Thursday, 28 July 2011

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

One of the most beautiful and haunting novellas of the twentieth century, Death in Venice is the tale of Gustav von Aschenbach, a famed German writer, who while holidaying in Venice falls impossibly in love with an entirely beautiful Polish youth called Tazdio, and remains in the city because of him, succumbing to cholera at the end.


Of course, it’s about a lot more than that. Mann’s text is about the conflict between reason and passion, the muse of art and the concept of beauty itself. There’s not much by the way of drinking, I can hardly imagine Aschenbach tipping back the proseco, but in a awkward moment at the beginning of the story, he comes across an old man, fraternising with a bunch of Adriatic youths on a the boat to Venice. The man wears a wig and dyes his beard to look young, which Aschenbach finds distasteful. The lads have all got tanked up on sparkling wine and are full of vim and bon viveur. The old boy can’t take his drink though, and is simply pissed:

The youths of Pola, perhaps also drawn to the military trumpet signals that echoed over the waters, had come on deck, and, enthusiastic from the Asti they had drunken, they cheered the Bersaglieri who were being drilled there. But it was repugnant to witness the state into which his faux communion with youth had brought the overdressed old man. His old and faded brain had not been able to resist the liquor to the same degree as the real youths, he was hopelessly drunk. Looking stupidly around, a cigarette between his trembling fingers, he swayed, barely able to keep his balance, pulled to and fro by his intoxication. Because he would have fallen down at the very first step, he did not dare to move, yet still displayed a sorry cockiness, holding on to everyone who approached him, speaking with a slur, winking, giggling, raising his ringed and wrinkled index finger to tease ridiculously, and licking the corners of his mouth in the most distastefully ambiguous manner. Aschenbach watched him with an expression of anger, and again he got a feeling of unreality, as if the world showed a small but definite tendency to slip into the peculiar and grotesque; a sensation which the resumption of the pounding work of the engine kept him from exploring fully, as the ship returned to its course through the San Marco canal.

Worse still, the old coot wants to speak to him:

He is unable to descend, as his trunk is taken with great effort down the ladder-like stairs. So he cannot get away for several minutes from the intrusiveness of the ghastly old man, who is compelled by his drunkenness to bid the foreigner good-bye. “We are wishing a most enjoyable stay. One hopes to be remembered well! Au revoir, excusez and bonjour, Your Excellency!” His mouth is watering, he winks, licks the corners of his mouth and the dyed moustache on his lips is ruffed up. “Our compliments,” he continues with two fingertips at his mouth, “our compliments to your sweetheart, the most lovely and beautiful sweetheart...” And suddenly the upper row of his false teeth drops onto his tongue. Aschenbach was able to escape. “To your sweetheart, the most pretty sweetheart,” he heard in hollow and somewhat obstructed speech behind his back while he descended the ladder.

Repelled, Aschenbach is glad to be shot of him, little thinking that in a few week’s time, and desperately stalking the beautiful Tazdio, he will also dye his hair and paint his face in a effort to recapture lost youth...

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