Friday, December 18, 2009

Death in Venice

Thomas Mann published Death in Venice just prior to the start of World War I. At 73 pages, the novella doesn't waste a word. It's infused with signs and symbols rooted in Freudian psychology and Greek mythology.

This story is about the artist and art and the balance (or imbalance) between intellect and passion.

It begins:
"Gustave Aschenbach -- or von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday -- had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk. It was a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19__, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months."

Aschenbach is a widower and highly respected literary figure from a conservative Prussian family. He places great value on hard work and concentration and considers the defeat of passion necessary to the creation of art. He values dignity. While on his walk he has a strange encounter with a disturbing, red haired man and almost immediately decides he'd like to take a trip. He tells himself that a change would be good for his work.

In the first of several dream sequences that occur throughout the story, Aschenbach fantasizes about a tropical marshland, the decaying, primeval, steaming landscape clearly representing suppressed passion and desire. He wakes and reverts to his normal cautious, dignified restraint and takes two weeks to carefully plan his trip.

He leaves the cold, intellectual, restrained northern European environment and travels south to Venice where the climate fosters unrestrained passion and decadence.

Soon after he checks into his hotel on the beach, he sees a fourteen year old Polish boy who is vacationing with his sisters, mother and a governess. Aschenbach finds Tadzio beautiful. At first he believes (or wants to believe) that his attraction to Tadzio is purely aesthetic. He's on holiday to write and arranges to work on the beach where he's also able to watch Tadzio all day long.

A strange antiseptic smell begins to pervade the city. To avoid alarming the tourists, the Venetians are keeping the reason quiet and claim it's merely a precaution. The German language newspapers provide no clues as to what's happening. The tourists are warned to avoid shellfish and fresh fruits and vegetables and as the days pass, vacationers begin to leave and there are fewer people on the streets.

Aschenbach makes plans to move on, but when he finds that his baggage has been misdirected to the wrong city he's ecstatic at the thought that he'll have to stay while it's retrieved. This is his point of no return. Aschenbach's admiration for Tadzio evolves to undeniable desire and lust. Aschenbach can no longer concentrate to work and becomes obsessed with the boy, planning his days to follow Tadzio and watch him from a distance.

Soon the smell of death is everywhere and a local finally reveals there's a cholera outbreak. Aschenbach no longer cares about the death and disease in Venice and fantasizes that perhaps everyone will die and leave him to spend time alone with Tadzio. His dreams are now filled with unbridled lust.

Aschenbach physically deteriorates. The hotel is nearly empty and he discovers that the Polish family is departing. He goes to the beach to watch Tadzio for the last time. The blond, pale Tadzio is roughhousing with an older, dark haired boy and the larger boy humiliates Tadzio, leaving him with his face in the sand.

Aschenbach watches from a beach chair as Tadzio walks toward the water alone in his shame. The boy turns around and looks to Aschenbach who sees, or believes he sees the boy beckoning to him. Several minutes later, Aschenbach is discovered dead of cholera in his chair.

I read Gravity's Rainbow several months after reading this and there were elements that were similar. Both books represent the north as elite and cerebral and the south as base and carnal. Both books draw heavily on mythology and dreams. Death in Venice is actually a great primer on the modernist style and certainly a great example of exercising economy with words.

That Mann chose to center Aschenbach's obsessions around pedophilia and homoerotic elements leaves me with questions. Mann was married and had six children, but it's believed that he was a homosexual. There was also an actual Tadzio that Mann and his wife saw while on a seaside vacation, although the real Tadzio was only eleven at the time. Were these factors part of the story because Mann was illustrating Aschenbach's extreme reaction to complete suppression of his libidinous nature?

If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Next up: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon


Gooch said...


PM said...

Such a great review. Have you read the Tempest? Similar tone, similar... feeling.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf