There’s a great deal to be said for discovering classics at a mature age. Many of my university classmates (among them my husband) read Death in Venice for a seminar on European literature freshman year, and some of them will, without any coaxing, imitate the eccentric professor’s caressing way of enunciating the name “Tadzio.” That imitation, and the poster for the 1971 film directed by Luchino Visconti, were all I knew in advance. Perhaps this ignorance made my appreciation for the novella keener.
I’m perfectly certain that Iain Pears had Death in Venice in mind when he wrote Stone’s Fall, by the way. The Venetian section, which includes overheated sex on the Lido, works very nicely as a kind of prequel/hommage to Mann’s novella — which is about, among other subjects, not having heated sex on the Lido.
The novella was originally published in 1911, and Mann is supposed to have based the principal character, Gustave Aschenbach, in part on Gustav Mahler. Aschenbach is a fifty-year old writer who has achieved both literary eminence and popular acclaim, in part through a life of endless discipline. On a whim, he breaks out of his temperate habits and travels to Venice, taking up residence at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido. Here he becomes enamored — and then obsessed — by a beautiful prepubescent boy named Tadzio, whom he, well, stalks. (No other word for it.) As it happens, there is cholera in Venice, and Aschenbach ignores the dictates of good sense, opting to risk illness rather than leaving Tadzio. In the end, he… well, I won’t give it away. Check the title.
Obviously the novella leans toward an allegory of the famous Nietzschean divide between the Apollonian and Dionysian approaches to life, with Aschenbach arriving at a late fervent embrace of Dionysos. Not only does he have an orgiastic dream toward the end of the novel: he is sent out of his original routine by a “hallucination” prompted on a mid-day walk outside of Munich. “Desire projected itself visually: his fancy… imaged the marvels and terrors of the manifold earth:… Hairy palm-trunks rose near and far … out of bottoms of crass vegetation, fat, swollen, thick with incredible bloom.” And this is just the beginning of the things that Aschenbach sees. I was delighted to note that the final image shared with the reader includes a camera on a tripod “at the edge of the water, apparently abandoned; its black cloth snapped in the freshening wind.”
In fact, Mann turns Aschenbach — and us — into a camera. I haven’t seen the film but the novella reads like a screenplay for an immensely long tracking shot. Every item Mann records is significant, from the graveyard on page 4 to Tadzio’s gesture on page 73. The black of the gondolas; the deep red of the pomegranate juice Aschenbach drinks; the red trim on Tadzio’s sailor suit.
I read, by the way, the 1931 translation by Helen Tracey Lowe-Porter. There’s a new 2005 translation that may be less florid, but this was really enjoyable.