The murky depths

Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann
translated from the German by David Luke

This is really closer to a short story than a novel so I shouldn’t have waited so long to read it, but a few recent outpourings of praise for it made me finally take it down from the shelf. Yet for such a short piece, it was a very slow starter.

This is your classic flowery literary prose, with endless allusions to Greek myth and a gradual, thoughtful story. It’s about a successful ageing writer, Aschenbach, who feels a sudden urge to take a break and travel. While in Venice he falls heavily and hopelessly in love with a beautiful young man, Tadzio, who is staying at the same hotel. In the meantime, a cholera outbreak is gradually spreading across Venice and both Aschenbach and Tadzio have delicate health…

The story isn’t really about homosexuality as such, it’s about an old man falling helplessly for the beauty of youth. He never expects anything from Tadzio, he just wants to see him every day and gets a thrill when the boy smiles in his direction. It’s almost heartbreakingly sad, this cultured respected man reduced to stalking a stranger and his family. It is also a little creepy. Aschenbach is fully aware of how out of character he is acting, but presses on even when his poor health means he really should leave the city.

Having a writer for the main character is an old trope that both familiarises and distances the hero. We think we know what a writer is like but at the same time recognise that he could be anyone. It allows the first-person narration to be highly stylised and fanciful while being believable. “Do you see now perhaps why we writers can be neither wise nor dignified…The magisterial poise of our style is a lie and a farce…the public’s faith in us is altogether ridiculous…how can one be fit to be an educator when one has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency toward the abyss?”

There are some truly beautiful passages and I can see how Mann ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I did struggle a bit with the myth interludes, which I found tedious.

First published by Hyperionverlag Hans von Weber in 1912.
This translation first published by Bantam Books in 1988.