Thomas Mann is an author whose work I have always wanted to read. Rather than starting with one of his weightier tomes, I thought I would plump for Death in Venice, one of his short yet major works. I found a lovely old Penguin edition of the work, bound up with two other novellas (Tristan and Tonio Kroger), whilst on a mini BookTube/blogger meet-up with the lovely Katie.
Translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter and first published in 1912, Death in Venice flows just as well as it would had English been its original language. Such thought and intelligence has been given to both the writing and translation processes. A short work even by novella standards, the edition which I read runs to just 78 pages.
Death in Venice‘s plot, and the way in which Mann writes of it, veers toward the psychological. It ‘tells how Gustave Von Eschenbach, a writer utterly absorbed in his work, arrives in Venice as the result of a “youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes”, and meets there a young boy by whose beauty he becomes obsessed. His pitiful pursuit of the object of his abnormal affection and its inevitable and pathetic climax is told here with the particular skill the author has for this shorter form of fiction’. The craft of writing, and the way in which it can so utterly absorb one, has been woven in too: ‘… their creator could hold out for years under the strain of the same piece of work, with an endurance and a tenacity of purpose like that which had conquered his native province of Silesia, devoting to actual composition none but his best and freshest hours… yes, even while his faithful following revelled in the characters he created, he, the young artist, was taking away the breath of the twenty-year-olds with his cynic utterances on the nature of art and the artist life’.
Mann conjures up the setting and protagonists so well from the novella’s very beginning: ‘Gustave Aschenbach – or Von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday – had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk… May had begun, and after weeks of cold and wet a mock summer had set in. The English Gardens, though in tenderest leaf, felt as sultry as in August and were full of vehicles and pedestrians near the city. But towards Aumeister the paths were solitary and still, and Aschenbach strolled thither, stopping awhile to watch the lively crowds in the restaurant garden with its fringe of carriages and cabs’.
His character descriptions are both striking and exquisitely rendered, and they build marvellously: ‘In his right hand, slantwise to the ground, he held an iron-shod stick, and braced himself against its crook, with his legs crossed. His chin was up, so that the Adam’s apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt: and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes, while two pronounced perpendicular furrows showed o his forehead in curious contrast to his little turned-up nose. Perhaps his heightened and heightening position helped out the impression that Aschenbach received. At any rate, standing there as though at survey, the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless, air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums’. Of Tadzio, the young Polish boy whom Von Aschenbach becomes infatuated with, Mann writes: ‘The lad had just reached the gate in the railings, and he was alone. Aschenbach felt, quite simply, a wish to overtake him, to address him and have the pleasure of his reply and answering look; to put upon a blithe and friendly footing his relation with this being who all unconsciously had so greatly heightened and quickened his emotions’.
The scenes which Mann weaves before our very eyes are often gorgeous: ‘But evening too was rarely lovely: balsamic with the breath of flowers and shrubs from the near-by park, while overhead the constellations circled in their spheres, and the murmuring of the night-girded sea swelled softly up and whispered to the soul. Such nights as these contained the joyful promise of a sunlit morrow, brim-full of sweetly ordered idleness, studded thick with countless precious possibilities’.
Many constructs, concepts and ideas are woven into Death in Venice, causing it to feel like an incredibly rich and almost intense read. The way in which it has been written, with the use of an omniscient narrator, adds real texture to the piece, and focuses not just upon the protagonists, but upon society as a whole: ‘A solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels, has mental experiences which are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man. They are sluggish, yet more wayward, and never without a melancholy tinge: sights and impressions which others brush aside with a glance, a light comment, a smile, occupy him more than their due; they sink silently in, they take on meaning, they become experience, emotion, adventure’. The novella is well focused upon the concepts of beauty and art, and how they have the ability to affect every single one of us. Death and illness, and the sheer power which they wield, are personified throughout, becoming just as important as the characters themselves. Much Ancient Greek mythology has also been alluded to, and I loved this element of the book particularly.
The story here is well rendered, but the whole does not come across as plot heavy; rather, there is more of interest within the writing itself, and the sheer control which Mann has over the vocabulary which he has so carefully selected. Death in Venice is almost worth reading for its exquisite descriptions alone. Mann captures scenes and emotions perfectly throughout, and is continually aware of the influence of the outside world upon his characters: ‘With closed lids Aschenbach listened to this poesy hymning itself silently within him, and anon he thought it was good to be here and that he would stop awhile’. Death in Venice is a tale which certainly deserves to be savoured.