Learning to Love

Katia Mann in her old age described what happened in Venice in the late spring of 1911. She had come to the city with her husband, Thomas Mann, and his brother Heinrich. They stayed in the Hotel des Bains on the Lido:

It was very crowded, and in the dining room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings.

She watched her husband watching him:

He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.

Thus, she pointed out, everything in Mann’s story “Death in Venice” “was based on reality, even down to the details” such as “the graying dandy, an aging man who was all spruced up and obviously wearing makeup” and the rumors of a cholera outbreak in the city:

My husband transferred to Aschenbach the pleasure he actually took in this charming boy, stylizing it into extreme passion. I still remember that my uncle, Privy Counselor Friedberg, a famous professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged: “What a story! And a married man with a family!”

The boy in question, many years later as “an elderly Polish aristocrat,” read the story and recognized himself “described to a T,” according to Katia Mann, and wrote to Mann’s daughter to say that “he found this very amusing and intriguing.”

André Aciman, in his memoir Out of Egypt, published in 1994, remembered staying on the Lido in Venice when he went to visit his Aunt Flora, one of the members of his extended family who, having been expelled from Alexandria after 1956, had scattered all over the world. Flora lived in a tiny apartment with her memories and her two grand pianos. There were mornings, she told him, when she woke up and, because of the smell of the sea, thought that she was back in Alexandria again:

Summers were long in Venice, she said, and there was nothing she liked more some days than to take the vaporetto and ride around the city, or head directly for the Lido and spend a morning on the beach by herself. She loved the sea. I loved it too, I said, reminding her that it was she who taught me how to swim.

This encounter came bathed in infinite regret and unexplored possibilities not only because of the atmosphere of beauty and loss in the very streets they were walking in, and the great rich world the Acimans had left behind in Egypt, and the time that had passed, but because Flora recounted to Aciman on that …

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