‘nothing less than a seizure’: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

From hot books at Adelaide Writers’ Week – to illicit passion in Venice.

53064Death in Venice is a highly stylised, richly suggestive story of the last days of Gustav Aschenbach, a feted writer uncharacteristically overwhelmed, at the age of 53, by the urge to travel. ‘It was simply a desire to travel, but it had presented itself as nothing less than a seizure, with intensely passionate and indeed hallucinatory force, turning his craving into vision.’

The vision Aschenbach sees, of tangled tropical undergrowth, fills him with terror and mysterious longing. Haunted by his inner impulse, he travels to an island in the Adriatic where, as if by revelation, his fated destination becomes apparent to him: he must travel to Venice, that incomparable city, that ‘fantastic mutation of normal reality’.

Unerringly Thomas Mann recounts the one last blazing upsurge of passion in his artist hero, unfurling the subtle blossoming of his desire as he falls madly in love with a young boy. Aschenbach’s life has been one of ‘cold, inflexible, passionate duty’. Intent on fame, for the sake of his talent, Aschenbach has ‘curbed and cooled his feelings’ – and his discipline and forbearance have been rewarded with accolades and universal admiration. He has fascinated 20-year-old readers with his ‘breath-taking cynicisms about the nature of art and the artist himself’; his prose is read by children in prescribed school readers. But in Venice the foundations of his lofty career begin to falter as he finds a world increasingly ‘deranged and bizarre’.

On first beholding the young boy in his hotel on the Lido, Aschenbach notices with astonishment that he is ‘entirely beautiful’. The boy, Tadzio, appears god-like. With curls of dark gold, he is Eros, a ‘divine sculptural shape’ with the ‘creamy lustre of Parian marble’. As Aschenbach’s response to Tadzio transmutes from one of ‘cool professional approval’ to utterly abandoned longing, Mann’s Christian metaphors – Aschenbach’s passive suffering is St Sebastian‘s – are usurped by those of classical Greece; his rhythms become hymnic and his prose explodes into a paean to physical beauty. Aschenbach discovers that it is passion that exalts artists, that ‘the longing of our soul must remain the longing of a lover – that is our joy and our shame …’ Dirk-Bogarde-in-Death-in--006 In essence, Death in Venice is a supremely modulated outpouring of suppressed homoerotic desire – both Aschenbach’s and Mann’s own. For as Mann later wrote of Death in Venice: ‘Nothing is invented.’ Although Mann married in 1905, the most intense relationship of his life was with the painter and violinist Paul Ehrenberg, which lasted from their meeting in 1899 until around 1903.

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann

In May 1911 Thomas Mann travelled from Munich with his wife and brother Heinrich to the Adriatic island of Pola. From there they journeyed by boat to Venice to vacation on the glamorous resort island of the Lido. Here, like Aschenbach, for a fleeting moment Mann became enchanted by a beautiful young Polish boy holidaying with his mother and three sisters. But Mann was in his prime, almost 20 years younger than the fictional Aschenbach, and was not facing an irrevocable creative and physical decline.

Following his Venetian holiday, Mann returned to an idea he’d had for a story based on Goethe’s infatuation at 74 with a young 17-year-old girl while holidaying in 1823. Between July 1911 and July 1912 Mann worked on the story, transposing the theme of an ageing man’s passion for a girl to his passion for a boy. He later described the force behind Death in Venice as:

‘Passion that drives to distraction and destroys dignity – that was really the subject matter of my tale.’

First published in two instalments in October and November 1912, the book edition of Death in Venice appeared in 1913 and the first printing of 8000 sold out in a month.

The novel opens on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon in ‘the year in which for months on end so grave a threat seemed to hang over the peace of Europe’. Two years after Mann completed Death in Venice, the First World War erupted. In an uncanny way, the novel explores the role of the artist in an age apparently intent on its own destruction. Aschenbach’s fate is aligned with the fate of Europe; both are destined to be overwhelmed by chaos. For Aschenbach’s work has struck a chord with the public – and what is his work but ‘elegant self-control’ concealing ‘a state of inner disintegration and biological decay’, like European civilisation itself. As the narrator observes:

‘For a significant intellectual product to make a broad and deep immediate appeal, there must be a hidden affinity, indeed a congruence, between the personal destiny of the author and the wider destiny of his generation.’

Reflecting this, Mann later described his pre-First World War self as someone who recorded and analysed decadence, a lover of beauty obsessed with the pathological, darkness and death.

Born in 1875 in Lubeck, Germany, Mann, like Aschenbach, had an exotic mother and a successful, upright father. His mother, the beautiful and musically gifted Julia da Silva Bruhns, was born in Brazil to a Portuguese Creole mother and a German planter father. Aged 18, she married consul Heinrich Mann, a successful businessman. Under the influence of his mother, who played Chopin on the piano, Mann grew up loving music, above all Wagner, who profoundly influenced his writing. As a boy, he produced his own operas in a puppet theatre. Echoing his own artistic provenance, Mann writes of Aschenbach:

‘It was from this marriage between hard-working, sober conscientiousness and darker, more fiery impulses that an artist, and indeed this particular kind of artist, had come into being.’

Thomas and Katia Mann and children

Thomas and Katia Mann and two of their six children

Mann found extraordinary and immediate success with his first novel, The Buddenbrooks, published in 1901. In 1905 he married Katia Pringsheim, and together they had six children. In 1933 they were in Switzerland when Hitler became chancellor, and their children warned them not to return to Germany. They remained in Switzerland until 1938, when they moved to the United States. Mann became an American citizen in 1944 but returned to Switzerland in 1952, where he died three years later. Mann is considered by many to have been the greatest German writer of the 20th century and in 1929 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The identity of the boy who had fascinated Mann on the Lido was revealed in 1964 as Wladyslaw, Baron Moes, whose real-life friend – the fictional Jasiu – visited the set of Luchino Visconti’s celluloid adaptation of Death in Venice (1971). Visconti’s sumptuous film starred Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach and Bjorn Andresen as Tadzio.

The great English composer Benjamin Britten devoted his last years to an opera based on Death in Venice, which had its London premiere in Covent Garden in October 1973.

Visconti's Death in Venice

Visconti’s Death in Venice

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