This novella details Gustav Von Aschenbach’s stay in Venice and his obsession with a young Polish boy Tadzio. This beautiful boy stirs something in him, not just an all-consuming longing but prompts him to explore the darker side of his personality; the one which he had, until then, repressed. Death in Venice reminded me of Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All his years of family/societal obligation and discipline to his craft has left Aschenbach feeling empty and uninspired about his writing. Whereas in his youth, he was a radical writer, in his old age, he has lost his passion for his craft because of his attempts to conform to the general public’s sympathies regarding works of art.
Mann’s portrayal of Venice is fantastic, haunting and poignant. It’s a metaphor for the two sides of Aschenbach’s personality; one side restricted by convention and the other overwhelmed by passion. We see Venice through this introspective, solitary man’s eyes. At the beginning, when he first sees an older man among a group of young men on a steamer, he is repulsed by the latter’s affectation of beauty. The irony is, Aschenbach soon spruces himself up to conceal his age in an attempt to impress the object of his attentions: Tadzio.
Aschenbach never has any dialogue with Tadzio, which suits the theme of dangerous infatuation that the book deals with. To speak to the boy would have made him less of an object, an idol, or boy-god, and more into a human being with feelings and desires. We’re not quite sure if Aschenbach is projecting his feelings and desire on the boy in later scenes, since his obsession turns alarming with his tendency for gazing at the boy as he plays on the beach with his friends each morning and his stalking him around the atmospheric, maze-like city.
Venice, beautiful and culturally significant, could also be viewed as a metaphor for his moral, physical spiritual degeneration as the city is the the midst of an epidemic. We understand Aschenbach as a character through the limited third person narrative Mann uses. He particularly excels at getting you into the psychology and psyche of the character. Mann provides invaluable insights on writing, art, and the nature of beauty. He’s a wordsmith. He performs mind-bending acrobatics with language you wouldn’t have thought possible. Often his imagery draws on mythological classical figures like Narcissus and Helios. His beautiful, eloquent, musical, sometimes astonishing prose wove a seductive spell on me and assaulted my senses.
This is a lush, tragic, thoughtful piece that will linger long in the memory.