Just how gay is "Death in Venice"?

A homoerotic "master text" or a cryptic parable of art, arrogance and self-deception? A fresh translation helps pry Thomas Mann's classic from too-literal interpretation.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published August 10, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

"Death in Venice" belongs to that group of short novels (or novellas, or long short stories) whose cultural importance is out of all proportion to their length. One thinks also of "Heart of Darkness," "Notes From Underground," "The Turn of the Screw," "The Old Man and the Sea" and "The Bear," among others. And when you consider that the authors of each of those stories also wrote much longer works that hardly anyone ever reads, you can't help thinking there's a lesson there for would-be authors of Great Books.

Despite its portrayal of the glorious Adriatic port city as a cesspool of disease, duplicity and decadence -- well, actually, because of that portrayal -- Thomas Mann's mini-masterpiece (and Luchino Visconti's overripe 1971 film version) helped lure the aesthetes of the Western world back to Venice more effectively than any tourist-board brochure. (It certainly did more than Henry James' interminable "Wings of the Dove," which is also set there and bears some thematic similarities to Mann's story.) Today you'll pay upward of 400 euros a night to stay at the Hotel des Bains, on the Lido beachfront, where middle-aged Prussian novelist Gustav von Aschenbach pursues his ill-fated passion for a teenage Polish boy. The proprietors will be glad to confirm that, yes indeed, Mann himself stayed there in 1911 -- and so did a certain sailor-suited lad named Wladyslaw Moes (who was no older than 10 or 11).

Dare I even suggest that this fixation with the quasi-scandalous biographical incident behind "Death in Venice" -- now the subject of doctoral dissertations and entries in "Fodor's Italy" -- is, to some significant extent, missing the point? It can be difficult to remember that we're dealing with a work of fiction here, and an especially crafty and meticulous one at that. Like all of Mann's other books, "Death in Venice" is a nest of interlocking keys and symbols in which scarcely a word is wasted, a careful balance of opposing polarities and apparent contradictions in which no final, definitive interpretation can defeat all others. This is a book about Italy written by a German, a book about homosexual love written by a married man who fathered six children, a book about a man who debases himself and embraces his own death written by a man who lived to age 80 as the very embodiment of bourgeois literary respectability.

Whatever "Death in Venice" is, it isn't exactly autobiography. Mann went to Venice and apparently he saw a beautiful boy there. But he was traveling with his wife and brother, while Aschenbach is a solitary widower. Mann was 36, still a rising young writer, while Aschenbach is in his 50s, past the apogee of an illustrious career. And whatever Mann may have thought or felt about young Wladyslaw Moes, it did not drive him to die alone on the Lido, consumed by lust and fever.

There can be no question, however, that "Death in Venice" is a book about homosexual passion -- in the eyes of some gay literary scholars and queer-studies theorists, it has virtually become the book about homosexual passion -- and that fact has affected its reception all along. Generations of earlier scholars expended immense amounts of intellectual wattage trying to deny or rationalize the author's evident fascination with male-male ardor. Even today, some critical guides to "Death in Venice" explain it principally as an allegorical study of artistic creativity and its pitfalls, or as a modern interpretation of classical myth. These interpretations can be defended, but they tended to overlook the obvious fact that Aschenbach's predicament would never have seemed so dire or his obsession so doomed if its object had been a teenage girl instead of a boy.

Gay readers were understandably enraged by scholarly efforts to aestheticize the queerness out of "Death in Venice," and the post-Stonewall academic revolution has produced a valuable corrective. But the reliance on biographical detail -- whether it's Mann's encounter with young Moes in Venice (which, like Aschenbach's with his Tadzio, amounted to nothing) or the struggle with sexual identity revealed in Mann's letters and diaries -- has risked tumbling out of the gondola in the other direction. The fact that "Death in Venice" is based to some degree on an event from Mann's life, and even the fact that Mann himself may have been homosexual or bisexual, do not mean that the book is only about those things, or that it amounts to no more than an anguished Freudian confession thinly coated with imagination.

At the risk of sounding like a middlebrow hetero liberal, let me insist that it would be unfortunate if future generations read "Death in Venice" as a "paradigmatic master-text of homosexual eroticism," in the phrase of critic and novelist Gilbert Adair. It can no more be boiled down to such a formulation than "Heart of Darkness" can be described as being entirely about colonial Africa, or "The Old Man and the Sea" as about fishing.

If anything, the homoerotic component of the story -- and Mann's tortured relationship to his besotted protagonist -- become clearer than ever in Michael Henry Heim's new translation of "Death in Venice." A UCLA linguist justly acclaimed for his Chekhov translations, Heim has thrown open the windows of Aschenbach's gloomy hotel and let the sea breezes in. As novelist Michael Cunningham writes in his introduction, Aschenbach seems like a more comprehensibly human and sympathetic character here, and Mann's ironic treatment of him less overtly cruel (and frankly funnier), than in H.T. Lowe-Porter's deeply coded, overly British translation. Mann's dense, overgrown language feels lighter, more burnished with Venetian beauty, than ever before in English.

(Cunningham's presence here, by the way, feels like a faintly cynical marketing ploy on the part of the publisher. His introduction is genial but insubstantial, and while he's too much of a gentleman to mention it, he must be aware that his own work bears almost no resemblance to Mann's and that he's been invited for one reason only -- he's the best-known gay novelist of the moment and "Death in Venice" is now coded as a gay book.)

