A review of Der Tod in Venedig by Thomas Mann, Frankfurt, 1912, translated from the original German by H. T. Lowe-Porter as Death in Venice, London, 1928
"It is just as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins." *****
Absolutely masterful in its depiction of developing and conflicting emotions, this novella about a restrained and disciplined writer's loss of his dignity and life through Dionysian surrender to his hopeless passion for a beautiful boy, is the best story of its length that I know. It is an extraordinary tribute to its brilliance that its acclaim has survived the vilification for which the pederastic yearnings so vividly described are singled out today. So much has already been written about Death in Venice that I can most fruitfully contribute by concentrating on this aspect of it, which I have already studied broadly for my own novel about a boy the same age.
There appears to be a minority of readers who seek to escape the demand to hate that Aschenbach's passion is today expected to arouse by denying its erotic nature. This denial should be challenged even though it is not essential to appreciation of the story-telling, the agonised feelings of unrequited love being so finely drawn they should easily be felt by those left stone cold by Aschenbach's vision of perfect beauty as a 14-year-old boy. Besides the intense understanding shown of Tadzio's allure, while writing the story, Mann described it in a letter to Philipp Witkop as "dealing with a case of 'Knabenliebe' [boy love] in an aging artist.” Then there is the comparison of Aschenbach's love to that of the god Zephyr for the boy Hyacinthus and, most explicit of all, this: "Never had he [Aschenbach] known so well that Eros is in the word, as in those perilous and precious hours when he ... fashioned his little essay after the model Tadzio's beauty set."
One key to the endurance of the story's high reputation is that it was established long before pederasty or love of adolescent boys became so badly misunderstood. I doubt many publishers would dare take it up today. Some people now seem to assume it would have been thought more shocking in 1911 just because all homosexuality was then illegal in many northern countries. Though explicit writing about any sex was taboo, there was relatively speaking far less intolerance of the specific phenomenon of pederasty, which was ubiquitous and legal in much of the world, Italy being best known for this within Europe. Hence the contemporary resonance of the setting. This was the Venice of the so-called Baron Corvo then busy introducing his English fellow-countrymen to willing local boys, of Lord Beauchamp, the real-life homosexual model for Brideshead Revisited's Lord Marchmain, and a host of other sexual refugees from colder climes where pederasty was persecuted as a form of homosexuality (though not singled out for special opprobrium).
As many appear still to be unaware of it, it may be interesting to mention that Death in Venice, was almost autobiographical. Having already decided to write a story about a great writer who succumbs to passion for a youngster and to base the writer physically on the recently deceased composer Mahler, the rest of the story fell into place in detail when Mann arrived in Venice and promptly fell in love with a boy; in his own words, "nothing was invented." Gilbert Adair wrote a book on this called The Real Tadzio, exploring also the life of Wladyslaw Moes, who claimed to be the real boy (which I doubt for reasons I have explained in a review of it).
Perhaps though one should not need to point out that real-life experience of passion for a boy underlies the story. Is it not evident from the superbly playful passage where Mann, commenting as narrator on eros for Tadzio as Aschenbach's inspiration, mocks to death his own recommendation of literary discretion?: "It is just as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist's inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them, and the excellence of the writing would be of no avail." Through the enduring appeal of his novella in a society as unsympathetic as imaginable, Mann seems to have achieved the impossible feat of having his cake and eating it. For that above all, I take my hat off to him.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 31 July 2014