Tuesday, August 25, 2009

218. A Death in Venice – Thomas Mann

May 2009
History: It was first published in German in 1912. Thomas Mann's wife Katia recalls that the idea for the story came during an actual holiday in Venice, which she and Thomas took in the spring of 1911: “All the details of the story, beginning with the man at the cemetery, are taken from experience … In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband's attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn't pursue him through all of Venice — that he didn't do — but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often…” The boy who inspired "Tadzio" was Baron Władysław Moes, whose first name was usually shortened as Władzio or just Adzio. This story was uncovered by Thomas Mann's translator Andrzej Dołęgowski around 1964, and was published in the German press in 1965. Some sources report that Moes himself did not learn of the connection until he saw the 1971 film version of the novel. Moes was born in 1900, and was aged 11 when he was in Venice, significantly younger than Tadzio in the novella.
Plot: The main character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous author in his early fifties who has recently added the aristocratic "von" to his name. He is a man dedicated to his art, disciplined and ascetic to the point of severity, and was widowed at a young age.
Three times in the book, he has abrupt encounters with red haired men that disturb him, which is a symbol for the god of reason, whom he is ignoring.
He is finishing a manuscript, and decides to take a trip, or sabbatical. He decides on Venice, reserving a suite in the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido island. He observes people from a distance, has an uncomfortable confrontation with a Gondolier who apparently is not licensed, soon arrives at the hotel. From his observings, we can see he is a very stiff and severe man, hard on himself and others. He is very proper. Aschenbach checks into his hotel, where at dinner he sees an aristocratic Polish family at a nearby table. Among them is an adolescent boy in a sailor suit; Aschenbach, startled, realizes that the boy is beautiful. His sisters, however, are so severely dressed that they look like nuns. Aschenbach overhears the lad's name, Tadzio, and conceives what he tells himself is an abstract, artistic interest.
Soon the hot, humid weather begins to affect Aschenbach's health, and he decides to leave early and move to a more salubrious location. On the morning of his planned departure, he sees Tadzio again, and a powerful feeling of regret sweeps over him. When he reaches the railway station and discovers his trunk has been misdirected, he pretends to be angry, but is really overjoyed; he decides to remain in Venice and wait for his lost luggage. He happily returns to the hotel, and thinks no more of leaving.
Over the next days and weeks, Aschenbach's interest in the beautiful boy develops into an obsession. He watches him constantly, and secretly follows him around Venice. One evening, the boy directs a charming smile at him, looking, Disconcerted, he rushes outside, and in the empty garden whispers aloud "I love you!"
Aschenbach next takes a trip into the city of Venice, where he sees a few discreetly worded notices from the Health Department warning of an unspecified contagion and advising people to avoid eating shellfish. He smells an unfamiliar strong odour everywhere, and later realises it is disinfectant. However, the tourists continue to wander round the city, apparently oblivious. Aschenbach at first ignores the danger because it somehow pleases him to think that the city's disease is akin to his own hidden, corrupting passion for the boy.
Next, Aschenbach rallies his self-respect and decides to discover the reason for the health notices posted in the city so he can warn Tadzio's mother. After being repeatedly assured that the sirocco is the only health risk, he finds a British travel agent who reluctantly admits that there is a serious cholera epidemic in Venice. Aschenbach, however, funks his resolution to warn the Polish family, knowing that if he does, Tadzio will leave the hotel and be lost to him.
One night, a dream filled with orgiastic Dionysian imagery reveals to him the sexual nature of his feelings for Tadzio. Afterwards, he begins staring at the boy so openly and following him so persistently that Aschenbach feels the boy's guardians finally notice, and take to warning Tadzio whenever he approaches too near the strange, solitary man. But Aschenbach's feelings, though passionately intense, remain unvoiced; he never touches Tadzio, or even speaks to him; and while there is some indication that Tadzio is aware of his admiration, the two exchange nothing more than the occasional surreptitious glance.
Aschenbach begins to fret about his aging face and body. In an attempt to look more attractive, he visits the hotel's barber shop almost daily, where the barber eventually persuades him to have his hair dyed and his face painted to look more youthful. Freshly dyed and rouged, he again shadows Tadzio through Venice in the oppressive heat. He loses sight of the boy in the heart of the city; then, exhausted and thirsty, he buys and eats some over-ripe strawberries and rests in an abandoned square, contemplating the Platonic ideal of beauty amidst the ruins of his own once-formidable dignity.
A few days later, Aschenbach goes to the lobby in his hotel, feeling ill and weak, and discovers that the Polish family plan to leave after lunch. He goes down to the beach to his usual deck chair. Tadzio is there, unsupervised for once, and accompanied by an older boy, Jasiu. A fight breaks out between the two boys, and Tadzio is quickly bested; afterward, he angrily leaves his companion and wades over to Aschenbach's part of the beach, where he stands for a moment looking out to sea; then turns halfway around to look at his "lover". To Aschenbach, it is as if the boy is beckoning to him: he tries to rise and follow, only to collapse back into his chair.
His body is discovered a few minutes later. When news of his death becomes public, the world decorously mourns the passing of a great artist.
Review: The novella is constructed on a framework of references to Greek mythology, and Aschenbach's Venice seems populated by the gods. By dedicating himself to Apollo, the god of reason and the intellect, Aschenbach has denied the power of Dionysus, god of unreason and of passion. Dionysus seems to have followed Aschenbach to Venice with the intent of destroying him: the red-haired man who keeps crossing von Aschenbach's path, in the guise of different characters, is none other than Silenus, chief follower of the god of unreason. Silenus' role is disputed, since he bears no physical resemblance to the secondary characters in the book. The idea of the opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian seems to have been introduced by Nietzsche, and was also a popular motif of the time.
Opening Line: “On a spring afternoon in 19-, a year that had been glowering so ominously at one continent for months, Gustav Aschenbach, or von Aschenbach as he had been officially called since his fiftieth birthday, left his home on Prince Regents Street in Munich, in order to take a rather long walk by himself.”
Closing Line: “And that very same day, a respectfully shocked world received the news of his death”.
Quotes: “This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty - this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.”
Rating: Okay.

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