Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Book Review - Classics - Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
Note: This review contains information that some readers may consider plot spoilers. Because the book is ninety-two years old, and a masterpiece of the Western canon, I felt most readers would be familiar with the story even if they hadn’t read the book, but to those who aren’t, and don’t want to know any plot details, it might be best to exit stage left now, i.e., skip this review.
Though on its surface, Death in Venice seems to be a fairly straightforward story of homoeroticism, it’s actually a dense, richly layered tale of repression, obsession, and decadence. Thomas Mann rarely, if ever, wrote anything that was straightforward. Yes, Death in Venice is, most certainly, a story of homoerotic obsession, but like a series of nested Russian dolls, just when you discover one aspect of the story, you realize there is another...and another...and another. In fact, Death in Venice is so rich and multi-faceted, so highly symbolic and polarized, that the definitive word regarding its many interpretations will, no doubt, never be written.
The character around whom Death in Venice revolves is Gustave von Aschenbach, a fussy, repressed, aging German writer who is possessed of a high degree of Apollonian discipline, bourgeois respectability, and dignified solemnity.
One fine day in May, von Aschenbach, who is a highly complex and complicated man, sets out from his home in Munich, overtired and overwrought, for a stroll in that city’s famed English Gardens. As he crosses a cemetery at sunset on his way back home, he encounters an apparition that is “baring his long, white teeth to the gums,” an apparition so horrifying it sends von Aschenbach into paroxysms of terror and hallucinations of “a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky—sultry, luxuriant, and monstrous” that is filled with “beds of thick, swollen, and bizarrely burgeoning flora.”
Recovering, von Aschenbach quickly retreats from the specter’s gaze with the desire to travel…to Venice, of course. Although highly touted as a city of beauty and romance, Venice is also, to those who know it well, a dank and sinister place, its calli and rii filled to overflowing with darkness and decay. Von Aschenbach’s hallucination could well have been a description of Venice, herself.
Nevertheless, von Aschenbach journeys, not without some difficulty, to the Lido, Venice’s famed beach island, where he takes up residence in the luxurious Hotel des Bains (still operating today, and yes, Mann, himself, did spend time there in 1911, but in the company of his wife and brother).
Von Aschenbach believes that he’s been successful in trading chilly, northern decorum for the sunnier Dionysian hedonism of the south. What von Aschenbach doesn’t realize, of course, is that Venice isn’t Capri or Sanremo or Viareggio. The Adriatic is far less welcoming than the Mediterranean, and von Aschenbach has journeyed, not to a life-affirming, sun-washed landscape of health and restoration, but to a Stygian underbelly of disease and death. Though it doesn’t rain, the sun rarely really shines, and Venice proves to be oppressive, almost suffocating, and the shallow, stagnant canals stink with an ever-growing cholera epidemic of which the public is largely unaware.
Soon after his arrival in Venice, as von Aschenbach is taking tea on the terrace of his hotel, he finds his attention drawn to three girls and a boy sitting at the table next to him. It’s the boy, Tadzio, a young Polish youth of fourteen, who captures von Aschenbach’s attention, for Tadzio’s beauty is arresting. Stunning, pale, and translucent, Tadzio is almost lifeless in his resemblance to classical Greek statuary. Tadzio appeals to von Aschenbach’s highly developed aesthetic desires, but even though the older man and the young boy never exchange a word, let alone a touch, it isn’t long before von Aschenbach’s aesthetic desires give way to those of a definitely more erotic nature. As Venice falls victim to cholera, von Aschenbach falls victim to obsession, and the fate of both city and man are sealed.
