Book Review

Death In Venice by Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann, Thomas Mann, Thomas Mann, What A Very Thom Man

Another reread, here, of something I last read about a decade ago. It’s a weird book, is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and it’s kind of a hard piece to know how to respond to. This 1928 translation by H. T. Lowe-Porter (included in this gorgeous 1970s Penguin edition) doesn’t do Mann any favours. Lowe-Porter repeatedly uses the word “forenoon” instead of morning, and often uses other archaic terms that were a bit disarming. I don’t know – and this is the problem with reading in translation – if this reflects a genuine use of conspicuously outdated language in Mann’s 1911 German original, or if this is instead the result of Lowe-Porter’s own leanings. It is certainly a barrier, and makes the text feel a good hundred years older than it actually is. I’m well-read enough to be able to feel that, which is pleasing.


I read a few books by Mann when younger, and have carried a copy of Buddenbrooks around, unread, for about six or seven years.

I read Death in Venice when a young undergraduate (still boyish and beautiful myself), and then shortly afterwards read Mann’s posthumous incomplete novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. For a long time, I cited Felix Krull as one of my favourite books. I would recommend it to other lotus-eatery men that I knew, I would bring it up in conversation as if it were well-known and popular, I would consider writing songs about it and – of course – I wanted to adapt it as a terrible piece of student theatre. A little later on, once in London, I read Mann’s late magnum opus, Doctor Faustus, which I was excited about for years. Because the story of Faust[us]1 is my story.

The narrative of Faust is one that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, it consumed me so much that I basically did sell my soul in exchange for glamour and luxury, and then found devilish hell and unhappiness waiting for me. A world of chest pain and anxiety, peopled by living things that seemed to lack a crucial part of what it is that makes us human. That was hell, but now am I out of it.

Though I loved Christopher Marlowe’s classic Renaissance tragedy, the W. W. Norton version of Goethe’s Faust left me feeling a little underwhelmed. Again, I read it a decade ago and my reading has improved since then, but still… Goethe didn’t drive me wild, and Mann’s take on the same narrative draws more from Goethe than Marlowe, for understandable reasons (they were both German). Mann’s Doctor Faustus had me frustrated: I loved certain passages of it, but found it – as a whole – a struggle. The language was dense and full of discussions of music and musicology that I couldn’t keep up with. Then, again, so too was Mathias Enard’s Compass, which I loved. The latter, though, has a much more recent translation.

Anyway, to get back on track: I enjoyed two Thomas Mann books, struggled with a third and then bought, but have not yet read, another. Buddenbrooks slipped further and further down my to-be-read pile until we reach the point, years on, where during the entire lifespan of, Mann has never been previously had a post to himself. And that’s a loss, because he’s the kinda writer I have – at certain points in my life – had a lorra opinions about.

Death In Venice – which I’m imagining you have read or at least know something of – is a novella about Gustav von Aschenbach, an acclaimed, ageing writer who takes a holiday to Venice and falls in debilitating love with a fourteen year old boy, and ends up ignoring the dire warnings of a serious cholera epidemic so he can sit and stare, swooningly, at the boy until the disease wraps its claws around him and the title of the story becomes part of its plot. Spolier alert, there. Whoops. The book ends with death.

In terms of the (allegorical?) narrative, Aschenbach’s creepy love is directly seen as the cause of his death: he dies because of his lusty body’s corroding influence on his lofty (and thus naïve) mind. He catches the disease, the reader is led to believe, by eating some strawberries when he is tired out after a day stalking the boy. Strawberries, as Mann points out early in the text, are “deadripe” – a strawberry isn’t ripe until it is dead. The strawberry, a fruit with erotic connotations, connotations of romance and sensuality and decadence, is dead, a memento mori and – directly in Death in Venice – a vector for the transmission of death itself.

Te reason why the book is, ultimately, so weird, is the confusing level of judgement with which it treats Aschenbach. Yes, his desire (unfulfilled) kills him, his sexual-romantic obsession causes his death, but his idolatry of the boy is written by Mann with some sympathy and a lot of reflective idolisation, too. The obvious comparison book is Lolita and, similarly, there is death and punishment by that book’s end, too though Humbert Humbert does get his paedophilic desires met. Is that progress? That 50 years difference allowed erotic, pederastic, paedophilic characters in novels to consummate their lust towards children? No, I don’t think it is. Aschenbach doesn’t try to fuck the boy, in fact he doesn’t even really speak to him at all, and the one time he comes close he has a panic attack. For Mann, the obsession is sexual, but perhaps Aschenbach doesn’t want to accept that. And if his death is a just punishment for bad lust, then is everyone else killed by the Venetian epidemic also a paedo?

Aschenbach, on his way to Venice, sees another old man hanging out with much younger men (note not boys) and is disgusted by his high spirits, dyed hair and age-masking makeup. By the end of the novel, Aschenbach will be playing with his appearance in the same way. When the novel opens, Aschenbach has a quasi-erotic encounter with a man in a graveyard, and it this that spurs him to travel. There is no touch, just a smouldering look that flips Aschenbach’s body and makes him yearn for life. Traditionally, though, graveyards were often cruising spots, due to the fact that they’re often empty and the people who are there tend to be distracted by grief. Is Aschenbach a long-repressed man who, in old age, finally indulges his eye?

Is Death in Venice homophobic in:

a) its alignment of homosexuality with paedophilic desire? Yes.
b) its depiction of homosexuality as something insidious and dirty (ie a disease)? Yes.

But, in the way that Death in Venice slips into rapturous descriptions of the handsome boy, and the fact that there is no actual creepy sex, is it an attempt at a progressive evocation of a Platonic erotic ideal? Sexless sex, touchless touching?

I don’t know. I might do some research, look into queer theory readings of the text.

Death in Venice is enjoyable, though, worth a look if you’ve never read it. Unless it turns out it is widely considered a despicable, hateful text, in which case don’t.

1. Previous to 2017, my career highlight was the positive review my undergraduate adaption of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus received in The Scotsman.

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