The first I heard of Death in Venice was in the movie A Good Year starring Russel Crowe and Marion Cotillard. The movie is pretty good. Russell Crowe is, no surprise, not particularly likeable. But, all the other characters make up for his surly rudeness. Also, the majority of the movie takes place in Provence so… there’s a lot a surly rudeness I can put up with when the scenery looks like that. The movie flashes between Max (Russell Crowe) dealing with his uncle’s estate, and a ten year old Max, spending the summers with his uncle at the same better kept estate in Provence. During one of these flashbacks, the young Max sits by the pool reading Death in Venice which, not knowing a thing about it, sounded to me like a really great murder mystery. Also, there was always the teeny tiny possibility that if I read it, I would magically appear beside a pool in Provence, reading and sipping lavender lemonade.
So, I read it. My first thought? What the heck was a ten year old doing reading Death in Venice? The novella is about an aged writer who decides to take an adventure. At his age, adventure means holing up in a Venetian resort somewhere, which is what he does. He stays on an island in the Venetian lagoon where he begins to take great interest in a beautiful pre-pubescent boy. For most of the novella, he stalks the boy, while thinking about beauty and youth, through a crumbling, menacing, Venice and her surrounding islands.
The whole stalking-pretty-boy bit of the work threw me off. I didn’t get it. But the book stayed with me after I finished it. Sometimes I would think of its murky Venice and the sad, desperate man trapped in its pages. I re-read it hoping that I could appreciate the writing now that the stalking wasn’t going to take me by surprise.
The novella is really a contemplation on beauty, youth, and our folly in chasing after it. Thomas Mann introduces us to his main character, Gustav Aschenbach, who lives a stately, moral life. Aschenbach is logical, well-educated, reasonable, not the kind of man to be taken up with flights of fancy. On a ferry to Venice, he observes an older man trying to blend it with a ground of young people. Aschenbach is repulsed when he realizes the man has on makeup, false teeth, dyed hair. Yet, as the story goes on, Aschenbach too is caught up in chasing after youth, throwing off his reason and his intellect in an attempt to reach his darkest desire.
Death in Venice isn’t very long. Mann does a lot in so few pages. He moves easily from descriptions to thoughts and back out. Sometimes these internal thoughts morph into philosophical discourses that feel more like Mann lecturing the reader than Aschenbach’s inner dialogue. These can get tedious as can the description about Tadzio, the boy that captivates Aschenbach. Despite the continual descriptions of the boy, Mann is best at description I think. The details he chooses to disclose about people, the city, the gondolas, come together to make up the shadowed, misty, mood of the novella. My most favorite part of the book comes early, when Aschenbach is imagining adventures.
“He saw it, saw a landscape; a tropical swampland under a cloud-swollen sky, moist and lush and monstrous, a kind of primeval wilderness of islands, morasses and muddy alluvial channels; far and wide around him he saw hairy palm-trunks thrusting upward from rank jungles of fern, from among thick fleshy plants in exuberant flower: say strangely misshapen trees with roots that arched through the air before sinking into the ground or into stagnant shadowy-green glassy water where milk-white blossoms floated as big as plates, and among them exotic birds with grotesque beaks stood hunched in the shallows, their heads tilted motionlessly sideways; saw between the knotted stems of the bamboo thicket the glinting eyes of a crouching tiger; and his heart throbbed with terror and mysterious longing. Then the vision faded and with a shake of his head Aschenbach resumed his perambulation along the fencing of the gravestone yards.”
I like reading this paragraph out loud to hear the rhythms and alliteration. Mann wrote the piece in German and it was later translated to English, so the alliteration we have here must not have been planned. (I don’t know German, so it’s possible that all these ‘s’ sounds occur when reading this in Mann’s native language, but, what are the odds?)
Rereading Death in Venice, I understand why it lingered in my head for so long. And now I know it will absolutely linger in my head again. With time, I will forget the tedious repetition in descriptions of Tadzio, and remember only the murky mood of the novella, its haunting descriptions of people and the sinking city of Venice, they way death lurks around each paragraph, and the ideas Mann presents about beauty. It’s better the second time around.