In a conversation a few days ago, Bill Hagen suggested it might be a good idea for me to outline some topics for our upcoming discussion on Death in Venice, perhaps because its style and subject matter might not suit the tastes of some members of our Retired Men’s Literature Club. My choice last year of David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System had some problems of reception and accessibility, being a quite complex work in style and sense, employing Wittgenstein’s philosophy as an element of its theme. Death in Venice is a brief work about an artist and though one might read it as a failed Venetian holiday, it is a tragic story. Our Club, of which I am most grateful to be a member, is the ideal group in age and experience for reading this work, which I am pleased to present for discussion.
So, why did I choose a 70-page novella, essentially a long short-story, by Thomas Mann, instead of one of his more popular, honest-to-goodness novels, like The Magic Mountain or Doctor Faustus? Among other things, it’s the exceptional narrative voice and stylistic beauty of Death that seduced me. A year ago I intended to pick Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, an 18th-century work I dearly love for its free-thinking, fun-loving spirit and ingenious typographic playfulness? I also mulled over picking another favorite–Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a fantastic investigation of mundane socio-pathological imagination and its pitfalls, especially dealing with perverse sexuality of our times. Then I wavered: why not the futuristic Magister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, another German author who fascinated me in the Sixties? Other choices I entertained were Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps and Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner, investigations of the difficulties of transitioning from complex cultural societies to exotic simple ones. Or why not Albert Camus’s The First Man, dug out posthumously from his unfinished papers and edited into publication? Or Philip Roth’s recent novel, Nemesis? Or the late John Updike’s final novel, Terrorist? Or Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, another like Camus’s, edited up from his unfinished manuscript? Or Saul Bellow’s swan-song, Ravelstein? God, there are so many good ones rich in style and ideas! I guess I’m thinking of novels of the time-tested great writers I used to enjoy–and selfishly want to read again–those that might allow our groups’ readers to delve into deep, still-fertile soil that needs to be re-ploughed. The demythologized spirit of our age, the transition away from humanities studies to panicky propaganda for science and economics, the raucous irrationality of our divisive politics, growing ripe toward hysterical, paranoid fascism, these might be some ideas that forced me choose Death in Venice.
Mostly I chose our February work because it is profound literature. But also I chose it selfishly, out of nostalgia. Since first acquaintance with Thomas Mann through German studies in college in the early 1960s, I discovered a fascination with his early works because, as much as anything, the professors were keen on dosing us with the 19th-and early 20th-century classics. Then, over the next years, Death in Venice kept tracking me down, haunting me. The Britannica annual Great Ideas Today added Mann’s Death to their Great Books of the Western World series, so I read it again. This was around the same time when Luchino Visconti’s film version came out in 1971. Stern critics and scholars trashed Visconti’s liberal interpretation in making Aschenbach a Mahleresque composer on the skids and for leaving out Aschenbach’s internal classical meditations, the Platonic and Dionysian reveries. Visconti left a great deal out of Mann’s carefully articulated work. To replicate in film the intricate narratorial attitudes of Death, to expose the inner dream-workings of Aschenbach’s mind would have entailed an extensive use of voiceovers and psychedelic montage as the artist’s senses began hurling him towards the abyss he had renounced in his youth. Visconti’s film, nevertheless, has to be taken for the different entity it is, not at all a literal visual translation. Cinematic point of view has always struggled with difficulties of approximating literary works adapted for the screen. The point of view and narrative voice are crucial to the power of Mann’s study of a literary character suffering a breakdown from the sedate, cerebral, rationalistic Apollonian caste of mind toward the wild, sensual, limb-loosening Dionysian state of being. I suggest at some future time we watch the film together. Bill might also wish we all listen to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or Benjamin Britten’s opera based on the novella.
Another connection for my choice: recently, as it happened, my wife and I planned a trip to northern Italy, deciding to stop in untourist-y, industrial Trieste and crowd-crushing Venice, as alley-clogged, smelly and commercially jaded as the Puyallup County Fair. We actually attempted to take a boat from Piran, Slovenia, on the eastern Adriatic, to visit Venice, but our timing was off and tempestuous skies forbade it. Once again, in advance of travel, I dusted off Death and caught the old disease of researching the recent literary studies of Thomas Mann and his precious masterpiece. Since the 1960s and the release of the author’s letters and diaries, Mann studies have quite exploded.
