Death in Venice book review
In 2003 Germaine Greer ignited a furor (as is her wont) with the publication of a book devoted to the youthful male face and form. The Beautiful Boy, which one critic described as a combination of art history and coffee-table erotica, was full of pictures of, in her words, “‘ravishing’ pre-adult boys with hairless chests, wide-apart legs and slim waists”. On a British talk show she argued that admiring beautiful young people, both male and female, is part of the joy of life:
“What is important to me about the Boy is that once upon a time his beauty was understood and celebrated by people of both sexes. A boy was allowed to dress in very bright colours, he was allowed to show himself off in the street, he dyed his hair, he wore make-up, he wore a little cap tipped over his eye with a big feather in, he wore tight pants and cropped jackets and so on. And the girls looked down from behind their jalousie and talked about the best-looking boys.”
I mention this because the photo she chose for the cover of her book is of Bjorn Andresen, the adolescent star of Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Neither Greer nor her publisher asked Andreson for permission to use the photo and he was furious when the book came out. “I have a feeling of being utilised,” he said, “that is close to distasteful.”
Since appearing in the film almost 50 years ago, Andreson has been dogged with the tag of “the most beautiful boy in the world”. He dislikes the fact that his younger self was preyed upon, visually at least, by men old enough to be his father.
“Adult love for adolescents is something that I am against in principle,” he says. “Emotionally perhaps, and intellectually, I am disturbed by it – because I have some insight into what this kind of love is about.”
It was that kind of creepiness, I think, that bothered me when I watched the film back in the day. (It was showing at my university campus, on a double-bill with Performance, starring Mick Jagger – definitely not mainstream fare.) Visconti’s images, gorgeous as they were, of the half-naked form of a young boy being leered at by the 50-year-old Dirk Bogarde didn’t sit well, to be honest. (I had a similar reaction a few years later to Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, with Brooke Shields playing a 12-year-old prostitute.) It was my dislike of the film that kept me from reading the book until now, and I’m sorry for that. Because Mann’s novella is a classic, and not just because it’s likely the first time that a gay character made it into mainstream fiction.
The story begins outside a cemetery in Munich. Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer who has dedicated his life to his art and lives alone, his wife having died years ago, stops to stare at an odd-looking foreigner. The foreigner, obviously a tourist, catches his eye and stares back at him with some belligerence. This brief encounter leads von Aschenbach to think about traveling, and he experiences a sudden craving to get away from home – perhaps leave the city for his house in the mountains. Instead, he heads for a resort town in Croatia, but before he gets there he changes his mind and makes his way to Venice. On the boat, he witnesses an older man in makeup trying to ingratiate himself with a group of young men. His attempts to appear younger disgust the writer, and he does his best to avoid him.
Once in Venice, von Aschenbach checks into a luxury hotel on the Lido – the same hotel, as it happens, where Mann and his wife stayed in 1911 and where the author saw the young boy who inspired him to write the novella. At dinner that first night, he observes a wealthy Polish family, three sisters and their brother, accompanied by their governess. The sisters are dressed very plainly, almost like nuns, but the boy is shockingly beautiful:
“His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture – pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity”.
This observation is important, as von Aschenbach has dedicated himself to Apollo, the god of restraint, form, and the intellect, according to Nietzsche, denying the power of Dionysus, the god of passion and impulse. His scrutiny of the young boy is a hint that Dionysus, long repressed, is about to rise to the surface.
Von Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the boy, whose name is Tadeusz and is nicknamed Tadzio. He never speaks to him, but goes out of his way to be on the beach when he knows Tadzio will be there. Eventually, he starts following the boy and his sisters, trying to keep out of sight. At one point, sharing an elevator with Tadzio and his family, he’s close enough to see that the boy looks rather sickly, and he guesses he won’t live very long. This, the fact that his beauty is fleeting, makes him all the more precious.
Still, it’s weeks before the older man admits to himself that he’s in love. As an intellectual, he needs to justify his passion for the boy; he needs to convince himself that his feelings are more than pure lust. To this end he imagines himself as Socrates discussing erotic love with Phaedrus: beauty, he argues, is the only spiritual form that can be perceived by the senses. So the pursuit of one who embodies beauty is a noble, uplifting endeavour.
Unfortunately, von Ashenbach’s obsession with Tadzio only degrades him. He becomes dissatisfied with his appearance – his wrinkled cheeks, grey hair and so on. In an ill-advised visit to a barber, he allows the man to dye his hair and apply makeup in a misguided attempt to make him look younger. What he looks like, of course, is the old man he saw on the boat, flirting with the youngsters. He continues to follow Tadzio around Venice, and becomes aware that the boy knows it. Tadzio does nothing to discourage his silent suitor, but his mother, with a parent’s eye for these things, calls him away when she sees von Aschenbach in the vicinity.
Von Ashenbach starts noticing that the hotel’s clientele is shrinking. People are leaving Venice, and there’s a distinct, unpleasant smell of disinfectant everywhere. All the Germans leave, as their newspapers are printing stories of a growing cholera epidemic. But the authorities continue to deny there’s anything wrong. Whatever is happening is a dirty secret, similar to the one von Ashenbach carries within his heart. A British travel agent finally confirms it: a fatal cholera strain, starting in India, has worked its way east and north, showing up in Venice a few months ago. The authorities, fearful of losing the tourist business, are keeping it a secret.
Now it becomes clear that he should leave; moreover, he should tell the Polish family to leave as well. But his desire to keep the boy in his vicinity as long as possible prevents him from warning them. He will stay, he thinks, as long as they stay. He has disturbing, nightmarish dreams that signify his descent into moral degeneracy; his love for Tadzio has made him ill, both physically and spiritually. One morning he comes down to the lobby to find the Polish family’s luggage stacked in the lobby – they are leaving after lunch. He wanders out to the beach and watches Tadzio playing with his friends. One of them grapples Tadzio and wrestles him to the ground. When he finally releases the boy, Tadzio gets up and walks away, then turns around and looks directly at von Ashenbach, as if inviting him to follow. The older man is about to do so, when he suddenly slumps back in his chair. A few minutes later, people rush to his aid: “And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease”.
Death in Venice fascinates on so many levels. It’s a story of what it means to be an artist, and the nature of art. It’s about love and lust, morality and mortality, the pitfalls associated with idolizing beauty, the dangers of self-repression. It’s about so much more than a pretty boy and a middle-aged man. I wish I’d read the book decades ago. If you haven’t, I strongly suggest you do.
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