The plot, if you want to call it that, is the same as always. (And if you object to my revealing what happens in a literary work published 92 years ago, you may exit now.) Aschenbach, the repressed and perhaps depressed literary celebrity best known for what sounds like a tedious historical novel about Frederick the Great, is inspired to travel after an enigmatic encounter with a mysterious stranger in a graveyard. He ends up in Venice, which is roasting in summer heat and beginning to suffer a cholera epidemic. He becomes fascinated with the beautiful young Tadzio and passes up numerous opportunities to leave, spending his evenings shadowing the boy (and his nunlike, almost sexless sisters) through the streets and canals of the Renaissance city. But he never approaches Tadzio or even speaks to him, and on the day when Tadzio and his family plan to leave the Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach dies in a beach chair, the boy apparently "beckoning to him," inviting him outward into "the promising immensity of it all."

None of that can begin to express the multiple layers of Mann's narrative. Here, for instance, is one of the central passages in the progress of Aschenbach's obsession (and one of the best examples of the loveliness of Heim's translation). He is watching Tadzio on the beach, while still trying to convince himself that his interest is solely aesthetic or platonic. Mann moves almost effortlessly from a total identification with Aschenbach, while he contemplates the boy's beauty, to a position of sardonic distance from Aschenbach's increasingly inane self-justifications. It's as if Mann empathizes -- indeed identifies -- with his passion, but can't bring himself to condone it:

"[Tadzio] would stand at the edge of the sea, alone, removed from his family, quite near Aschenbach, erect, his hands clasped behind his neck, slowly rocking on the balls of his feet, staring out into the blue in reverie, while little waves rolled up and bathed his toes. The honey-colored hair fell gracefully in ringlets at the temples and the back of the neck, the sun glimmered in the down of the upper spine, the fine delineation of the ribs and symmetry of the chest stood out through the torso's scanty cover, the armpits were still as smooth as a statue's, the hollows of the knees glistened, and their bluish veins made the body look translucent. What discipline, what precision of thought, was conveyed by that tall, youthfully perfect physique! Yet the austere and pure will laboring in obscurity to bring the godlike statue to light -- was it not known to him, familiar to him as an artist? Was it not at work in him when, chiseling with sober passion at the marble block of language, he released the slender form he had beheld in his mind and would present to the world as an effigy and mirror of spiritual beauty?"

Of course this passage describes an erotic infatuation. It also describes the self-delusion of an artist; Aschenbach almost seems convinced he has created the boy himself, out of "austere and pure will." Perhaps he has. Here and elsewhere, Tadzio is described as a piece of classical statuary, a mythical or godlike figure who is pale and translucent, indeed almost dead. (At two different points Aschenbach imagines that Tadzio will not live long, which he finds a satisfying, even pleasant notion.) This points us toward several of the other levels of Mann's story. Aschenbach's journey from repressed northern Europe into the fecund South is various things: a voyage from consciousness into the Freudian depths, from Apollonian discipline to Dionysian hedonism, from heterosexual "normalcy" into homosexual "deviance," from daily life into the realm of classical mythology. Perhaps most crucially, it is an allegorical journey into the underworld, the land of the dead.

From the first chapter of "Death in Venice," when Aschenbach sees the red-headed stranger in a Munich graveyard, a man who looks as if he has a deformed face and who is "baring his long, white teeth to the gums" (and who will reappear in Venice, although Aschenbach does not recognize him), it's hard to say how much of the story can be taken literally. Or rather, since we are always delicately balanced between Aschenbach's consciousness and the narrator's, we become aware that the tale can be considered simultaneously literal and symbolic. This semi-diabolical graveyard apparition plunges Aschenbach into a hallucination in which he sees "a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky -- sultry, luxuriant, and monstrous," filled with "beds of thick, swollen, and bizarrely burgeoning flora" and "outlandish stoop-shouldered birds with misshapen beaks." Is the enigmatic tale that follows -- the aging fop with false teeth Aschenbach meets on the ferry, the gondolier who refuses to follow instructions and disappears without being paid, the stinking canals and sunless sky of Venice, the reappearances of the color red, the lifeless perfection of Tadzio -- anything more than the further elaboration of Aschenbach's fever-dream of tumescence, desire and decay?

I am not so much inveighing against Gilbert Adair's homoerotic master-text analysis -- which carries more weight today than Mann's contention that the story was principally about the problem of "the artist's dignity" -- as I am suggesting that the lasting power of any work as densely wrought as "Death in Venice" can never be summarized by a single idea. As Mann scholar James W. Jones explains in his fine article for glbtq, an online encyclopedia of gay culture, it is now clear that the author wrestled with homoerotic feelings all his life and found much of his creative impulse in them, even as he thought them destructive and dangerous.

It doesn't follow from that, however, that the "meaning" of "Death in Venice" has been settled. It is a tale of psychological, cultural and geographical descent into the unacknowledged nether regions. For Mann that surely meant the same-sex love he was afraid to acknowledge and accept, but he also had in mind the division between his upright burgher's existence and his yearning for a sensual, "artistic" life, and between the sensibility of his Bavarian father and half-Brazilian mother. For every reader the question of whether Aschenbach's homosexual passion is at the root of his dilemma, or is yet another of Mann's symbolic keys, will appear in a different light -- as will the question of whether the Venice he visits is a real place or a Stygian landscape of death. At the very least, I can promise you that Aschenbach's story no longer feels antique; in this illuminating new English version, "Death in Venice" comes back to life.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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