on May 29, 2005
Death in Venice (1912) is a disturbing story, one that is not easy to forget. It is also exceptional literature, a classic of the twentieth century. Thomas Mann's Death in Venice might be best compared to the subtle, psychologically complex fiction of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
In Munich the aging, highly respected author Gustav Aschenbach is in need of change, rest in a new setting, to overcome his growing fatigue that is impacting his writing. While recovering in Venice, Aschenbach slowly, but inexorably, becomes mesmerized by a young Polish boy staying at the seashore with his aristocratic family. Aschenbach is intellectually aware of his growing obsession, but he is seemingly unable to break away. Thomas Mann's somber portrayal of this troubled man is a masterpiece of subtle nuances and psychological intensity.
Thomas Mann's lengthy sentences and complex grammatical structures severely complicate the task of translating Death in Venice. I have read two excellent and yet substantially different translations. The most faithful translation is by Stanley Appelbaum (in this Dover edition, 1995) that tries to be as literal as possible, carefully preserving the comparative length of the original sentences as well as the internal sequence of each original German sentence. Contrastingly, the H. T. Lowe-Porter translation (found elsewhere) is less literal, but is considered the most delightful and readable version, although at the expense of subdividing many of Mann's lengthy sentences. Lowe-Porter's version has been the standard translation for many years.
The Dover edition provides an excellent 10-page commentary, including footnotes.
on April 25, 2000
I can't imagine how difficult it must be to translate a writer so steeped in his original language as is Thomas Mann. "Death in Venice" and the other stories in this collection are great period - no matter what the language, the ideas and characters stand on their own. What makes this translation so much better is the attention Neugroschel gives to giving us prose that is as good as Mann's original German - this writing is simply beautiful; evocative of the period in which it was originally written without sounding like a joke or a bad imitation of turn of the century fiction. (It's no Henry James satire). Neugroschel has won the PEN/Faulkner award three times for his translations and it's easy to see why. Read his introduction where he talks about Mann's ability to "both evoke and to distance" and how he [Neugroschel] set about translating this feeling into English. This is truly the very best that a translation can be.
on August 13, 2003
I don't think that Death in Venice operates on the premise that a "life of sensation" is worthwhile, whatever the cost. Mann's story is a complication of the traditional morality tale, and Aschenbach's demise is not a result of his giving in to the pursuit of beauty and visceral experience, but of his previous, total rejection of this kind of surrender. Aschenbach, we are told, lives like a "closed fist," and for this reason is completely unequipped to deal with the combined experience of visiting an unfamiliar and sinister place, and of encountering a boy who provokes a strong physical and emotional response (on a sidenote, occasionally I hear someone label this as a homophobic text, but they are entirely missing the point, I think. As in Henry James's Daisy Miller, Death in Venice, on one level, illustrates the way that forces outside of sex can make sex, or the desire for sex, fatal. It has nothing to do with the act, or desire, itself). It is Aschenbach's perpetual need to take the proverbial "high road" that makes his foray into the world of the sensual so disastrous.
The story is brilliant. Not only does Mann address wonderful themes like the nature of art, artistic impulse, desire, repression, and Orientalism, even, but the writing and narrative trajectory are flawless.
on July 13, 2000
Death in Venice is the first serious study of homoerotic love in the modern novel although many precedents do exist: the ambiguous sonnets of Michelangelo or Shakespeare, Marlowe's tortured Edward II, the androgynous aesthetics of Winckelmann, the lyrical allegories of Rimbaud and the dark insinuations of Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde or Wilde's Dorian Gray. E.M. Forester's posthumously published Maurice is exactly contemporary with Death in Venice.
Death in Venice tells the story of Gustave von Aschenbach, a writer living in Munich. One May afternoon, while strolling through that city's famed English Gardens, von Aschenbach encounters the Wandervogel (hiker); an apparition of an angular, hawklike man, who returns von Aschenbach's gaze before disappearing.
A true ascetic, von Aschenbach has never known the sweet idleness and freedom of youth, but after viewing the Wandervogel he is seized by the desire to travel and leave his labors behind. Finally obeying the urges of his long-repressed, primeval, exotic side, von Aschenbach sets out for Trieste, however after only ten days he decides he dislikes that city and take a boat to Venice instead.
