Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

This is a celebrated short story / novella of 77 pages, the more celebrated since the luscious Visconti film of the book. Some breathless commentators have described ‘Death in Venice’ as the greatest short story of the 20th Century. Visconti filmed in the same Hotel des Bains on the Lido where most of the action takes place. This is the same hotel in which Thomas Mann himself stayed prior to writing his story in 1911. ‘Death in Venice’ has a large autobiographical element.

The title is a marketing coup in itself, since it promises high drama in the romantic setting of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In fact, we are given no visual descriptions of the city of Venice at all, and it is described in disparaging and negative terms throughout. The city is fetid, smelly and diseased with Cholera. The wandering alleys cause the protagonist dizziness and thirst. The canals all look confusingly the same to him.

So no romance or beauty derived from the city itself. Instead we are given an old German writer’s infatuation with a young Polish boy, who is staying with his family at the same hotel on the Lido. Aschenbach admires the beauty of the boy (though the beauty is marred by a set of bad teeth), and becomes obsessed with him. He stares at him on the beach and in the dining room, and resorts to following the family around the city. He lingers outside the boy’s bedroom door and longs to touch him and talk to him. This portrayal of paedophilia and homosexuality is so frank and startling that it contributed to the fame (or infamy) of the story.

Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy is described as aesthetic at first, using many similes and imagery from Greek mythology. But it soon degenerates into undisguised lust, and the destructive sexual urges are brilliantly described in a “fearful dream” of a Bacchanalian frenzy. “The unhappy man woke from this dream shattered, unhinged, powerless in the demon’s grip. He no longer avoided men’s eyes nor cared whether he exposed himself to suspicion.” The demonic passion leads to a comic scene where he has his hair dyed and his face rouged to make himself more attractive to the young boy, and he is rewarded by lingering glances from the boy. He also makes the self-destructive decision to stay in Venice, although he knows about the Cholera epidemic.

In the story Aschenbach dies in his deck chair, staring at the young boy on the beach. Is he a tragic victim to Cholera, or does he die happy in the moment of his supreme aesthetic appreciation of pure beauty? To the reader, it is a fitting close to the story. At least he does not physically corrupt the boy, and we do not care that he dies. Aschenbach evokes no sympathy in the reader. He is an unattractive, prickly, proud, even absurd character. There is no attractive depth to his character.

He is described in as thinking very abstract, bloodless thoughts: “he beguiled the long tedious meal with abstract, even with transcendent matters: he pondered the mysterious harmony that must come to subsist between the individual human being and the universal law…”. Is this an ironic contrast to the Bacchanalian passion in his blood that blots out his pure artistic thoughts, or is Mann trying to make us respect his high intelligence? I fear Mann is sharing in these ponderous, universal thoughts (well expressed in his long novel ‘The Magic Mountain’).

It is disturbing how close Aschenbach is to Thomas Mann himself. They are both famous writers from Munich, both holidaying in Venice, both of whom encountered a pretty boy on the beach. The fictional author is described as writing works which Mann planned to write. Mann admitted to sexual disturbances and confusions, and clearly had a strong homosexual thread in his character. So we wonder if Mann is expressing his personal emotions. I think he clearly is. This is disgusting, but Mann redeems himself to some extent by satirising the protagonist (and hence himself) to some extent. Yet this is mixed with powerful, solemn, high-flown language, and we wonder if Mann is being serious or ironic. It is difficult to judge for a non-German speaker like myself, forced to read in an English translation (by H. T. Lowe-Porter). To me the last few pages read like Mann’s personal confessional credo of the confluence of beauty and eros. Aesthetics are just a flimsy cover of the cultured classes, an excuse for passions lurking beneath.

Personally I am not prescriptive about people’s personal sexual predilections, as long as they are confined to consenting adults in private, and strongly draw the line at paedophilia. One of the sub-texts of the story disturbs me more is the Germanic attitude towards the Italians as a bunch of unreliable rascals and crooks. It is hard to say that this is only Aschenbach’s attitude, given the close identity between the two characters. For instance, the refers to the “predatory commercial spirit of the fallen queen of the seas”. The main attack is on the city authorities for denying and hiding the evidence of ‘pestilence’ in the city, being “actuated by fear of being out of pocket”.

The cholera is important to the plot and the symbolism of the story, but no balance is given to the sunny and friendly side of the Italian character, nor even a word of acknowledgement of their stupendous achievements in arts and sciences. The predatory commercial spirit is alive and well in Venice, as I can vouch from recent experience, but I still love the city and admire its people. We seem to be facing some rather unpleasant racial and cultural attitudes in Mann’s story and Mann himself.

I can’t rate this as a supremely great work, and think it has been boosted beyond its stand-alone merits – in other words, regard for Mann’s other works may have caused people to look at this story with too much favour. I would suggest Somerset Maugham as an exponent of the short story worth investigating, and I would put forward Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a better work than this.

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