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Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

November 30, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) French title: La mort à Venise. Translated by Félix Bertaux and Charles Sigwalt. (1925)

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I happened to be in Venice in November, during German Lit Month. So I decided to re-read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.

Disclaimer: I have read this in French and I tried to find an English translation of the quotes I wanted to use in this post but I didn’t find any. So I did the translations myself which isn’t easy with that kind of prose. If you can, read the French text.

Mann_VeniseGustav Aschenbach is a famous and ageing writer. He lives a quiet and rather solitary life, working on his books. On a whim, he decides to go to Venice on holiday. He stays at a hotel at the Lido and sees a young adolescent, Tadzio. He’s Polish and he’s also on holiday with his family. Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is about 14 and he finds him very attractive. The novella describes Aschenbach’s growing obsession to the young Tadzio. Where will that lead him?

Death in Venice was written in 1912 and Thomas Mann manages to pack a lot of things in his novella. Thoughts about literature and the role of writers in society, art and homosexuality. Mann really spent time in Venice in 1911 and he said lots of things included in Death in Venice are true. As always with a classic, I can only write my response to it and I won’t pretend to analyse anything that more literate people have analysed before me. Hell, some have even tracked down the real Tadzio and written a book about him!

The novella first describes Aschenbach’s personality. He’s first portrayed at home, in his environment. He’s a respectable and respected writer and he was ennobled when he was fifty. He’s an institution and he reminded me of Edward Driffield in Cakes and Ale. He’s very literate as a writer of his time should be. He has a thorough knowledge of classics and Roman and Greek authors.

À égale distance de l’excentrique et du banal, son talent était de nature à lui attirer à la fois les suffrages du grand public et cette admiration des connaisseurs qui oblige l’artiste. At equal distance between eccentricity and banality, his talent was such that he attracted both general public’s attention and the praise from connoisseurs that pleases the artist.

Isn’t it the writer’s dream? Popular success and peers admiration?

Aschenbach is not a big traveller except for hygienic reasons which, in my mind, says a lot about him. In everyday life, nothing should be done for only hygienic reasons except taking a shower and cleaning the house. Aschenbach seems a tiny little bit uptight and Mann’s prose gives it back perfectly. There’s nothing funny here, no attempt at irony or humorous vision of life of any kind. He sounds like someone for whom the importance of being earnest must be taken literally. Aschenbach is a stern man, living an ascetic life and he’s clearly acting out of character in this novella.

Aschenbach is also a closeted homosexual. It is a novel of its time, he can’t be anything but closeted. During the journey to Venice, von Aschenbach sees a group of young people accompanied by an older man.

Mais l’ayant considéré de plus près, Aschenbach constata avec horreur qu’il avait devant lui un faux jeune homme. Nul doute, c’était un vieux beau. Sa bouche, ses yeux avaient des rides. Le carmin mat de ses joues était du fard, sa chevelure, noire sous le chapeau à ruban de couleur, une perruque; le cou était flasque et fripé; la petite moustache retroussée et la mouche au menton étaient teintes; les dents, que son rire découvrait en une rangée continue, fausses et faites à bon marché, et ses mains qui portaient aux deux index des bagues à camées étaient celles d’un vieillard. But seeing him closer, Aschenbach realised with horror that he had a faux young man in front of him. No doubt he was an old beau. His mouth and eyes had wrinkles. The red on his cheeks was make-up. His hair, black under his hat with a colourful ribbon was a wig. His neck was flabby. His little turned-up moustache and the beauty spot on his chin were dyed. His teeth he showed in laughter were aligned but fake and cheap. His hands whose index fingers wore two rings were those of an old man.

It is hard not to think about Sodome et Gomorrhe by Proust when you read this. It could be a description of the ageing Baron de Charlus. Sodome et Gomorrhe was written after Death in Venice. I wasn’t able to find out whether Proust could read in German or if the 1925 translation of Death in Venice I read is the first one. (which means it was released in French after Proust’s death) So I don’t know if Proust had read this novella before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe or not.

