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Thomas Mann, photographed in 1937 by Carl Van Vechten


The first time that I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, I was 21. I found this 1913 novella impressive, I remember this well, but with time, its memory faded. I was too young. Then one fine autumn evening in Paris, more than a decade later and by then resigned to life’s drudgery, I opened Death in Venice again. I read it at a single sitting. At four in the morning I found myself walking up and down the banks of the Seine, shaken by the world in which I had, for a few hours, been allowed to live, the world in which I would rather live, the world of myth and beauty, the powerful creation of a brilliant mind. The thought that in the morning I would have to return to my normal life of modest thoughts and even more modest emotions seemed oppressive.

Death in Venice
is the best book ever written about the nature of creative talent. Contrary to the popular concept that an artist relies on heightened emotion for his craft, Mann believed that an artist is, in fact, a cynic who observes the world from a distance, dissecting human nature with acute intelligence, but feeling nothing himself. The novella’s protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated German author whose novels have inspired an entire generation, leads a stoic, disciplined life at the service of his muse. Writing is his battle, as he forces his tired spirit, day after day, to carve a perfect word from the enormous monolith of language. He has a flat in Munich and a house in the Bavarian mountains, where in the summer he listens to thunderstorms and feeds crows. He is devoid of joy, his heart is stale. Other people’s lives cavalcade in front of him; he dissects them with uncanny precision. His eye is well-trained to detect the subtleties of human emotion. His talent is powerful: it amplifies others’ feelings, it draws out nuances where none exist, it creates memorable literary characters — but he has long stopped living himself. And then one day, overwhelmed by a sudden urge for youthful adventure, he decides to go to Venice. There, in the splendour of a grand hotel on the Lido, he sees Tadzio.

Tadzio, a Polish boy of 14 with long hair, marble skin and dusk-grey eyes, silent, languorous, is a symbol of youth and beauty, the perfect form — the form that Aschenbach strives to create with his art, and the one that Tadzio was chosen by gods to possess. Over the centuries, there were just a handful like him: Helen of Troy, Irene from The Forsyte Saga. Poems were written about them, music composed, but could a real human being ever be like them? Which brings me to Luchino Visconti’s eponymous 1971 film, with Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach, in perhaps his most memorable role, where Visconti did the unthinkable: his on-screen Tadzio was in fact the image of pure beauty.

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