Reading lately the secondary literature, I’ve discovered that nearly every scholarly article about Death in Venice and every biographical work about Thomas Mann preface the discourse regarding the work with a statement that the novella is without doubt the finest (or one of the finest) of Thomas Mann’s stylistic compositions, a crystallization of themes about art and life Mann wrestled with for most of his career. His penultimate long novel, Doctor Faustus, (1947) actually shares many similarities with Death in Venice. Held in the sway of Goethe, Mann aspired, especially in the early years, to become the 20th-century avatar of the author of Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, to be the inventor and expositor of a neo-classical literary form to replace the exhausted Romanticist, naturalistic and realistic movements. While contemplating Death in Venice around 1911, he had even considered composing a work on the aged Goethe’s inappropriate infatuation with and marriage proposal to a teenage girl on vacation in Marienbad. Mann’s enthusiasm for theorizing about art and life, how culture, art, and mind can enhance or debase the human experience, did not, on the surface through his long career, fail him. The death-of-literature crisis did not affect him. The evil politics of the rise of fascism, requiring his exile from Germany, stirred him to vehemence in analyzing the madness and violence of his nation. Neither in his eloquent style nor through his intricate stories of suffering heroes did he seem to want for psychological and philosophical verve to question the human drama. As Mark M. Anderson concludes in his study of melodrama in Mann’s novellas, Thomas Mann wrestled constantly to direct his characters, much like a movie director, such that they might test the ways to escape disillusionment. His theme in many works being: “[T]he truth of desire and its struggle for liberation and expression within the confines of bourgeois life.” (“Mann’s Early Novellas,” in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, edited by Ritchie Robertson.)
Looking forward to our discussion of Death in Venice, I’d expect a good deal of inquiry into some of the ideas mentioned above: art and life; art and madness; art and disease; the Nietzschean Apollonian and Dionysian; controlled reason and outlandish sensuality; poets and the abyss; tragedy and the tragic hero; classical allusions and the use of mythology; the use of symbolism; Freudianism, and, of course, the erotic and homoeroticism between Aschenbach and Tadzio. The city of Venice and even the cholera plague take on the force of motivating “characters.” Many minor characters are of special importance in Aschenbach’s trajectory toward the abyss: the series of psychogogic figures: the traveler on the mortuary steps, the old fop on the ship, the shifty gondolier, the burlesque singer, and, of course, Tadzio. As a naïve Classics major in graduate school when I was first enchanted by Death, I found fascination in researching Eros, Hermes and Dionysus. They formed an exciting complex of mythical personalities to pursue, naturally for intellectual edification. In fact, Greek and Roman erotic or amatory poetry, those composed in the elegiac form, became my focus of study and significant in my choice of dissertation. After I learned that Mann, in preparation for themes and motifs of Death in Venice had researched, among other works, Erwin Rhode’s major treatise, Psyche: Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, his use of all classical references generally attracted me to study the artistry. I wish I could find that paper of 45 years ago to see what my mind made of Mann’s story and characters. Death played an important role in my intellectual life.
Nevertheless, returning to nostalgia for the 1913 novella, I can still remember the initial arduous reading and study of the German text, its composition and diction very difficult for me at the time, but still an enjoyment of a most refined style, a most rewarding labor savoring the eloquent high-brow narrator’s presentation of milk-soppy Aschenbach and his journey towards licentiousness and dissolution. The high-falutin, poetic style itself is a subject to wonder about. Of course, we are reading a translation and much of the Germanic poetical flavor will be lost. The Lowe-Porter version I suggested (Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories) is not regarded these days as the best English representation of style and meaning. Yet, for all its inadequacies and lacunae (yes! Ms Lowe-Porter excised significant words, phrases, and sentences) I still sense a fusty pomposity in her diction and composition that mirrors the peculiar old-fashioned “feel” of Mann’s original. Nevertheless, there are some precautions to take. As it turns out, Lowe-Porter, entertaining the prudery of her time, may not even have been the right mind for translating Mann’s works. Therefore, I was wrong to state that she was Mann’s translator of choice in my earlier announcement, for it now seems that Alfred Knopf, the publisher, had forced Lowe-Porter onto Mann and he was obliged to have a long relationship with her for the sake of approximating the English text to his own sui generis German style. By modern assessment she failed in her task. Newer translations by David Luke, Clayton Koelb, Joachim Neugroschel and Henry Heim are considered much closer English models of translation by those who have studied the compositional form and sense.