"Death in Venice" Review and Legacy
Below this paragraph is a link to a 2016 Japanese visual kei music video. Our focus is on a German novella from 1919, but be aware that our journey includes this music video.
Death in Venice is one of the most read novellas of the past century, apparently. Its author, Thomas Mann, is ranked among Germany’s greatest authors of the twentieth century.
I did not know this until researching this post. Curiosity got me. I wanted to read the source material for a movie that gave me mixed feelings.
I’ll try to walk you through the way I experienced it.
Death in Venice is a well-regarded Italian art film from 1971. The production and reputation caught my eye. Much of the film relies on the orchestral music of Gustav Mahler. For long stretches of movie, we get music and Dirk Bogarde’s silent acting, rather than dialogue. Director Luchino Visconti (also responsible for The Leopard and The Damned) filmed it on location. Most intriguingly, some call the film a gay classic.
To take the pretension out of it: pretty music in a pretty city with some pretty faces. What more do you want? The plot, as told by most streaming service blurbs, goes like this: “Famed author Gustav von Auschenbach travels to a plague-ridden Venice and becomes captivated by a boy named Tadzio.”
For the record, Death in Venice is a beautiful movie. The music and cinematography fit a quiet, macabre mood. The glacial pace is sometimes obnoxious, but I understand the appeal. I described it to a friend as “beautiful if a metaphor, disgusting if taken literally”.
Tadzio, the story’s statuesque symbol of beauty, is fourteen. Gustav is middle-aged. Much of the plot revolves around this older man lusting after (and at one point stalking) a child. As fans are quick to point out, this is a metaphor. Tadzio is Beauty, the concept that the artist strives to have, but cannot for reasons we’ll get to later.
Tadzio is a metaphor. Actor Björn Andréson, however, was a real fifteen-year-old at the time.
Why am I talking about movies on a bookstore blog?
Because, after watching the film, I wanted to read the original. That opportunity came months later, when NovelTea brought me onto the staff. On our shelves lay a copy of Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann.
A quick check showed that the titular novella was only seventy-one pages. That isn’t much, right? I could read that, maybe research the adaptation, and make it a footnote in a blog post. Reminder: we’re still moving toward that music video.
Thomas Mann was a big deal. Writers from The New York Times, the Independent, and Salon all talked about him like he was a universally recognized master of the craft. The NY Times’ 1999 list of best gay novels placed Death in Venice at the top spot.
(Note: that list was made as backlash to the “best novels of all time” list consisting of mostly cis-straight white men.)
The chart-topping novella was supposed to be a quick read. Instead, page-spanning sentences of dense prose hit me with multi-layered metaphor. Esoteric comments on the nature of art filtered through references to Greek mythology. On the most basic level, it’s the sort of thing that takes time and intention to read.
While that doesn’t sound like a compliment, I commend the prose. Thomas Mann could write. For example, a century before the phrase entered common use, he described creative burnout:
“This yearning for new and distant scenes, this craving for freedom, release, forgetfulness— they were, he admitted to himself, an impulse towards flight, flight from the spot which was the daily theatre of a rigid, cold, and passionate service. That service he loved, had even almost come to love the enervating daily struggle between a proud, tenacious, well-tried will and this growing fatigue, which no one must suspect, nor the finished product betray by any faintest sign that his inspiration could ever flag or miss fire.”
That was two sentences.
Maybe it’s the ‘literary aesthete’ (aka book nerd) in me, but I love that description. Moreover, in going through these early pages a second time, the pieces began to fit. Certain phrases and word choices connected to the rest of the novel. Those plot threads which seemed so minor or unrelated had been choreographed. It’s easy to miss, but no metaphor is wasted. It’s equal parts difficult to understand and interconnected, like a Dark Souls map.
When Mann turns his prose to the physical world, the descriptions are breathtaking. The Venetian architecture, the sway of the gondola in the early evening, boisterous performances in the night. That level of detail, unfortunately, extends to human bodies. Particularly, the body of young Tadzio.
No detail is ignored when describing the boy with honey-coloured hair. Thomas lingers on the shade of his eyes, the condition of his skin, and the fit of his clothes.
The prose leers over Tadzio like Visconti’s camera. The details are so specific that, if it were a real person, you could trace it to them without difficulty. In fact, they did do that.
Katia Mann, Thomas’ wife, discussed it in her 1969 book Unwritten Memories. Mr. And Mrs. Mann vacationed in Venice before the novella. Many elements from their trip ended up in the story: lost luggage, drunk tourists, a cholera outbreak, and a Polish boy.
The description was so vivid that Tadzio’s inspiration, the real-life Władysław Moes, recognized a vacation he took with his family. The Grand Hotel Des Bains, the hair style, the number of siblings.
This connection led to a 2001 biography called The Real Tadzio.
To be clear: Thomas Mann did not (to my knowledge) carry out the reprehensible actions of his character. The real trip gave ideas for the fiction. At the same time, I want it to be clear that I am uncomfortable at the idea of a grown man giving longing gazes at a child. Granted, I didn’t have the time or resources to track down Unwritten Memories, so I don’t know the details.
Besides, we’re here for the novella and what it inspired.
Tadzio does not, it may surprise you, fill many pages of the actual tale. Rather, the idea of Tadzio does. As this poster for the film shows, the idea of the boy is more important than any human being.
