Guardian 1000 Reads: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann [530]


Deathinvenice    Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, 1912

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”


Death in Venice is a novella with a simple plot: aging composer  Gustav von Aschenbach – in his fifties, though he seems much older, bent over by melancholy verging on despair – has lost his artistic inspiration. Unable to write, over the course of several agonizing days he wanders the streets at all hours, winding up in unsavory districts where an unnamed menace lies – menace in the form of a sneering, redheaded man who never approaches him but nevertheless represents, or reflects, danger and potential doom.


Eventually, Aschenbach decides a change of scenery may help revive him, rekindling his lost artistic fervor, so he packs is bags and winds up in beautiful Venice. Only, when he arrives, and is ferried to the Lido by gondola (the Lido being a common landing point for tourists seeking lodging in the city) the gondolier is yet another redheaded, sneering man who all but kidnaps von Aschenbach, refusing to let him out elsewhere when the older man expresses trepidation about the gondolier’s attitude and intention.

 When they arrive at the Lido, however, the gondolier disappears, knowing the authorities were there waiting for him, to arrest him for being the only gondolier in Venice without a license. Von Aschenbach has thus been taxied for free. It’s a foreshadowing of things to come, of the sadness and longing yet to be, once again accompanied by the presence of a redheaded man.

After a few restless days in Venice, in which he still can’t manage to settle, von Aschenbach is on the verge of leaving when he sees a beautiful young man: a man whose spirit and handsomeness begins to consume him. He becomes obsessed; he cannot look away.

Though they never meet, the young man is very aware of the attention he’s drawing. No doubt he feels flattered. He makes himself visible, coming near von Aschenbach but only so near his features are clearly visible, never making eye contact or acknowledging his presence.

While in Venice a cholera epidemic sweeps through, killing and sickening residents and visitors alike. Yet von Aschenbach cannot leave the beautiful man. Then, the ending, but I won’t spoil it.


Why a top 1000?

It’s a powerful work about artists and their inner demons, beautifully written. That’s the simplistic answer. Here’s a bit of the background behind the story, from Wikipedia:


“Mann’s original intention was to write about “passion as confusion and degradation”, after having been fascinated by the true story of Goethe’s love for 18-year-old Baroness Ulrike von Levetzow, which had led Goethe to write his Marienbad Elegy.”



The degradation, no doubt, centered on the handsome young man’s beauty and awareness of von Aschenbach’s attraction, yet he kept himself aloof making the older man seem a fool.

Later, after the novel’s publication, Mann’s wife Katia tells the background:


“All the details of the story, beginning with the man at the cemetery, are taken from experience … In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often … I still remember that my uncle, Privy Counsellor Friedberg, a famous professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged: “What a story! And a married man with a family!”


I suppose if Katia was okay with it there’s little else to be said…


Personal reaction:

Though overwrought at times, Mann’s prose is gorgeous, his expression of despair and longing palpable. I’d planned to read it someday but I’m glad this project made certain I turned that vague intention into action.

I felt for von Aschenbach. Who among us hasn’t been in his shoes? If you can honestly say you’ve never loved from afar and been rejected, I’d be shocked. But then, how easy it is to idolize those we’ll never know, whose appearance and manner attract us but we’ll never know their faults:


“Nothing is more curious and awkward than the relationship of two people who only know each other with their eyes — who meet and observe each other daily, even hourly and who keep up the impression of disinterest either because of morals or because of a mental abnormality. Between them there is listlessness and pent-up curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally suppressed need for communion and also a kind of tense respect. Because man loves and honors man as long as he is not able to judge him, and desire is a product of lacking knowledge.”





  • A film starring Dirk Bogarde was made by LuchinoVisconti in 1971. A second film, more freely adapted from Mann’s novella, was Love and Death on Long Island   (1997) starring John Hurt as a middle-aged writer who becomes obsessed with a young actor portrayed by Jason Priestley.
  • Benjamin Britten transformed Death in Venice  into an opera, his last, in 1973.
  • It was made into a ballet by John Neumeier for his Hamburg Ballet company in December 2003.


Next Read:

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins


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