Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) by Thomas Mann, 1912

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DEATH IN VENICE (Der Tod in Venedig)
by Thomas Mann, 1912

Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig), which was made into a highly successful film by Luchino Visconti in 1976 and was brilliantly adapted by Myfanwy Piper to provide Benjamin Briten with the libretto for his last opera, is probably the best known of all the works of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann. Though there is, of course, much to be said for Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), and other novels by Mann, the fact remains that much of what the author stood for is fairly represented in this finely crafted, thoughtful, and deeply evocative tragic tale. In addition to acquiring the status of a modern classic, Death in Venice offers a splendidly accurate presentation of the spirit of the educated and cultured well-to-do European bourgeoisie in the years before World War I.

Gustav Aschenbach—or rather von Aschenbach, as it is pointed out in the very first sentence, for he had been ennobled on his fiftieth birthday—is a worthy representative of high German culture in the early years of the twentieth century. He had won fame with the general public and esteem from the more discerning critics with his literary works, which included a prose epic on Frederick the Great, novels that make sense of the complexities of existence, and criticism that stands in comparison with the greatest works of German classicism. High standards are expected of him, and despite a constitution that is far from robust he conceives it his duty to live up to them at all times in his writing, his behavior, and even his dress and appearance. Perhaps that is a reflection of his origins in the strict milieu of North Germany, where his forebears had all devoted their lives to the service of the state, but now he resides farther south in the elegant city of Munich. As a child he had been brought up without much contact with other children, and now he lives alone, for his wife died young, leaving a daughter who had married and gone away.

For a man so thoughtful Aschenbach's decision to take a vacation in Venice was rather impulsive, though the journey there from Munich is, of course, not a particularly long or arduous one. But even at the start of the story we sense something ominous: it is strange that Aschenbach's eyes should linger upon the inscriptions on the monuments in a graveyard, and there is a mysterious stranger whose unexpected presence seems to have some hidden significance. The journey, too, though essentially realistic in its detail, has its odd touches, and the sense grows that Aschenbach is somehow being caught up in a destiny he cannot fully control. Finally he arrives, taking a room in a grand, cosmopolitan hotel. There among the guests from America and all over Europe he sees, under the charge of a governess, a party of young Poles, three teenage girls and a long-haired boy of about 14 years, and with astonishment he notes "the boy's perfect beauty," a beauty still not spoiled by any contact with the world.

Aschenbach is hesitant and coy as his love develops; he envies those who come into close contact with Tadzio, as the boy is called, yet cannot bring himself to do more than worship from a distance, following him as he is taken to see the sights of Venice. Now, however, another sinister element enters the story. Throughout the nineteenth century Europe had feared the onset of cholera, which, it was thought, came in from the East through the Italian ports, and Mann deftly builds up the sense of horror as Aschenbach begins to suspect that the dread disease is threatening Venice, that the hotel is like a fortress besieged by the pestilence, and worst of all that Tadzio might fall victim to it. In fact the boy remains healthy, and it is Aschenbach who dies, still bewildered by beauty and, as is emphasized in an episode when a barber dyes his hair and makes up his face with cosmetics, with the very essence of his being under threat.

Set in a city whose fine buildings are reflected in the rise and ebb of the surrounding tidal waters and whose location is traditionally seen as standing halfway between the sage European world and the greater mysteries of the East, Death in Venice is no less rich in its symbolism than it is vivid in its topographical and human situations. Nothing is quite what it seems, yet the importance of appearance is stressed time and again. Another layer of significance is added to this straightforwardly plotted third-person narrative by Mann's inclusion of a good deal of discussion of aesthetics, with particular stress on the opinions of Plato on the relationship between beauty and morality. Moreover, through the unfulfilled tender relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio, Mann has created a powerful image of the nature of the artist—an image that has its origins in romanticism yet remains valid in the present day.

—Christopher Smith