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.
Weary, sceptical, Aschenbach (who becomes a composer in Visconti’s film) looks up from the newspaper in the opulent lobby of his Venice hotel and notices a young boy. There is something so noble, splendid, translucent in the boy’s face, that he seems to belong to Greek mythology. Watching the boy, Tadzio, day after day, Aschenbach’s long-dormant senses slowly awaken, he becomes aware of joy, pain, hope, elation, despair, jealousy, this mad kaleidoscope of human emotions that he can write about so well, but never feels himself. The beautiful Tadzio, this splendid creation, unmatched in his beauty in either nature or art, inspires, enthrals and corrupts him. Aschenbach’s powerful spirit is annihilated, reduced to basic sensuality, his dignity is lost, he falls into the abyss of shameless longing. Senses conquer the spirit: Dionysus rules Apollo.
The title of Thomas Mann’s novella speaks of death. Aschenbach dies, from the cholera epidemic that suddenly sweeps the city, sitting in a deck chair on the Venice beach, with the vast grey sea in front of him, the dull low horizon, the milky air, which seems to carry death on the breeze, and Tadzio’s solitary figure in front of him waving towards the sunset. The great artist dies as he had wanted to live: with his soul full of passion. In its final scene Visconti’s film, in its breathtaking beauty, rivals Thomas Mann’s book. Tadzio is running in the waves, with friends at first, then suddenly alone, there are just two of them in the face of death, the artist and the boy who brought him back to life. Tadzio stops, a languorous turn of the head, a glance, the silent admission that he knew, all along, of Aschenbach’s obsession: he fed it, he relished it, he realised his beauty, its all-conquering power. He raises his arm, he points to the sea, to the faraway and the unknown, where Aschenbach’s soul will soon travel. The Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony plays, the music slowly rises, then falls back, just like the waves of a southern sea in low tide. It is hauntingly beautiful. It is the end.
Like Aschenbach, I am searching for Tadzio. Unlike Aschenbach, I have not found him. In fleeting moments, perhaps: a silhouette, a shape in the crowd. But then Tadzio was an enigma: he is always in the distance, Aschenbach never meets him, he hears the music of his voice, but does not understand what he says. Aschenbach could get close, it would be so easy, but why break the illusion? Because when mystery ends, love ends.
Once a year, I re-read Death in Venice. It is my special day. I prepare for it. I am not an artist, I don’t shut life out because I have a talent of any kind, but for me Tadzio is the symbol which transcends the banality of my day-to-day routine. One day, I hope to encounter that perfect form. And even if this is a delusion, it keeps the possibility alive.
I first wrote this from memory: I know Thomas Mann’s novella only too well. Then I decided to read it again. It is perfection. I think we should all re-read Death in Venice, and soon.