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Death in Venice - Michael Henry Heim, Thomas Mann, Michael Cunningham Since the piece is well known as being a landmark work of fiction regarding male homosexuality, I am not going to focus on that in my review, or on its other element that has been flogged to death as well, being the rather extreme youth (age 14) of the love object.


Well! What a conflicting piece of fiction. The novella seems fairly divisive amongst critics, but one thing that I think most of us can agree on, is that the novella is a discomfiting piece of writing. I suspect this was so for the author as well as for his readers.
For me this was not because of how the protagonist's obsession affected his love-object, but because of how this obsession affected the protagonist himself.
... and, I couldn't shake the feeling that the novella was pretty much autobiographical in many senses. (I found out later that it was so in many respects, and the love-object is based on a real person. Most uncomfortable of all, is that the 'real' Tadzio, was the 10-year old Wladyslaw Moes).

Achenbach, the protagonist, is a well-respected author, who, like Mann, tends to engage with political and intellectual issues in his work. Like Achenbach, Mann visited Venice, where he made the acquaintance of a young boy whose beauty he apparently admired; with the difference that Mann was accompanied by his wife and brother, while Achenbach was alone. Okay, there are a few other differences as well - and one pretty large one, but that's a spoiler.

Many reviewers and critics have made much ado about the protagonist's homosexuality and/or his pederastic inclinations, but I think what disturbed me most was the stalker-ish intensity of the protagonist's infatuation, and to an extent also how he totally overromanticized the idea of physical beauty, using purple prose and overblown idealistic sentiments to describe his thoughts on physical human beauty, (which I deeply disagree with), and which Mann propped up with symbolism from Greek mythology, and references to Platonic ideals.

Ironically, Björn Johan Andrésen, who played the role of the fourteen-year-old Tadzio in Luchino Visconti's 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice, is credited with saying: “One of the diseases of the world is that we associate beauty with youth. We are wrong. The eyes and the face are the windows of the soul and these become more beautiful with the age and pain that life brings. True ugliness comes only from having a black heart”.

Because I have long known that beauty is only skin-deep, I like those sentiments a lot better than:

... he believed that his eyes gazed upon beauty itself, form as divine thought, the sole and pure perfection that dwells in the mind and whose human likeness and representation, lithe and lovely, was here displayed for veneration. This was intoxication, and the aging artist welcomed it unquestioningly, indeed, avidly. His mind was in a whirl, his cultural convictions in ferment; his memory cast up ancient thoughts passed on to him in his youth though never yet animated by his own fire. Was it not common knowledge that the sun diverts our attention from the intellectual to the sensual? It benumbs and bewitches both reason and memory such that the soul in its elation quite forgets its true nature and clings with rapt delight to the fairest of sundrenched objects, nay, only with the aid of the corporeal can it ascend to more lofty considerations. Cupid truly did as mathematicians do when they show concrete images of pure forms to incompetent pupils: he made the mental visible to us by using the shape and coloration of human youths and turned them into memory's tool by adorning them with all the luster of beauty and kindling pain and hope in us at the sight of them...

Some interesting thoughts there, though I disagree with the sentiments expressed in bold. Were these the thoughts of the protagonist, or the author himself? From his notes, it would seem that these were actually Mann's own sentiments. They do seem a perfect rationalization for a man in Achenbach's position to make though, which makes them pretty fitting in their context, I must concede.

I am surprised that so many people, with so much evidence to the contrary, can still invoke Plato's ideas of essence = form when it comes to physical beauty = spiritual beauty. Surely, it doesn't require too much contemplation to come to the conclusion that physical beauty does not equal spiritual beauty?

One could muse that perhaps what Achenbach is rather saying, in what seems like a rationalization for his passion, that beauty can inspire love, the latter which is in itself beautiful. ...and yet, since in this specific context the object of that passion is so young, and vain, and since they had never even exchanged a word with one another, could this be love? Methinks not - this could surely be but an infatuation of the senses.

From the notes Mann made for the writing of the novella, it is clear that part of what he wanted to show, was that an artist (an author like himself) cannot be a dignified, purely rational creature, that he needs to be in touch with his passions and emotions, and that the act of creating art is inherently not a dispassionate activity.

Something else that Mann seems to be saying behind the scenes, is that love itself cannot be dignified, that love pushes an individual into undignified behavior.

Mann being a fairly obviously repressed individual, one can read a certain parallel between the disease that infects Venice, with Achenbach's almost insane passion (insanity features in Mann's notes). Mann seems to see these homosexual pederastic impulses that one surmises he felt himself, as at the same time degrading and ennobling. Ennobling, so the reasoning seems to go, in the sense of that when a person degrades himself for love, it can be seen as a kind of sacrifice of dignity for a higher cause (being, in this case, "love").
But one can only follow such reasoning if you can agree that a passion that seems so distant, unrealistic and physical can be ennobling and can be described as "love".

To put the matter in a slightly different context - make a small leap in your mind and imagine that the love-object here is instead a 40-year old woman. If the latter was the case, would the scenario in DIV still be creepy? Indeed, it would. What would make the scenario still creepy? It would still be a purely physical obsession characterized by stalkerish behaviour.

So one ends up asking yourself how far selfishly and obsessively stalking someone can really be an expression of love? ..and if it is to the extent that one puts this behaviour of yours above the wellbeing of its object? ..and what when the continuation of this behaviour puts the other's life in danger, then is it not actually selfishness and the opposite of love?

Achenbach deliberately does not tell Tadzio's mother about the epidemic in order to avoid the outcome that Tadzio's family would leave the resort; which would remove Tadzio from the older man's proximity. In fact, I was sort of visualizing an ending in which Tadzio dies of Cholera, and Achenbach is racked with guilt, possibly even driven totally mad with guilt)

Of course, when the object of your obsession is only 14 years old, not making contact can probably be seen as the nobler action to take than to make contact; and sticking to stalking behaviour is probably preferable to some potential alternatives.

In spite of my criticism of Mann's ideas and of his patches of overwrought, overemotional purple prose, the latter suits the subject of the story well, and there are certainly a lot of thought-provoking ideas and well-executed imagery.

Mann also displays keen insight into his characters. He portrays the aging, smitten homosexual well, and the dissolution of his personality via the intensity of his obsession is conveyed with pathos despite the relentless dissection under Mann's unnerving microscope.

One feels torn between pity for Achenbach while at the same time suppressing a shudder at the creepiness of his stalking behavior - but Mann manages to make him look pathetic more than anything else.

Mann also remarks on Tadzio's narcissism with acute insight. According to [b:The Real Tadzio: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and the Boy Who Inspired It|75427|The Real Tadzio Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and the Boy Who Inspired It|Gilbert Adair|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1170875167s/75427.jpg|72963], the latter was indeed a pretty narcissistic person who enjoyed the attentions of older men, so Mann was pretty spot-on with his portrayals.

All-in-all, as with all good fiction, the novel leaves one with conflicted feelings. And, like all good fiction, it makes you roll around its various elements in your head, considering and re-considering; trying to find definite stances. The fact that the latter is so hard to do with this work of fiction, is a part of what makes it good fiction, whether one agrees with all of the specific ideas put forward by it or not.

I must mention that I started the novella with the e-book version of the translation by Michael Henry Heim, and finished with the translation by Clayton Koelb, with some cross-over where I read passages out of both. The latter claims to be the most natural and most US-friendly translation out there, but these two translations appeared fairly similar to me.