Death in Venice by Thomas Mann is a story of obsession and isolation. Aschenbach, a writer of rarefied fictions, takes a holiday to Venice where he sees a beautiful youth of 15 years. He is immediately taken in by the boy’s beauty and very quickly becomes obsessed with him. Aschenbach finds he is staying at the same hotel as the boy, so he studies the boy’s daily habits, making sure that he is at the beach when the boy will be, ready for breakfast when the boy is, he even follows his family when the boy goes on tours of the city. He never attempts to meet the boy or to speak with him though he does learn his name, Tadzio, and quite a bit of his family history.
Is Aschenbach a man in love or just a man obsessed? He learns as much as he can about Tadzio from secondhand sources like the hotel barber, but his knowledge remains so limited that the Tadzio he comes to love is largely a Tadzio of his own imagination. Aschenbach can see what the boy looks like, but he does not know him in any real way. Aschenbach indulges in his obsession, staying on at the hotel as long as he can, in spite of the very real threat of a cholera outbreak in the emptying city.
The city becomes a metaphor for Aschebach. Its decay, its age, its vulnerablity to disease are all mirrored in Aschenbach. The facade Venice puts on to attract visitors is mirrored in the fancy suits the fifty plus man wears in an attempt to make himself attractive. Neither the city nor the man can do much to really attract the attentions of a beautiful youth, those days are gone for both. The city provides attractions for the boy’s aging mother and aunt who’ve brought their children in tow; the man can do nothing more than follow along trying to steal a glimpse of the youth he will not have again in any form.
For all of its melancholy, all of its atmosphere of decay and the fact that the main character never talks to the object of his desire, Death in Venice is a highly readable story. While I did not really like Aschenbach at first, and I honestly can’t say that I’m too fond of him by the end either, his story does become compelling. He does become a sympathetic character in spite of it all. By then end our understanding of what is happening to him has deepened making his story a haunting one.
This review first ran on Ready When You Are, C.B. where I spent six years blogging under the pen name C.B. James. What I’ve retained from Death in Venice over the years is what everyone retains from it, I guess, it’s atmosphere. Death in Venice is not so much a novel as it is a state of mind. Melancholy, decay, as sense of desperate clinging to a state of being that has passed away. It’s a novel that makes a strong, lasting impression on the reader.