Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death in Venice

Death in Venice starts out slow. I was thinking – oh, it’s one of those art books. Nothing against art books, but I really wasn’t looking forward to spending 70 or so pages on aesthetics. Aschenbach is wandering around a cemetery and sees this guy in a straw hat and that makes him decide to take a trip to Venice. Whatever dude. But it is at his Venice hotel that he comes across Tadzio…a young Polish boy of 14 with whom he is instantly smitten. At first Aschenbach, a mid-50s-ish writer of some fame, tries to explain to himself that the attraction is merely because he is an artist, and the boy is beautiful. It’s obvious, however, that the attraction is more than to the boy’s aesthetics, though. Especially when he sits all day at the beach watching Tadzio play with the other kids and following him and his sisters through the streets of Venice. Aschenbach learns of that there is a cholera epidemic, the news of which is being suppressed by the police and the press, and decides to stay on in the city anyway in order to be near Tadzio.

The narrative captures that feeling of hypersensitivity at the beginning of attraction. When the boy enters the room, there’s the immediate electrical shock that runs through your body. There is the constant sensing of where the object is in relation to yourself, and even if you are not looking at them, you feel them there. Only issue is, of course, that this is about the attraction of a man in his 50s to a teenage boy.

Though they never speak to each other or have any contact, Aschenbach feels that Tadzio sanctions (I suppose is the word) the attraction. He knows he is being followed…he looks back and sees Aschenbach all the time. But Aschenbach sees Tadzio smile at him in those moments…which of course the older man interprets as if there were a secret between the two of them…that Tadzio is in on it to some extent.

"It was with a thrill of joy the older man perceived that the lad was not entirely unresponsive to all the tender notice lavished on him. For instance, what should move the lovely youth, nowadays when he descended to the beach, always to avoid the board walk behind the bathing-huts and saunter along the sand, passing Aschenbach's tent in front, sometimes so unnecessarily close as almost to grave his table or chair? Could the power of an emotion so beyond his own so draw, so fascinate its innocent object? Daily Aschenbach would wait for Tadzio. Then sometimes on his approach, he would pretend to be preoccupied and let the charmer pass unregarded by. But sometimes he looked up, and their glances met; when that happened both were profoundly serious. The elder's dignified and cultured mien let nothing appear of his inward state; but in Tadzio's eyes a question lay - he faltered in his step, gazed on the ground, then up again with that ineffably sweet look he had; and when he was past, something in his bearing seemed to say that only good breeding hindered him from turning round."

and...

"Tadzio walked behind the others, he let them pass ahead in the narrow alleys, and as he sauntered slowly after, he would turn his head and assure himself with a glance of his strange, twilit grey eyes that his lover was still following. He saw him--and he did not betray him. The knowledge enraptured Aschenbach. Lured by those eyes, led on the leading-string of his own passion and folly, utterly lovesick, he stole upon the footsteps of his unseemly hope--and at the end found himself cheated."

The whole thing gave me the creepy feeling that Lolita gives me…it’s beautifully written, and you want to fall into the love story, but there is something very not right about it.

In the end, Aschenbach isn’t feeling well…obviously he has caught the cholera. He notices that bags are packed, and is told by the hotel staff that Tadzio’s family is leaving that day. Aschenbach goes out to the beach to watch him again. He believes that Tadzio is beckoning to him, inviting him outward into “the promising immensity of it all.” And then suddenly, Aschenbach dies.

Death in Venice has been voted by the folks at Triangle Publishing as THE greatest gay novel, beating out such heavy hitters as Baldwin, Proust, Genet, Woolf, Wilde, and Stein just to name a few others on the list. In the past, there has been a movement to ignore the gayness of the book, but in recent years that has changed, especially as certain biographical details about Thomas Mann and the inspiration for the novel have come to light. In Mann’s letters and diaries, it has become clear that he struggled with his own sexuality, and the story about an older man in Venice lusting after a young boy actually happened…Mann, his wife and his brother were staying in Venice in 1911 (the year before the novella was published) at the same hotel Aschenbach stayed at. It was there that Mann, age 36, became infatuated with Władysław Moes, an 11 year old Pole. I don’t know if he followed him around town, but he was definitely very attracted to the boy.

But Death in Venice – like most good literature – isn’t just about one thing. To see it purely as a gay novel, or as a “paradigmatic mast-text of homosexual eroticism” as author/critic Gilbert Adair called it, is to miss something greater in it…liked, as this salon.com articles says, seeing The Old Man and the Sea as just a novel about fishing.

I tried to find out whether there was controversy over this novella, but didn’t find any information to suggest that there was. Comparing this to Lolita, published 40 years or so later, I’m surprised there wasn’t outrage. But sometimes I think that we look back at the past with our puritanical American glasses and expect there to be outrage when there wasn’t.

This was my first encounter with Thomas Mann, though I’ve been meaning to read The Magic Mountain for years. I am very interested in author’s biographies, and Mann seems exceptionally interesting. He was known as a cold, calculating, self-absorbed man. He married his wife for her social status and is described as “oblivious” to his own children…two of them eventually committed suicide. Sounds like an crazy character, but one I’m glad I don’t know personally.

All in all, Death in Venice isn’t a bad little book. I don’t know that I would have felt that way if it had been longer. I wouldn’t say that I’m really looking forward to reading more of Mann’s works, but I’m dreading it either…I guess the jury’s still out.

2 comments:

Robby Virus said...

I think the big difference between "Death in Venice" and "Lolita" is that Aschenbach doesn't have sex with his object of desire, while Humbert Humbert does. This attraction from afar seems less controversial to me, and may explain why there was no great outcry against Mann's work.

I encourage you to read "The Magic Mountain". I read this in college and it still is one of my top three favorite novels...it blew me away. I ended up reading it three times within a span of three years. I loved it so much I subsequently read most of Mann's other works, but none quite compared with "The Magic Mountain". It's an amazing portrait of pre-World War I Europe.

Kristin said...

That is true. I suppose I envisioned the homosexual theme of the novella to trump whether or not they actually had sex. But again, it was my puritan glasses...looking at the way things are now, and have been for the last 50 years or so, and projecting how it must have been previous to that...how much MORE puritanical stuff must have been, but the more I read, the more I think maybe it wasn't more puritanical.

I will be reading "Magic Mountain" SOMEDAY...my goal is in the next five years. Maybe I should put it on my Christmas list...