Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thomas Mann’s "Death in Venice"

Evidence of its being possibly the finest novella of the 20th century, Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice has inspired more than a few offshoots: the gorgeous, haunting Visconti movie (with music of Gustav Mahler), the Benjamin Britten opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2007 presentation of the ballet by John Neumeier, Robert Coover’s fantastical Pinocchio in Venice, most recently Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansari, plus various graphic novels and even murder mystery spin-offs.

Within the first few pages, you know you’re reading something special. Gustave von Aschenbach is a famous author, well into middle age, whose nerves are beginning to fray from overwork. On an afternoon walk near a cemetery in Munich, he encounters a stranger.

(Aschenbach) was brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico, above the two apocalyptic beasts that guarded the staircase, and something not quite usual in this man’s appearance gave his thoughts a fresh turn . . . . He was of medium height, thin, beardless, and strikingly snub-nosed; he belonged to the red-haired type and possessed its milky, freckled skin . . . and the broad, straight-brimmed hat he had on made him look distinctly exotic . . . . In his right hand, slantwise to the ground, he held an iron-shod stick, and braced himself against its crook, with his legs crossed. His chin was up. So that the Adam’s apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt: and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes, while two pronounced perpendicular furrows showed on his forehead in curious contrast to his little turned-up nose . . . . the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless, air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums.

Leaving his gaze a bit too long on the face of the stranger — an apparition of Death, or the Devil? — Aschenbach receives a hostile gaze in return. He blinks first and walks away, feeling strangely “a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes,” and this singular moment inspires Aschenbach soon to take a vacation to the perennially romantic city of Venice.

From the moment of his arrival there, he encounters images to warn him of what is to come — an old man, made up to look younger, trying pathetically to fit in with a group of young men, and another red-haired stranger, an unlicensed gondolier, who would steer him astray.

The fate he is being drawn into he encounters at his hotel, the famous Lido. He is immediately smitten by the young son of a Polish family, dressed in a sailor suit.

Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture — pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity. Yet with all this chaste perfection of form it was of such unique personal charm that the observer thought he had never seen, either in nature or art, anything so utterly happy and consummate.

The consummate artist has encountered the perfect beauty. Unfortunately, for the aging widower, the beauty is both too young, and male.

The boy’s name is Tadzio and Aschenbach quickly rationalizes his interest in the boy in aesthetic and artistic terms.

The damp Venice air is hardly conducive to Aschenbach’s health and he decides to leave for healthier climes. A mix-up with his luggage finds him back at his hotel, resigned to staying — another rationalization. What begins as an artistic appreciation of the boy has turned into an obsession.

The novel follows the artist’s emotional and physical disintegration, leading him to increasingly depraved behavior, and eventually to his death, in the claustral atmosphere of a growing cholera epidemic.

Death in Venice is as perfect as a lovely, sad and disturbing dream, with multiple layers of meaning that cause it to resonate in the mind long after you’ve finished reading it — a book to read and reread with ever-increasing reward.

Other recommended works: The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, Doctor Faustus, and the great short works, including Tonio Kruger, Mario and the Magician, Disorder and Early Sorrow, The Blood of the Walsungs, Tristan, and The Black Swan.

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