Sunday, February 10, 2013

Thomas Mann - Death in Venice (1912)

Death in Venice is a short read, probably more a novella than a novel, but it is fascinating. I read the translation by Michael Henry Heim (pictured here) and found it beautifully rendered, though obviously I cannot comment on how 'faithfully' it was translated. I was attracted to this book because - again - it was written by a brilliant author (who happens to be gay) at the start of the last century.

The plot concerns a repressed older man named Gustav Aschenbach, a celebrated writer and leading thinker of his time.  Acting on a sudden impulse, Aschenbach travels in order to reinvigorate his interest in his latest writing project. He ends up in Venice, where he is dazzled by an extremely handsome teen-aged Polish boy named Tadzio. Aschenbach falls in love with Tadzio but also learns that there is a deadly cholera outbreak in Venice, which is being hushed up so as not to scare tourists away.

That's a spare plot but, as with most novels from this period, the real point is philosophical and interior. As the novel progresses and Aschenbach becomes more obsessed with Tadzio, he comprehends the immorality of his feelings but has little desire to curb them. As he learns more and more clearly how serious the cholera threat is, he never warns Tadzio or his parents to leave. I found this repulsive and certainly picked out the nasty parallel between the callous greed of the Venetians towards the tourists and Aschenbach's failure to warn the object of his feelings.

If you read no deeper than this, Death in Venice ends up being a tawdry story about a pedophile, complete with self-deluded justifications. However, this is the wrong way to interpret the story. First of all, I question whether Tadzio is real or just in Aschenbach's head. Second, even if Tadzio is real, I don't think Aschenbach's interest in him is truly sexual. Rather, Tadzio is a symbol for 'the ideal youth' Aschenbach missed in his own life and now regrets. For me, the Greek mythological imagery that peppers the text encourages this interpretation. At first, the passages use Greek imagery to describe how handsome Tadzio is (impossibly handsome really). Later this imagery transforms into a nightmarish bacchanal rite. Towards the very end of the book, it transforms again. As Aschenbach follows Tadzio and his family around Venice with the boy looking back to "make certain his admirer was still following him", I read it as a variation on the Orpheus myth with Aschenbach cast as Eurydice. Given that the cholera epidemic is in full rage, the fact Aschenbach loses sight of Tadzio here makes the metaphor fit and resonate. Finally, in the very last page Tadzio is portrayed as if he is a siren, and the ending certainly suggests his 'attractive power' has led to a fatal conclusion.

So what to make of all this? It feels as if Aschenbach (and by extension Mann who was a homosexual pretending to be straight and married) is musing over his youth and the lost potential it represents. Aschenbach fights by breaking his erudite but sterile existence but, more obviously and ridiculously, also has himself literally made-over to try to look younger. From what I have read of other readers' comments, earlier translations of Death in Venice either shroud the homosexual overtones or cast them deliberately as pedophilia, completely missing the point because they are blinded by knee-jerk homophobia.

It probably required a gay man (or critic) at some point to surface the true theme contained in Death in Venice and encourage its translation. This novel is not about a love affair with a teen-age boy (note that the book never goes there). It's about feelings of loss gay men may have when thinking back on our youth before we came out. These are complex feelings because while they involve regret, they do not mean regretting the course of one's life. There is a bittersweet, almost poetic, sensibility bleeding out of Mann's prose. Perhaps this was doomed to be overlooked until attitudes towards homosexuality became less hysterical and newer translations could bring the truth of this novel to light.

Mann understands clearly the danger these emotions represent. At the beginning of chapter three, he has Aschenbach express his disgust for the 'make-over' tactic, when he witnesses the same thing being done by another older man. Mann's only possible point with this passage is to clarify that the attempt to recapture youth is pathetic and doomed to failure. Aschenbach himself, however, is carried away through Tadzio and is "no longer inclined to self-criticism...reluctant to analyze motives". He loses his sense of objectivity and becomes trapped by his regrets, feelings, and musings. He cannot move on, either physically - by leaving Venice - or mentally.

This idea of youth being forever lost is taken to an even deeper level in the text. Mann describes Tadzio - or more specifically youth in general - metaphorically through the myth of Hyacinth who "loved by two gods was doomed to death". Another parallel is drawn to Narcissus, the handsome young man who fell in love with his reflection and died (an obvious cautionary message there). More prosaically, Aschenbach notices that Tadzio bears physical traits that suggest he is not destined to live long. Repeatedly, as the book progresses, there is an inextricable link forged between the beauty or potential of Tadzio/youth and it's fleeting quality.

This all makes it clear that Aschenbach's attraction to Tadzio and his failure to help him by revealing what he knows about the cholera plague is not a story about pedophilia. Mann is writing a goodbye letter to his youthful self. It's about how beautiful our youth is, yet a recognition that it must end and we have to let it go.  We all grow older, and there is an inevitable sense of loss related to this passage.

I'll rest my case by noting Mann wrote Death in Venice after an actual encounter where he saw a handsome young Polish man while on vacation with his family. His wife noted the encounter in interviews but said Mann did not pursue the young man as Aschenbach did. It's also telling that Mann was in his late thirties when he wrote Death in Venice, about the time many men may end up reassessing who they are on some level. I know I did. This passage is often spoofed and dismissed as the 'mid-life crisis', involving fast red cars, comb-overs, divorce, and affairs with bimbos. However, for many men - obviously Mann and definitely for me - it's not like that at all. It's a point to stop and think about the difference between being a 'young man' and a 'man'. Death in Venice is about this rite of passage, although it is a tragedy because it focuses on man who is unable to let go of his youth and move forward.

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