Translated by David Luke

Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice fits in nicely with Novellas in November, as well as German literature month. It is a long short story really, less than 100 pages long in my Vintage Classics edition. I read this after my recent trip to the stunning Venice in late September (it genuinely felt like being transported into a painting by Canaletto).

The story – first published in 1912 – follows Gustave von Aschenbach, a successful writer who is past his prime, on his travels to Venice for a break. One day, at his hotel he notices a gorgeous boy, barely in his teens, with whom he becomes obsessed.

With astonishment Aschenbach noticed that the boy was entirely beautiful. His countenance, pale and gracefully reserved, was surrounded by ringlets of honey-coloured hair, and with its straight nose, its enchanting mouth, its expression of sweet and divine gravity, it recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period...”

His holiday plans begin to revolve around coinciding with the boy, Tadzio, whenever possible, and he takes to following him along Venetian passages and around canals, and watching his horseplay with another boy, so distracted and, frankly, horny that he doesn’t fully acknowledge an encroaching pandemic, as dignity, self-control and reason fall by the wayside.

I bought the book during the first lockdown, when it was recommended as a good example of ‘pandemic lit’, but didn’t get to it until now, when the setting resonated with me. It also appears in Peter Boxall’s popular ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’, which I’m working my way through in a half-hearted, intermittent and ad hoc kind of way.

I must quibble with a line from the 1001 Books summary, however: it describes Death in Venice as “a vivid account of what it is like to fall in love”. Far from it, what the story provides is a vivid account of what it is like to develop a predatory sexual obsession with a minor.

From a modern-day perspective Von Aschenbach’s obsession is overtly paedophilic and incredibly disturbing. Would readers 100 years ago have interpreted events to be so clearly sexual, or Von Aschenbach to be so damn creepy? They could hardly have failed to pick on the homoeroticism.

Despite the psychologically compelling narrative, I found the story quite slow going at first, and had to go back and reread passages. I struggle more and more with the wordiness of non-contemporary novels! I’m not sure whether this is down to laziness, or if I’m just getting a bit more stupid as I get older. I found the last third of the book, though, as it progressed towards its denouement, to be stunning.

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  1. Thanks for this review. I’m glad you included the contemporary take on Von Aschenbach’s obsession. When I read this in my book group a while back, this was a big part of our discussion. Have you seen the Visconti film starring Dirk Bogarde? I saw it when it came out and then again recently and found it tremendously evocative of Venice and powerful in its depiction of Gustav Von Aschenbach’s disintegration.

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  2. The film was beautiful and so was Tadzio. He reminded me of my first boyfriend who broke my heart when I was 16! I saw it 50 years ago in Grimsby, and we drove across the Wolds in ice and snow to see it, so it was a long round trip from Boston but worth it. Mahler’s music too…
    I was almost hypnotised by Von Aschenbach and it was an interesting metaphor to see how the disease was destroying him at the same time as his obsession. The whole atmosphere was of a fever dream, which fits with the unreality of Venice. One of the maddest places I have ever been to.
    I must see the film again – and read the book again too.

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