While making the short trip. von Aschenbach encounters yet another apparition--that of an old man, who, through the artifice of makeup and a wig, has attempted to make himself appear young again--to no avail. Disgusted, von Aschenbach promptly hires a gondolier and checks into his hotel on the Lido.
Later that evening, von Aschenbach's attention is hypnotically drawn to a Polish boy of fourteen who is dining at the next table with his family. Pale, with long hair and chiseled features and full of the exuberant charm and sweetness of youth, von Aschenbach silently acknowledges the fact that he has never witnessed anyone or anything, in nature or in art, that exhibits the perfection of this Polish youth. Although as yet unaware of its significance, this is the moment that seals von Aschenbach's fate.
The next morning, after experiencing revulsion at the sight and smell of the city's lagoons, von Aschenbach decides to leave Venice, but a mixup with his luggage compels him to remain. When he once again encounters the Polish youth, whose name he has learned is Tadzio, he comes to a partial realization of his heretofore subconscious desires and gives himself over to contemplation of "every line and pose" of Tadzio's exquisite form.
Though aware that an outbreak of cholera in Venice is being suppressed and concerned with a series of premonitions (reminiscent of the Wandervogel in the English Gardens) von Aschenbach chooses not to flee and even seeks to win Tadzio's attention by making himself up to appear younger than his true age, a sight which, only a short time ago, he had found revolting.
The days pass in a dreamlike state for von Aschenbach, caught in the trap of Tadzio's youth and beauty. When Tadzio catches von Aschenbach staring at him, he returns the stare with a smile. Tormented, as well as exhilarated, von Aschenbach flees into the shadows of the park where he utters what he has known all along, "I love you."
von Aschenbach's confession of love for Tadzio brings about the tragic climax of Death in Venice. The once dignified and distinguished von Aschenbach has allowed his passion for Tadzio to engulf him, pulling him into the vortex of a whirlpool of sensuality that can only lead to death and destruction.
Mann, himself, described the theme of Death in Venice as that most Wagernerian of ideas, the Liebestod (love-death), or fascination with death. Everything about this book has been crafted to illustrate the triumph of despair over discipline, destruction over restoration.
The complex, figurative prose of Death in Venice is different from everything else written by Mann. Even in translation, the contrast is instantly apparent between Death in Venice's elevated and elegiac tone and the more conversational idiom of A Man and His Dog, Disorder and Early Sorrow or even the more serious Mario and the Magician.
Mann wisely chose to write Death in Venice in rich, almost over-elaborate images. While this could (and should) be denounced as artifice when employed by an author of lesser talent, Mann knew that elaboration was necessary if we were to believe a man of dignity and ethics, such as von Aschenbach, falling in love with Tadzio. In describing Tadzio, Mann writes: "His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture--pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-colored ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity."
Death in Venice is a highly symbolic novella, with the symbolism centered around death. While some of it is readily apparent, much is more elusive. The Wandervogel encountered by von Aschenbach in the opening is only the first of many portents of death. Even Mann's description of the Wandervogel is evocative of a skeleton or a ghoul: "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 colorless red-lashed eyes...At any rate, standing there as though at survey, 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."
Once the story moves to Venice, Mann introduces other images of death in the form of the gondolas and discerning readers will quickly realize that the gondolier, the "despotic boatman," embodies Charon, ferryman of the Styx in Hades.
By the book's climax, Tadzio, essentially a two-dimensional character, takes on the characteristics of Hermes, who, with his smile, which becomes the kiss of death, summons von Aschenbach to his ultimate destruction.
Much in Death in Venice reflects Mann's own life, although the work is by no means autobiographical. Nevertheless, much in von Aschenbach can be found in Mann. von Aschenbach, though is an extreme example of the imperfections Mann did battle with during his own lifetime. If we only look closely, we can see that von Aschenbach is a symbol of the frailties and fallacies that plague us all.