Anyway. We readers of Death in Venice are warned before Aschenbach reaches Venice: he’s repulsed by old beaus and this group of young men. This passage makes his fall for Tadzio even more tragic and enforces the power his infatuation has over him:

La passion oblitère le sens critique et se commet de parfaite bonne foi dans des jouissances que de sang-froid l’on trouverait ridicules ou repousserait avec impatience. Passion erases good judgment and indulges in perfect good faith in pleasures that one would find ridicule or would reject with impatience where they in thinking clearly.

We feel that he’s old, he’s managed to keep his homosexuality bottled up and the dam breaks late in life, overcome by the Greek beauty of the young Tadzio. (Of course Tadzio is compared to a Greek statue which I find a bit trite from Mann. Proust is more original in his comparisons, using Renaissance paintings for example.) Poor Aschenbach doesn’t know what hit him and I felt pity for the old man struck by such an embarrassing passion at his age.

There is much to say about this rich novella. I enjoyed reading it even if Mann’s style is a little too bombastic for my taste. All the stuffy references to Greek myths and Latin sentences didn’t age well. It was perfectly clear for the reader of his time (and I believe Max had the same experience with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but not so much for today’s reader.

That said, the descriptions of Venice are gorgeous and it was a treat to be there and read about it in great style.

V009_Vue_de_place_San_Marco

I didn’t explore here all the thoughts about art and writing displayed in Death in Venice. I don’t have time to dig further, unfortunately. I leave you with one quote about writing that I liked particularly.

 La pensée qui peut, tout entière, devenir sentiment, le sentiment qui, tout entier, peut devenir pensée, font le bonheur de l’écrivain.  Thoughts that can become feelings and feelings that can become thoughts are a writer’s happiness.
  1. November 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I read this recently , in English tho ….my next project is to
    Finally read Buddennrooks

    Like

    • November 30, 2014 at 11:14 pm

      I’d like to try The Magic Mountain one of these days. (although I find it a bit daunting)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. November 30, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    Great commentary as always Emma.

    I have yet to complete a book by Mann. I tried reading a couple of his novels about 15 years ago and put him aside as I felt that I was not ready for him. I believed that I needed to understand the trends, issues, and history of art, literature and philosophy a little better.

    I feel a little better prepared now. I was going to give The Magic Mountain a try but maybe I should go with this one instead.

    As for not being able to address everything about a book’s theme in a single post; I think that kind of goes with the territory when writing about great literature 🙂

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    • November 30, 2014 at 11:17 pm

      He’s literate but classic in the form of his novella. This is not Joyce or Döblin. You’ll find references you don’t know (like almost everyone these days) but it’s not that complicated.

      I haven’t read anything else by him but this one is easy and it deserves the praise it gets. It’s around 100 pages, if you want to give it a try.

      Like

    • December 1, 2014 at 7:26 am

      “I have yet to complete a book by Mann”
      Sounds like me and Pynchon….

      Like

      • December 1, 2014 at 8:02 am

        Ditto

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        • December 1, 2014 at 8:45 pm

          Me too. I bailed on Inherent Vice a month or so ago..

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          • December 3, 2014 at 9:54 pm

            Maybe we can found a club. The Pynchon Crying Lot? Limited to 49 members?

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  3. November 30, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    Very interesting commentary on the book and context at the time and your quotes give a very good flavour of the style. I should try Thomas Mann one day, but I have him in that difficult/scary category…

    Have you seen Visconti’s film of Death in Venice? It’s years since I watched it, but it’s definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it. Dirk Bogarde is particularly good as Aschenbach (as far as I can recall).

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    • November 30, 2014 at 11:22 pm

      Don’t rely on the quotes in English to have a sense of his style. It’s my translation based on a French translation…That makes a lot of screens between the original and you. That said, if you liked the quotes like this, you’ll probably enjoy the professional translation even more.

      I haven’t seen the film, alas.

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      • December 1, 2014 at 8:50 pm

        Thanks, Emma. I might try it next year, I ought to give him a go at some point..

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  4. November 30, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    I have heard a lot about this–partly because of the film, but I’ve never been convinced to read it. BTW, I’m a Dirk Bogarde fan.

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    • November 30, 2014 at 11:24 pm

      It’s not a book I’d get you but you might like it anyway. After all, it’s a book with people on vacation. 🙂

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  5. December 1, 2014 at 7:34 am

    True, and the book plays into my pet theory about people on holiday. Funny isn’t it, how you can recognize a book’s worth but still find that it doesn’t quite hit a chord.