There has been so much discussion through the years regarding the “real” meaning of Death in Venice. Is it a rather uncomplicated story of erotic obsession, or is it, as Mann, himself said, a story about “the artist’s dignity?” Was von Aschenbach in love with Tadzio or simply the “idea” of Tadzio? Can the story even be taken literally? Did von Aschenbach really travel to Venice and become obsessed with Tadzio or was the entire episode, subsequent to von Aschenbach’s hallucination in the cemetery, simply a product of his fevered and overwrought imagination, an imagination that had been pushed so deeply into subconsciousness as to cause grave emotional illness? There have been very erudite and convincing arguments for and against all of the above and more. I have my own opinion, which I’m not going to offer here, but I will say that Death in Venice is one of the most densely layered narratives anyone can ever hope to find. I think it’s to Mann’s credit that each reader of this novella will no doubt come away from it with a more or less different interpretation.
Mann’s writing style is truly unique. He’s detailed, yet oblique. He’s moody and atmospheric. He never tells us anything directly, preferring instead to only hint at what’s going on, making his reader work doubly hard to understand. Most importantly, Mann never used “filler.” Every word he wrote is there for a purpose, though Mann was definitely not a “spare” writer. Quite the contrary; his prose is extraordinarily voluptuous. Although his work moves along at a moderate pace, Mann’s narrative is sensually languid. The example below, in which Mann describes the sunrise, will give some idea of what I mean:
Awe of the miracle filled his soul new-risen from its sleep. Heaven, earth, and its waters yet lay enfolded in the ghostly, glassy pallor of dawn; one paling star still swam in the shadowy vast. But there came a breath, a winged word from far and inaccessible abodes, that Eros was rising from the side of her spouse; and there was that first sweet reddening of the farthest strip of sea and sky that manifests creation to man’s sense. She neared, the goddess, ravisher of youth, who stole away Cleitos and Cephalus and, defying all the envious Olympians, tasted beautiful Orion’s love. At the world’s edge began a strewing of roses, a shining and a blooming ineffably pure; baby cloudlets hung illumined, like attendant amoretti, in the blue and blushful haze; purple effulgence fell upon the sea, that seemed to heave it forward on its welling waves; from horizon to zenith went great quivering thrusts like golden lances, the gleam became a glare; without a sound, with godlike violence, glow and glare and rolling flames streamed upwards, and with flying hoof-beats the steeds of the sun-god mounted the sky.
Some people are going to wonder why Mann didn’t simply write: The sun rose. If you’re one of those, then you’ll probably find Death in Venice too heady and dense for your taste. If you’re a person like me, who’s in love with words and all they can do, especially in the hands of an artist and a craftsman par excellence, then you’re going to love Death in Venice and want to reread it from time to time. It does contain many, many references to Greek classicism, and readers unfamiliar with that subject should keep a reference handy.
I’ve read Death in Venice in the original German, in French, and in English, in H. T. Lowe-Porter’s translation, the translation that was the standard for many years. Some years back, however, a new translation become available. Michael Henry Heim, a UCLA linguist, has given Mann’s prose a lighter, more modern, less stuffy feel. The passage I quoted was taken from the Heim translation, which I read recently, but I really can’t recommend one translation over the other. While Heim’s is more modern and limpid, Lowe-Porter’s, I feel, captures more fully the essence of the original German. In the end, it’s just personal preference.
In closing, I would like to mention Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of this novella. Yes, it is the very quintessence of “sumptuous,” and to those of us familiar with Death in Venice, it is a delight for the senses. If you’re not familiar with the novella, however, you’ll gain nothing by watching the film instead, beautiful though it is (it contains no dialogue). And really, the book is only seventy-three pages long, and it’s definitely one of the masterpieces of the Western canon. No one should pass it by.
Although interpretations of Death in Venice vary, and no doubt will continue to vary, it is one of the most haunting and beautifully wrought works in all of literature. Various interpretations aside, in the end, we are all left with the image of the young, beautiful Tadzio beckoning to the morbidly ill von Aschenbach, inviting the older man to join him, inviting him at last, to partake “of the voluptuousness of doom” and “the promising immensity of it all.”
Recommended: Definitely. This book is a masterpiece of the Western canon, a hauntingly beautiful novel of obsession and decadence filled with much symbolism and many unforgettable images. It should be read by everyone at least once. And don't forget the Luchino Visconti film once you've read the book.