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Thomas Mann: Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice)

This may well be Thomas Mann’s best-known work, not least because of the film. Though the hero, Gustav von Aschenbach, is a writer in the book, it is suspected that he is based on the composer, Gustav Mahler. Whether he is based on Mahler or not, this is still a very fine book. Von Aschenbach is out for a walk one day in Munich where he lives – a widower and a hard worker – when he catches sight of a man who may or may not be a stranger. He suddenly realises that, with all of his work, he has not travelled recently and the sight of the stranger – for reasons he cannot explain – inspires him to do so. He first goes to the Adriatic Coast but, as that does not satisfy him, he heads for Venice. At his hotel, he notices a Polish family – an attractive mother, three prim daughters and a pretty teenage boy to whom von Aschenbach is attracted. His attraction to the boy – von Aschenbach learns that his name is Tadzio – makes him leave but, as his luggage is lost, he cannot and he stays. Most of the rest of the book is concerned with von Aschenbach’s dalliance with Tadzio. He is afraid to speak to him and even more afraid when Tadzio smiles at him. However, Venice now has a cholera epidemic but von Aschenbach is reluctant to leave. However, the inevitable happens and when he approaches Tadzio to assist him after Tadzio is roughed up by his friends, von Aschenbach collapses and dies.

The book has been taken up as a key work by the gay community and while there are, of course, gay elements, homosexuality is not the key theme for Mann. The role of the artist, the juxtaposition between death/decay and beauty, particularly sensuous beauty, and the counterpoint between intellectual beauty and sensuous beauty are what drive this work and what make it so fine. Mann, through von Aschenbach, is constantly showing that there is a dark side to life, an obscene and ugly side to life, whether it is the stranger he sees in Munich or whether it is Venice itself, a beautiful city, set in a marsh and suffering a cholera epidemic. It is Mann’s artistry to make this a beautiful work.

Publishing history

First published in German by Fischer 1912
First published in English 1925 by Knopf