narrative contains a timeless, ahistorical dimension despite being grounded in contemporary events.
In the figure of a stranger whom Aschenbach sees at a chapel by the cemetery, Mann alludes to medieval personifications of death, and also to the Greek god Hermes, the guide to the Underworld. But the messenger of death is also a messenger of life. The text links him to the cult of life and the god of Asian origins, Dionysos. Mann's intention was to write a treatise on the Nietzschean contrast between the god of reason, Apollo, and the god of unreason, Dionysus.
In his description of Aschenbach’s journey into Venice, Mann includes encounters with a Charon-like figure, and an old man bereft of dignity. These characters serve as messengers signalling Aschenbach’s looming fate, and as conspicuous representations of the transience and ugliness of life.
The Venice depicted by Mann is "the fallen queen, flattering and dubious beauty . . . half fairy tale, half tourist trap". It is a vision presented in its sordid reality and in its mythical splendor. At the hotel Aschenbach catches sight of a beautiful, fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio who is vacationing with his family. Aschenbach is immediately attracted to him, comparing him to a Greek statue and an artistic masterpiece. Although the sultry air of Venice makes him feel unwell, he reverses his intention to leave the city. From now on, his life is controlled by his desire to continue to observe Tadzio.
With references to the Platonic idea that physical attraction leads to spiritual knowledge, Mann diverts readers from the fact that Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio is primarily physical, not metaphysical. The ability of Thomas Mann to weave together character and theme and setting to achieve this perfection is uncanny and I do not believe he achieved any better in his longer fictions, great as they are. This is also one of the few novels that received a superlative treatment on film though, in the end, Visconti's film does not surpass the original.
View all my reviews