An obsessive, unfulfilled passion is at the heart of Thomas Mann's classic 1912 novella, and Michael Henry Heim's 2003 translation liberates the homoerotic elements of Mann's sometimes dense prose to make the main character more accessible to contemporary readers. Heim succeeds in bringing the story out of the academic cobwebs. The plot is light on action, as it focuses squarely on middle-aged Prussian novelist Gustav von Aschenbach as he pursues his passion for Tadzio, a young Polish boy on vacation with his family in Venice. Past his peak as a successful writer and facing his fast-approaching mortality, von Aschenbach sees Tadzio as a symbol of his own faded youth and of attractions that were never made reality in his fifty-plus years. The writer is in the middle of a book about Frederick the Great when he arrives in the sweltering heat of Venice where there is an Asiatic cholera breakout.
Although the more literal interpretation of von Aschenbach's constant pursuit can be seen as wanton lust, the real undercurrent that Mann provides is the writer's self-validation as an artist. Toward that end, Mann has his protagonist look at Tadzio as an object of irreproachable beauty, something that fulfills his need to get reacquainted with his artistic integrity. Heim's translation allows the story to get past the titillation factor into what comes across almost like a ghost story given that von Aschenbach never touches or even speaks to Tadzio. There is a sense that something transcendent will occur toward the end, but it becomes a race against time to see if von Aschenbach's fever dream becomes tangible. Mann's struggles with his own sexuality are palpable on these pages, but so is his emotional distance from the character's passions. It's this concurrent dichotomy in perspective that makes this book a classic and not something to be relegated simply to the gay fiction shelves at the bookstore. Novelist Michael Cunningham ("The Hours", "Specimen Days") wrote the introduction to the 2003 Heim edition.
on April 13, 2004
An awesome book that reveals the Dionysus which lives in all of us. One can read about the controlled organized and stable self verses the chaotic center, but it is a story as this that artistically conveys the idea in subjective terms. An older, well respected man in his 50's, one of reputable character, in that of an intellectual and artist, a man who lives and represents the Apollonian man of stability and chiseled living succumbs to his inner chaotic self. It's not that Aschenbach was a fraud or false, yet in a sense he was, as all of us are, whether we are willing to admit it to ourselves or not. Then there are many of us who have ceased to experience our Dionysus since many years, however it lives dormant in us as a part of our true selves.
An so this respectable, reliable, stable man falls in love with an image or eros, that of a 14 year old boy staying at the same hotel as his. He never speaks to the boy, nor has any direct contact other than a handful of eye contact glances that seem to acknowledge each other and his loving adoration for his object of beauty. And that is it: the beauty of this boy was the highest of expression of the intellectual, the eros. His beauty, grace and movement took over Aschenbach's logic of the Apollonian side, exposing his internal turmoil to the point that he followed the boy and his family just to watch and dream, to feel the feelings that come from internal chaos and adulation.
The story itself has much meaning, the writing style is prose and lives as a classic. Amazing how such was written at the time of such repression, but despite all perceived advancements in human tolerance and understanding, there exists little difference today in those of repressive Apollonian character and those of the extreme contrast in Dionysus living.
It seems like a simple story. But yet it is heavily symbolic and its many translations from the original German have been analyzed by literature buffs since it was first published in 1912. The main character is Gustav von Aschenbach, an esteemed writer in his fifties with his own particular world view. The book is deep with meaning and symbolism. And every sentence which is written in beautiful prose has been analyzed and reanalyzed by scholars for almost a century.
Gustav von Ashenbach takes a trip to Venice. Here, he is attracted to a young boy. Most of this short book consists of his thoughts about this boy. He never speaks to this boy but he follows him whenever he can and lusts for him, seeing him as an innocent thing of beauty. His passion takes over and he becomes quite ridiculous as he tries to make himself look younger. In the meantime, Venice is undergoing some sort of plague which the authorities try to hide from the people although rumors are flying. Gustav has a chance to warn the other guests in the hotel, including the boy's family, but his own inner thoughts seem to prevent him from speaking to them at all.