Unfortunately, as Nabakov fans know too well, adaptation can kill a metaphor. Book Tadzio is ink on a page. Thomas Mann goes out of his way, in fact, to point out that Gustav refuses to interact with the boy lest reality fail to meet the idea he’s crafted. Thomas does everything short of break the fourth wall to separate Gustav’s rationalization from authorial endorsement. Tadzio is an idea.
Problem is, when you make a movie, that idea needs a face. So, things got dark in 1971.
Björn Andréson was fifteen, Swedish, and immediately casted by Visconti. At that year’s Cannes film festival, Visconti gave Björn the title that would haunt him: “the most beautiful boy in the world”.
Visconti’s Death in Venice became an international hit. It is the reason that Władysław discovered his literary counterpart. Björn became a global celebrity. Among the countries that loved him most was Japan. His style made him an instant hit with Japanese girls of the early 70s. Without a grasp of the language (or a fair contract) the legal minor ended up in several commercials. He even released a Japanese album.
In case you’re wondering where his parents were in all this, they were dead. His grandmother was his legal guardian.
Among the many Japanese women captivated with Björn’s face was a young manga artist: Ikeda Riyoko. Ikeda used Björn’s likeness as the model for the main character of her next series: The Rose of Versailles. For the unaware, The Rose of Versailles is a massively popular and influential piece of media.
(That song title “Destiny / The Lovers” feels different now, huh?)
To recap: Polish boy. German novella. Italian movie. Swedish actor. Japanese manga and band. Canadian bookstore.
Unfortunately, none of this helped Björn. Visconti exploited the child and left him to flounder. If you want details, watch the 2021 documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.
All this winds back to those seventy-one pages. Of course, I’m not saying that these other media wouldn’t exist without Thomas Mann. Of course not. Ikeda Riyoko would have made her gender-bending period piece with another face. Versailles would be a band under a different name.The point is the interplay.
By the time I’d researched all this, it was difficult to look at the novella unbiased. Björn’s story soured the title. My first draft of this devolved into criticism. But that was unfair.
I returned to articles and reviews that focused solely on the literary impact. Moreover, while I had to ask the personal question: why had it left a strong enough impression on me that I went through all this effort?
Before I knew the legacy, these were my thoughts. Death in Venice was a tale of obsession and decay. A burnt-out novelist pines after youth and beauty in the form of Tadzio. He wants these things because, as an artist, he feels that his whole life depends on those things. He gets so wrapped up in the art that he forgets real life. Reality becomes secondary to his ideas. The man becomes a sick parody of himself. He’s been so absorbed in writing that he pursues ‘Beauty’ and ‘Art’ without even knowing what those mean anymore. At the same time, he wants to ignore the expectations of his readers. For once, he wants to relax, to be able to live without thinking of these things. The problem is, these thoughts are his life. The only way to be rid of them is to be rid of all thought and feeling. In other words, the only way out is the permanent one.
The more I look at the text itself, to my own surprise, the more I respect it. I’m not sure I think it’s a masterpiece or even worth the hype, but it’s a good book. If nothing else, it deserves to have a spotlight because, like everything else on the list it topped, it has been ignored and straightwashed by so many people.
Death in Venice is gay. That fact has rippled through its influence. To the movie adaptation with a mostly gay cast, to Rose of Versailles’ (clumsy but well-intentioned) gender non-conformity. Even to the band. Did you see that music video?
This article in Salon offered a good argument for why this story deserves to be on a non-dismissive version of that 1999 list.
Remember what I said earlier about Tadzio? He represents ideas which Gustav wants but can’t have. He’s an artist who wants to make something beautiful. An old man who wants to be young. A gay or bisexual man who wants to explore that part of himself. A crucial part of this story, perhaps, is a dying man in regret. There is an entire piece of himself that he never got to explore, or perhaps even experience.
Death in Venice has no single meaning. Mann claimed that it was about “the artist’s dignity”. Scholars have called it an allegorical descent into the Underworld. Post-Stonewall scholars spotlight the gay longing. I saw a burnt-out author losing touch with reality.
There is no individual right answer.
Death in Venice is not for everyone. The subject matter is uncomfortable. The style is dated. The legacy is far more interesting than the work itself.
In all this, I have two points.
First, on a light note: no piece of art stands alone. Artists and audiences interact over generations, whether or not they know it. There are remarkably few degrees of separation between Mann’s work and one of my favourite manga. That international push and pull of writer and reader is beautiful. Any good bookshelf has dozens of those stories. The only question is whether you know them.
Second, and more seriously, it’s important to have these works available. You don’t need to like it. Maybe you think that no book should have a 114-word sentence. Fair enough. But the option needs to be there.
As legislators and bigots strive to take away books and rewrite history, we need to make sure that we know it and tell it. We cannot let people control the way we read art, nor can we allow the lie to persist that any of this is new. Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. Carmilla is the Sapphic queen of gothic literature. James Dean, the icon of cool for a generation, was bi.
We need art. If we can’t handle ideas on a page or screen, or allow people to share their experiences, there’s no way we’ll be able to help each other in the real world.
Read banned books. Support queer artists. Because they either inspired your favourite media or they made it themselves.