book recommendation: death in venice

It takes few words to achieve greatness. There are two novella-length books that are so grand in content, the resulting response consists of volumes and volumes of discussion and contemplation. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is one; Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the other.

Death in Venice is written in beautiful prose – I wish I could read it in the original German to fully appreciate the subtleties, but from what I’ve heard, the English translation by Clayton Koelb most closely follows the style and intentions of Mann. It’s the edition I have, and I’m very happy with it. There are also lots of useful footnotes that help to clarify the significance of the setting, the time period, etc.

Now, before I potentially scare anyone off with words like ‘footnotes’, I want to reiterate that this is a shorty – 63 pages, is all. The rest of the book contains discussions, and explanatory texts and maps. They aren’t necessary to the story, but if your interest is piqued – and I’m willing to bet it on it – they offer some interesting insights.

This is the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a writer who has strained his literary muscles and is in need of a break. He goes to Venice to stay at a “resort” hotel for a period of time. The date we’re given is 19__, but the book was published in 1912 and contains some historical facts from 1911, so it’s no big secret as to when it takes place. Gustav is 50ish, and feeling unwell. He spends a lot of time sitting in the hotel common rooms and on the beach, people watching. He becomes fascinated with a 13-14 year old boy, who is staying at the hotel with his family.

Tadizo is a beautiful boy, so perfect that Gustav likens him to Narcissus. He seems to live for his next glimpse of Tadizo, and even admits to himself that he’s in love with him. Many critics and readers have labeled this as pedophilia. Gustav never acts on his adoration, but some find his attraction unsettling. I say: not so fast.

I am giving my interpretation here, it may not match with some critics and scholars, but I think to slap Gustav with the Scarlet P is too quick a reaction. There’s much more intricacy to his attraction. The comparison with Narcissus is just one of the references to Greek myth and gods made throughout the book. In my opinion, what he’s experiencing is mythological in its remote and beautiful, unattainable nature. He’s not truly expecting to possess Tadizo, nor do I think he wants to.

There are some things so beautiful, so revered, that they’re impossible to possess without ruination. We’re a tactile lot, we see something pretty or interesting and our immediate impulse is to put our hands all over it. But what we’re driven to do and what we’d really act on, given the chance, are two different things.

When I saw my first Van Gogh up close and personal, after I (nearly) pissed myself, I wanted to get as close as I possibly could to study it. The knife slaps of thick paint are evident even in photographs; in person, they stand out in relief, very nearly like all those beautiful marble and stone Greek gods chiseled into temple walls. Tactile. Now, I did set off the alarm, but that’s because I leaned too far over the acceptable barrier. Yes, I went too far; but never, never would I touch it. I couldn’t live with the guilt and shame of putting my stain on even one little peak, and ruining an imperceptible and nearly unmeasurable speck of paint. But it would be there, a blot on his work, and if everyone succumbed to this impulse, soon it would be ruined.

People are like that as well. Say the wrong thing to a child, intentional or not, and we mark them for the rest of their lives. Force them into certain directions and mindsets, touch them in ways no living creature should be touched, and we could break them irreparably. I think Gustav is aware of this. Tadizo is a work of art, something to be admired, worshiped, dreamed about, but never touched.

There’s also the conditions Gustav finds himself in. He’s an older man – physically and mentally much older than a man of 50 is now – and unwell. There’s a cholera epidemic in Venice, people are dying. He feels his mortality. Tadizo is youth and beauty and fresh potential – everything Gustav has lost and is gradually losing permanently, even as memories. Tadizo is a god, a mythological creature. Gustav’s love for him is a brief escape from reality, his lifeline.

Death in Venice is beautiful in every sense of the word. There’s nothing shameful here, nothing unsavory happening. It’s primal nature and survival and mythos and the drive to attain the unattainable. Take it into your hands and enjoy the experience.

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