    Like

    • December 1, 2014 at 8:03 am

      I know. I have a “no way” mental list, whatever the worth of the book.

      Like

  6. December 1, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I’ve read this twice and it was really worth re-reading because of all the subtle foreshadowing.
    I’m glad you liked reading it while you were there. I often prefer reading a book when I’m not in the place it describes but it can be a very special experience as well.
    I can’t remember the style but I never found Mann bombastic at all. Maybe we mean something different by it?
    I wonder too whether Proust was able to read German.

    Like

    • December 3, 2014 at 10:02 pm

      I also like reading the books after I’ve visited the place. It gives the novel a certain flavour with the I’ve-been-there thoughts.
      When I say “bombastic” I think of “emphatique” in French. Reading him, I have the impression to hear someone talk like Malraux did his speeches. Can you hear it in you mind?

      I don’t think Proust could read German literature in the original. (He was born in 1871, I’m not sure it was hype in France to learn German when he was a child) His mother was from Alsace-Lorraine if I’m correct. She may have spoken German fluently but as I said in my post, she was already dead when Death in Venice was published. She couldn’t have helped him.

      If he hadn’t read it before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe, then they had things in common but not in the style though. Proust has a wonderful sense of humour. If Mann was funny, it doesn’t show in Death in Venice.

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  7. Vishy
    December 1, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! So jealous that you read the book when you were actually in Venice! It must have felt really special. I read Mann’s novella for the first edition of GLM and liked it. Though I think I have to read it again to appreciate it better. I re-read a few passages recently and found his prose quite beautiful. My favourite description of Venice is from the book ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Ann Radcliffe. It is a gothic horror novel, but the descriptions of Venice are fantastic.

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    • December 3, 2014 at 10:08 pm

      It was my first time there, I loved it and I want to visit again. It was really nice to read the book on the premises.

      I should re-read it in another translation, if there is another one. This one dates back to 1925 and given the theme of the book, I wonder if some passages were bowdlerised.
      It’s a multi-layered novel, one you appreciate better after another reading.

      The Mysteries of Udolfo is on my “no-way” mental list that I mentioned to Guy earlier. I don’t think I can swallow Gothic horror.

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      • December 6, 2014 at 4:56 pm

        I loved your description, Emma – ‘no-way mental list’ 🙂 Yes, gothic horror is not for everyone. But I see Guy is reading gothic horror these days. Spied him a few days back in Goodreads reading ‘The Castle of Otranto’ 🙂

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        • December 6, 2014 at 5:46 pm

          *chuckle*
          Have you seen that I’m reading Swami and Friends? I like it very much so far.

          Like

          • Vishy
            December 7, 2014 at 10:06 am

            I just noticed that. So glad to know that you are liking it so far. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it. Happy reading!

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  8. leroyhunter
    December 1, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Mann is virgin territory for me. I have this, and started it at least once, but gave up in impatience (I was pretty young).

    I envy you visiting Venice – one place in Italy I’ve yet to see. I read an eccentric essay about the place called Watermark (by Joseph Brodsky) just last month.

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    • December 3, 2014 at 10:10 pm

      It’s worth trying again, Leroy.

      I was in Venice for work. I hope to go again and stay longer and have more time to visit the museums.

      Like

  9. December 2, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Thank you for that, Emma, It makes me want to try this novella again. For, although there is much by Mann I have read and enjoyed, and yet, for reasons I cannot entirely articulate, this work – arguably his most famous – tends to pass me by. It’s hard to say whether this is because I don’t “get” it; or that I do, and what I “get” doesn’t resonate with me. I suspect it’s the former.

    Among the things that puzzle me is the setting. The most famous “death in Venice” is, of course, Wagner’s, and, since Wagner is a figure who looms large both in Germanic culture and in Mann’s own cultural awareness, one can only assume that the reference to Wagner is not accidental. And yet, I fail to see what the connection is between Wagner and this novella.