The writing is beautiful and layered with the meaning of this one man's pursuit of beauty at the end of his life. It is all played out in elaborate early 19th century language and the author sure does know how to use his words. The reader gets to see his dreams, his hesitancy and his complicated thought process and I felt pure pleasure just letting my eyes move across the page and soak up the atmosphere the author created. Clearly, this is a work of art and has stood the test of time.
on June 18, 1999
Death in Venice is one of the most moving works of fiction I have ever read in my life, and it is also a story that I never tire of reading. There is a haunting, dream-like quality to the tale itself, reinforced by the almost hypnotic prose brilliantly deployed by Thomas Mann. On the surface, it would seem to be a sordid story about a middle-aged man's tragic infatuation for a young boy, whilst on holiday in Venice. On reading it however, it becomes clear that it is not a story about homosexuality as such, but rather a profound consideration of the transcendent nature of beauty perceived by the senses. Yes, Gustav Von Ascherbach presents a tragic figure, chasing the object of his affections all over Venice. And, yes this infatuation also leads to his eventual doom. But, paradoxically, this new-found passion leads to his spiritual rebirth, as he realizes how beauty not only gives meaning to his art, but also to his own life. His love for Tadzio is a pure love. Through Tadzio he is being reconciled with himself, and his own sensual nature, after a lifetime of restraint and relentless self-discipline. So,for me, the underlying theme of this magnificent story is that "love really does conquer all" Please read it- you will be hooked for life!
on June 15, 1998
Thomas Mann was inspired to write Death in Venice after seeing the composer Gustav Mahler break down in tears on the train departing Venice. Mann, like James Joyce, had the rare ability to create a character of deep psychological subtlety whose thoughts and experiences transcend the superficial and the immediate, but become part of a deep and lasting identity with the spiritual and the everlasting. The beautiful city of Venice will be forever identified with Gustav van Aschenbach just as Dublin will always belong to Leopold Bloom. The beauty of this book is hard to express in words - it is word perfect! I suggest that anyone who has not read it has missed out on a deep and joyful experience. It is one of our departing millennium's greatest works of fiction. The brilliant Italian director Visconti (on a par with Fellini, in my opinion) made a film worthy of the book in 1970. When Dirk Bogarde (von Aschenbach asked him about a script, Visconti told him the book was the script- and to read it over and over again. At the commencement of filming he asked the actor how many times he had read it. Bogarde said "about 30 times". Visconti replied that he should read it another 30! The film is brilliantly decadent and melancholic, and captures the essence of the book to the Nth degree. (It was made on a shoestring budget, with the leading actress not being paid and Bogarde working for peanuts. As a work of art it towers over the profligate Titanic). Anyone visiting Venice should read this masterly work and view the film beforehand. Then I would recommend a visit to the Venice Lido (a ferry ride across the lagoon from St Mark's Square) and visit Hotel des Bains. Then walk the beach, Mann's novella in hand, and take a sample of Aschenbach's sand home with you. Then keep reading Death in Venice in honour of Mann and Visconti. What a joy!
on March 30, 2001
Most of what I would say is well covered in other reviews. I strongly agree with many others that "Death in Venice" is a profound work about art and beauty and love (among other things) and one of the best novels of the twentieth century. So I will keep my review short and just mention a couple of things that particularly impress me about "Death in Venice."
First, I find the drunken old man in the boat to be a particularly huge stroke of genius. The old man jokes around with a group of young men, and Aschenbach wonders how the young men can possibly tolerate him. At first I could not understand why Mann would go into such detail about this situation and Aschenbach's shocked reaction to it. Until, that is, I got to the end and saw how it underlines the completeness of Aschenbach's transformation: he has turned into just what he despised.
Also, Mann's use of the cholera epidemic is devastating: not only will Aschenbach risk his own life to keep alive the hope that his desire might be satisfied, but he is willing to keep his knowledge to himself and thereby risk his young love's life as well. As Mann describes, people with unspeakable desires secretly hope for chaos in the midst of which anything might become permissible. Rarely, maybe never, have I seen such a unique and profound insight illustrated so perfectly.
The beginning of the novel is somewhat tough reading, especially the very theoretical description of Aschenbach's career. But it is well worth working through. The book is as perfectly structured as a novel can be, and everything at the beginning has something that counterbalances it at the end. There are few novels that I would recommend more highly than "Death in Venice."