Book review

Death in Venice (1912). Thomas Mann

Death in Venice records the struggle between discipline and leisure, respectability and abandon in the person of aging writer Gustav Aschenbach. This quasi-autobiographical novella captures the conflict between social mores and primal desire; between the love drive and the death drive.

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The first Mann novel I read, many years ago, was Confessions of Felix Krull. I relished this portrait of a charming trickster in the big city, making his living by his wits and sex appeal; Confessions is a fleet-footed study of its amoral protagonist. Death in Venice is a very different novel: introspective, philosophical, and intertextual. The 2010 translation by Martin C. Doege is ponderous and dense, almost unreadable in parts: aiming, apparently, to defy the constraints of the English language by transliterating endlessly long and involved sentences. This translation is heavy going. But the story at the heart of Venice is a poignant exploration of unrequited Uranian love; the autobiographical germ that the novella is now known to have renders Death a valuable document for students of Mann’s life and work.

Gustav von Aschenbach is a middle-aged writer who has accumulated fame and money, and recently the knighthood that’s given him his ‘von.’ He’s a bachelor, a solitary character with a disciplined life and a sensitive temperament: he needs a nap after his morning literary efforts (as Mann himself did). His enthusiasm for work is flagging; he embarks on a trip and ends up in Venice. At the storied Grand Hotel des Bains, he settles down for a mostly sedentary vacation of indeterminate length. (Don’t expect travel-writing.) There he encounters Tadzio, an adolescent Polish aristocrat holidaying with his family. Aschenbach becomes fascinated by this beautiful boy, and spends all his days watching him; but he never speaks to him, and, except on one or two occasions, never wants to. His is a self-absorbed love, a spectator’s love. In the background, never explicit, lurk the twin risks – legal and reputational – of an affair with a minor, and a homosexual affair. There’s a cholera epidemic which the local authorities, anxious to protect Venice’s tourist industry, conceal; Tadzio is a delicate boy; until the last page Mann holds the reader in suspense about whose death we’re going to witness.

Doege’s translation is syrupy and opaque. Here’s a sample sentence: “A scattering of roses commenced at the bounds of the world, an unspeakably charming blossoming, infant clouds, blurry & translucent, were hovering like amoretti in the air in rosy-bluish scent, purple fell onto the sea which seemed to wash it ashore in undulations, golden spears came flying into the lofty sky, the brilliance became a burning, silently, with divine force the fervent flames ascended and with flying hoofs the brother’s horse moved above earth’s circle.” Yes: this is all one sentence. This may be readable and interesting in German; in English, it’s not. Having read Felix Krull and now Buddenbrooks – and admired the lucid style of both books – I’m inclined to lay responsibility for this baroquerie at the translator’s feet.

Aschenbach is at first uplifted by his forbidden and secret love. Though on holiday to remedy lassitude, he writes a new piece, of which Mann bitingly remarks: “It is probably better that the world know only the result, not the conditions under which it was achieved; because knowledge of the artist’s sources of inspiration might bewilder them, drive them away, and in that way nullify the effect of the excellent work.” (A striking aside – given that we now know that Death In Venice is quasi-autobiographical.) Aschenbach also indulges in extensive philosophising that reads like pathetic attempts to legitimate his passion: which, to a modern reader – a passion for a minor which the older man has no intention of consummating – doesn’t need legitimating. Aschenbach casts himself as Socrates, a creator inspired by his love for beautiful young men (never concealed in the Platonic dialogues); alternatively, Aschenbach enjoys the tug-of-war between an austere Apollonic existence and a wild Dionysiac abandon. Love, and perhaps also confrontation with his sexual identity, has come for the first time in his life to a man in his fifties, a man who’s built his career on discipline and respectability. Mann excels at one of the writer’s harder tasks: showing sentiment without sentimentality.

It’s touching to watch Aschenbach watching Tadzio at the beach all day, chasing him through Venice poorly disguised, and even undergoing a grotesque makeover: which transforms him into a duplicate of a minor character who horrified him. Aschenbach is a highly repressed man; his midlife crisis, therefore, occurs largely in his own mind. All his success has left him cold and lonely; still – even when Tadzio shows clear signs of reciprocal interest – he can’t bring himself even to talk to his beloved. He prefers to savour, and then wallow in, his beloved merely as a trigger for his own exalted artistic emotions and conceptions. For him, love remains a trigger for art; a delusion with which to defy his own mortality. The triadic relationship in Venice between art, love, and death contrasts gloomily, but fruitfully, with Shakespeare’s version.

What keeps Aschenbach from pursuing the happiness he has glimpsed? In the end, only the creator’s magnificent egoism. A creator must control his own everyday reality, write his own narratives; to admit “the fly in the ointment” would deprive him of his own power. In a pitiable attempt to regain some measure of agency, Aschenbach withholds his knowledge of the ongoing epidemic. Eros easily transitions to Thanatos, love to death.

Death in Venice is a poignant exploration of the midlife crisis of a sexually repressed artist. I’d only recommend a different translation.

Read Death in Venice for free here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier, my reading more critical, my library more accessible. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing bookshelves, and save money too. Switch to soft copy today.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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