    Mann focuses on one of his favourite themes – the relationship between the artistic temperament and decadence, and, indeed, a longing for death itself. I suppose one can trace the death-longing to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”; and the peeling splendours of Venice do simultaneously convey the sense both of beauty and of decay. (And of course, in this story, Venice is in the grips of a cholera epidemic, further accentuating the relationship between beauty and death.) But so far, this is merely analysis-by-numbers: what the nature of the relationship is between longing for beauty and longing for death; what its possible significance can be; I am afraid eluded me.

    Sometimes, it’s worth making an extra effort on works that are alien to one’s temperament: how else can one widen one’s own horizons except to read works that lie beyond them? I’ll give this work another try, and see if I can make anything out of it this time than I had done previously – although, I suspect, one has sometimes to throw up one’s hands and concede that one is so far removed from a work in terms of temperament that one will never quite “get” it!

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    • December 3, 2014 at 10:32 pm

      You’re certainly right, the connection is probably not accidental but I’m not the one who will help you on this. I’m a total philitisne as far as classical music is concerned. I can hardly make a difference between Mozart and Debussy. So the Wagner reference was totally lost on me.

      Reading your comment about the “relationship between artistic temperament and decadence” I understand what bothered me in this novel; it’s a novel written by an author of the past. The style is 19th century style. I haven’t read Huysmans but your comment makes me think of him. Proust is a writer of the 20th century, even if he mostly relates pre-WWI events. The style, the approach is modern. The references to Greek and Roman classics enforces this feeling too.

      *spoilers*

      The cholera epidemic is a powerful literary device, isn’t it? It’s death looming around, sudden and ugly death. The impression of a disease starts early in the book when Mann describes the powerful odour of the city. I visited in November, it was rather cold and the water wasn’t smelly. Someone told me that a strong odour was what she remembers most about the city when she visited it as an adolescent.

      Do you think his thoughts about beauty and death are about Venice and its deadly atmosphere? The beauty that is most described in the novel is Tadzio’s. He seems too beautiful for his own good. Mann compares him to a Greek statue but in Aschenbach’s mind he seems to have the tragic destiny of a Greek hero. He thinks Tadzio won’t live old. Altough he never attemps to seduce him, I associate Tadzio with the beautiful mortals that Zeus seduces like Io. It never ends well.

      I’m sure there are many things to analyse in Death in Venice. I’m happy with enjoying the basis, the story of an old man overwhelmed by feelings he can’t repress, discovering on the threshold of death that he hasn’t lived fully, has never experienced real passion before meeting Tadzio. And now, it’s too late. And coming back to his orderly life is not possible.

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      • December 3, 2014 at 11:34 pm

        I have so imperfect an understanding of this work, that I’m afraid I’ll make a fool of myself were I to try to probe any deeper!

        Just as an aside, the palazzo in Venice where Richard Wagner died is now a casino. I wonder what Wagner (or Mann) woud have made of that! 🙂

        Like

        • December 3, 2014 at 11:36 pm

          They would have thought that life is a game? A gamble? 🙂

          Like

  10. December 3, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Indeed a great review of this novella by my famous birthday twin! I read it twice, too, but didn’t like it as much as Buddenbrooks. To me the author’s German feels a bit old-fashioned to be honest, but of course language and style have changed a lot in the past one-hundread years. It’s lamentable that so little of Thomas Mann’s work is actually available and read in English. When you have a look around the internet there doesn’t seem to be much more than the famous three:.Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice.

    Like

    • December 3, 2014 at 10:37 pm

      So you too have a writer as a birthday twin. Mine is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

      There was the Buddenbrooks on ARTE lately, I didn’t have time to watch it though. Have you seen this film version? I think I’d like the book too.

      Which of his books would you recommend? Perhaps it’s available in French.

      After reading Guy’s reviews, I think I’d like Heinrich Mann too.

      Like

      • December 4, 2014 at 1:57 pm

        I think everybody has a writer as a birthday twin! I actually have several: Thomas Mann, Pierre Corneille, Alexander Pushkin, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Henry John Newbolt, Helen McCloy, Rodney David Wingfield,… 6 June seems to be a good day for writers to be born 😉

        Yes, I’ve seen the two-part film version of Buddenbrooks, but I didn’t like it too much. German screen adaptations, especially the new ones, tend to be so… how should I call them? Schmaltzy, maybe. There was a much better TV series of the novel in the 1980s which got me hooked and was my entry into reading great literature. Of course, I was only a stupid child then.

