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Death in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)

The first time I tried this collection, I read the first story, “Little Herr Friedemann”, and the last, “Death in Venice”. I thought they were both very good: powerful, moving, and mysterious. But I didn’t try any of the other stories, except for a little of “Gladius Dei”. I felt somehow that they wouldn’t be worth it.

Now I’ve come back to the book and tried to read it from beginning to end. I’ve failed and my reluctance to try the other stories seems to have been justified. “Little Herr Friedemann” was still good and so was “Death in Venice”. The others I found variously trite or impossible to finish. “The Road to the Churchyard”, about an unhealthy drunk on foot encountering a healthy youth on a bicycle, reminded me of Maupassant. But Maupassant would have done it much better.

At least, I’ve found Maupassant very good in French. But the same stories have been less good when I’ve tried them in English. Maybe that was part of the problem here. I can’t read Mann’s stories in German and if I could I still wouldn’t be sure of judging them right. But I assume it’s easier for a good story in the original to become a bad story in translation than for the reverse. And “Death in Venice” is a very good story in this translation. After you’ve read it, David Luke’s clever and insightful introduction to the collection will make it even better.

As he points out, “Death in Venice” is in part an updating and expansion of “Little Herr Friedemann”, which is also about thwarted passion and the eruption of Dionysiac energies in an Apollonian life. But the earlier story is tragic and realistic, the later tragicomic and dream-like:

Aschenbach bedeckte seine Stirn mit der Hand und schloß die Augen, die heiß waren, da er zu wenig geschlafen hatte. Ihm war, als lasse nicht alles sich ganz gewöhnlich an, als beginne eine träumerische Entfremdung, eine Entstellung der Welt ins Sonderbare um sich zu greifen, der vielleicht Einhalt zu tun wäre, wenn er sein Gesicht ein wenig verdunkelte und aufs neue um sich schaute. – Der Tod in Venedig (1912), Drittes Kapitel.

Aschenbach put his hands over his forehead and closed his eyes, which were hot from too little sleep. He had a feeling that something not quite usual was about to happen, that the world was undergoing a dreamlike alteration, becoming increasingly deranged and bizarre, and perhaps this process might be arrested if he were to cover his face for a little and take a fresh look at things. (section 3)

The world will indeed become increasingly deranged and bizarre, as the distinguished novelist Gustav Aschenbach allows his infatuation with a young Polish boy to strip him of his reason, his dignity and, finally, his life. The title tells the reader that his doom is inevitable, so Mann has to make the journey there interesting. And it is: psychologically, symbolically, allegorically, and literally too. Aschenbach couldn’t have stayed in Munich: he needed a rich, fantastic, southern and sea-washed setting for his doomed romance.

The boy, Tadzio, is delicately and skilfully depicted – “presented,” as David Luke says in the introduction, “with extraordinary subtlety, mysteriously yet very realistically paused between innocence and a certain half-conscious coquetry”. I was reminded of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), who also visits Venice with the protagonist. But that’s a novel and the protagonist will see Sebastian grow old and lose his beauty. Aschenbach will never see that happen to his object of desire: Tadzio’s beauty enthrals and destroys him, successfully tempting him to stay on in Venice as cholera rages and tourists flee.

“Death in Venice” is also reminiscent of Lolita (1955) and you could call it the homosexual variant on the same paedophilic theme. But I found Lolita too repulsive to finish the last time I tried it. “Death in Venice” is more ironic, more comic and more moral. Its unnatural love-affair is never consummated and it will be news of Aschenbach’s death that shocks the world, not news of his arrest. Where Lolita has undoubtedly encouraged crime, “Death in Venice” may occasionally have admonished those contemplating it.

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