by Thomas Mann
‘Cases of recovery were rare; eighty out of a hundred of those infected died, and in a horrid way, for the disease struck with savagery and often presented itself as the most severe “dry form”.’
Usually regarded by scholars and critics as a novella, Death in Venice has the characteristics of a long short story. It features one central character, and we view all the others from his perspective.
Gustav von Aschenbach – the ‘von‘ is a recent ennoblement for his services to literature – is unwell and takes a sabbatical from his writing. Traveling first to what is now Croatia, he eventually settles on a holiday in Venice and books an hotel on the Lido island. He is not long there when he sees and falls in love with a fourteen-year-old Polish boy, Tadzio, holidaying with his mother and sisters.
‘Aschenbach noticed with amazement that the boy was utterly beautiful …. reminiscent of a Greek statue from the noblest era, and with all its perfection of form ….’
That Aschenbach’s love is sexual as well as spiritual and artistic is made quite clear in the narrative. Descriptions of Tadzio’s features and dress seem designed to titillate and they create an uncomfortable feeling in the mind of the modern reader. In 21st century terms, we might well consider Aschenbach a paedophile and experience disgust at his weakness. He wants to communicate – to speak, to touch – though, to be fair, he does neither of those things. In one episode, he gets a smile from the boy but otherwise he just follows the family around. Realising how old and grey he looks to the outside world, he goes to a cosmetic artist for a makeover in an effort to make himself more attractive.
‘Who hasn’t fought a passing shiver, a secret timidity or anxiety when …. climbing into a Venetian gondola for the first time.’
The fine weather, the busy beaches and the festive holiday atmosphere prove deceptive. Venice hides a deadly secret which the authorities for commercial motives seek to play down. When Aschenbach goes from the Lido into the city, he sees warning notices everywhere and the ‘hospital smell’ of disinfectant wafts through the lanes and alleyways. No one wants to talk about it but when Ashenbach persists, he discovers that an epidemic of cholera has reached Venice from the orient and that people are already dying from it.
He returns to the island. The resort seems emptier than before. The final scene is played out on the private beach of the hotel. Watching Tadzio at play from his deck chair, Aschenbach succumbs to the epidemic and dies alone.
So, what kind of story is Death in Venice? It was published in 1912, ten years after Buddenbrooks and seventeen before Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Probably the best known of his short works, Death in Venice is a daring novella for its time. A whole library of essays and commentaries have been written in an effort to find historical and artistic parallels and, so it seems to me, to seek ways of softening the explicit sexual nature of the story.
I’m not at all sure that one can do that. The narrative moves through colourful descriptions of the Venetian scene to moments of deep introspection by the central character, from rather obscure classical allusions to haunting nightmares. However, always at the core is that obsession of an elderly man for a beautiful youth. The sort of ‘love’ portrayed here would not be out of place in the Greece of Socrates and Plato **, but in the modern world it has a disturbing feel.
Death in Venice is a work I always intended to read but until now never managed to do so. Some time ago, I bought a book of the shorter Thomas Mann stories in the German language, with the promise to myself that I WOULD read it in the original. I was told by a German friend that I was probably just a shade short of crazy (or words to that effect). She pointed out to me that Thomas Mann’s writing can be ‘schwer’ (difficult) even for a native speaker.
After a few false starts, I managed to make some progress, only to find that my friend was right. In despair, I acquired an English translation with the idea of reading the two side by side. The problem was that some of the sentences of Death in Venice are almost equally incomprehensible when rendered into English. The translation itself was bad – which doesn’t help, the translator never quite getting to grips with German adjectival nouns and omitting phrases (it seemed) when it suited him.
To quote from a classic translation of Buddenbrooks by HT Lowe-Porter (1924)
‘…It was necessary to recognise that the difficulties were great. Yet it was necessary to set oneself the bold task of transferring the spirit first and the letter so far as it might …’
This was a goal which I felt the translator of my Death in Venice didn’t quite manage to achieve.
This is an important work of German literature by an author with an international reputation. If your language skills are up to it, read the German version. Otherwise, make sure you read an authoritative translation with annotations.
[** If you doubt me, read Plato’s Symposium.]