        As for Thomas Mann’s books. Which should I recommend? Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull comes to mind although it’s unfinished. Or the novellas Tonio Kröger, Mario und er Zauberer, and Der kleine Herr Friedemann.

        To read Heinrich Mann is a GREAT idea! I like his work even better than that of his famous brother. I’d recommed Professor Unrat which in 1930 was made into the famous film Der blaue Engel starring Marlene Dietrich for the first time (I reviewed the film on my blog) or Der Untertan.

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        • December 5, 2014 at 6:20 pm

          Thanks for all the recommendations and for teaching me a new word. I didn’t know schmalzy but it does sound like its meaning. 🙂

          Guy says the same as you about Heinrich Mann. On the list for next year’s German Lit month!

          Like

          • December 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm

            Well, I must admit that I looked up schmalzy in an online dictionary and it seemed just perfect. It’s Yiddish originally and it’s so close to the German word we use here in Austria (don’t know about Germany) – schmalzig – that I couldn’t resist using it. 😉

            Like

            • December 5, 2014 at 6:50 pm

              I only knew corny but I like schmalzy. I like these words in English like kaffeeklatsch

              Like

  11. December 4, 2014 at 1:38 am

    Nice review Emma. What can one do with works like this but to record one’s own reaction? It would be mad to attempt an academic analysis, that’s a career for some people after all.

    I’ve read some Mann when younger (his Doctor Faustus anyway, though in honesty I suspect I skimmed bits of it), but not this one. I am tempted by it, but not immediately so. The contrast of the train and what happens to him though does seem tragic, to see and react to what one will become in that way.

    I did have a similar experience with Portrait, though overall I enjoyed it more. Still, I love Venice, so for the descriptions of that alone which I note you say are good that makes me want to read this.

    Like

    • December 5, 2014 at 6:23 pm

      Of course we can only offer our own response. “Academic” is certainly not my middle name.

      I think it’s interesting to read not too far before or after Sodome et Gomorrhe. (Death in Venice is only 80 pages long, btw.)

      I enjoyed the descriptions of Venice, his journeys on the Grand Canal.

      Like

      • December 5, 2014 at 7:55 pm

        80 pages? Ok, that definitely puts it on my TBR. I’ll as you suggest schedule it for after I get back to Sodom and Gomorrah.

        Like

        • December 6, 2014 at 5:37 pm

          As always, I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts about it.

          Like

  12. December 4, 2014 at 7:23 am

    Emma, I think you would enjoy Buddenbrooks quite a lot. It is so much less heavily symbolic than Death in Venice, much more bourgeois – no room for the Greek myths. You – I mean “I” – would hardly guess it was by the same writer. Of course Buddenbrooks is a bit on the long side. Maybe read it if you ever go to the surprisingly charming Lübeck.

    Piles of Mann books are available in English – all of his novels, most of his stories, lots of essays, letters, memoirs – but no, not much of all that is read. Mann’s reputation in English has drooped a little bit.

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    • December 5, 2014 at 6:26 pm

      I’ll give Buddenbrooks a try and I’d like to visit Germany a bit. It’s a country I hardly know, so yes, visiting Lübeck is tempting.

      I have nothing against Greek myths, I find them fascinating. It’s dated to use them in literature, don’t you think? By “using” I mean use characters from the Greek mythology to make comparisons to describe a character.

      Like

      • December 5, 2014 at 8:15 pm

        Yes, I think you are right. Writers today will either hide their use of Greek myth (more subtle, let’s say) or make it so explicit that they are writing fantasy literature – have Medusa actually be a character, with snake-hair and everything.

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        • December 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm

          Exactly.
          First trend: I’ve seen a theatre play based upon the myth of Prometheus. That was an experience. There were like 30 seats in the room, we were 4 people in the public (our party), the actress was pregnant, playing with clay creating a clay baby that she, at some point, gave to my friend sitting next to me. The lights and music were fantastic but the meaning remained…obscure.

          Second trend: my daughter has read Percy Jackson and seem to know all the Greek gods and heroes now. The style of the books is appalling but at least she learnt something.

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