“This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach,” remembered Thomas Mann’s long-suffering wife near the end of her life. “He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him.” In May 1911, she, her husband, and his brother Heinrich arrived at the Hotel des Bains, on the Venetian Lido, and Thomas Mann developed a fixation with a young Polish boy. Over the next year, he wrote Death in Venice, turning his infatuation into the fatal passion of Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging, famous writer, for the boy Tadzio.
Mann himself often remarked how closely the novella shadowed life. “Nothing in Death in Venice is invented,” he wrote.
The traveller by the Northern Cemetery in Munich, the gloomy boat from Pola, the aged fop, the dubious gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the departure prevented by a mix-up over luggage, the cholera, the honest clerk in the travel agency, the malevolent street singer, or whatever else you might care to mention—everything was given, and really only needed to be fitted in, proving in the most astonishing manner how it could be interpreted within my composition.
Mann, always fascinated by the interplay of life and art, contrived to create yet more parallels: descriptions of the works on which Aschenbach’s fame rests, such as a novel about Frederick the Great, are based on projects that Mann had abandoned, during ten difficult years when nothing had equaled the success of his first novel, Buddenbrooks. When Aschenbach sits on the beach writing an essay inspired by Tadzio’s beauty, the narrator coyly comments, “It is as well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins.” But Death in Venice is one of those works, like À la recherche du temps perdu, where the genesis—the process by which life became literature—is almost as fruitful a topic as the finished work itself.
In Deaths in Venice, the philosopher Philip Kitcher reads Mann’s novella as a work of philosophy, and amplifies this reading with reference to the film version by Luchino Visconti and the opera by Benjamin Britten. Kitcher is best known as a philosopher of science and he acknowledges that the Anglo-American analytic tradition within which he works rarely has much to say about literature. Yet he has published a guide to Finnegans Wake and coauthored a study of Wagner’s Ring cycle—and he goes deeply into Mann’s writings, life, and influences. He has evidently read the works in German; he has consulted the books and manuscripts in the Mann archive in Zurich, and draws revealing inferences from them.
Kitcher’s style of argument is breezily discursive rather than closely analytic, a feature that probably reflects the book’s origins as a series of…
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