Thursday, August 9, 2007

Books: Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

When I posted a short list months ago naming the few books I had ever started without finishing, I left one out: Death in Venice. Consumed with guilt (well, not really). Consumed with a nagging feeling, I passed by Mann at the library last week (actually looking for Magic Mountain, which, of course, they didn't have) and decided that it really was time to finish this little book. Of course, it was over a year ago that I read the first half, so I had to begin from the beginning. I did so, on the subway, and got about ten pages in before I realized that I had digested almost nothing of what I had read, and recognized none of it, either. I therefore had to start a third time, thankfully in the silence of my little sweatbox in the sky (my apartment), which approximated nicely the atmosphere of the Venetian sirocco that strikes Mann's hero during his seaside holiday.

The story is simple: Gustav von Aschenbach is an late-middle-aged gentleman, a writer of some fame, who prides himself on his coldness, sterility, and reserve. The summertime does stir up a bit of wanderlust in his blood, though, and he decides that he must have a vacation. On the steamboat, he notices a gentleman older than he with a group of vibrant young men; this septuagenarian wears rouge, a toupee, and clothes and a hat far too loud for his age—worse, he's been drinking at the same rate as his compatriots, and clearly cannot hold his liquor. Aschenbach curls his lip in distaste, revolted by the man's lack of decorum (this, my friends, is foreshadowing).

At the beach, Aschenbach is taken almost immediately by a svelte and muscled teenaged boy, a Pole on holiday with his family. With more and more zeal each day, the author pursues this boy with a passive-aggressive passion, staring at him endlessly from his balcony, from his beach chair, and from his table in the hotel's restaurant every evening at dinner. The days the family goes into the city, Aschenbach, too, goes into the city, following them, waiting for what he imagines is a shy, complicit glance—eventually even a smile—from this nymphetor.

Meanwhile, the weather, what with the sirocco, is becoming oppressive; more and more people are leaving the hotel (although, thank God, the Poles remain), and Aschenbach notices the sickly sweet smell of medicines and disinfectants when he goes into the city. Furthermore, he hears more and more whispering about illness—an epidemic—although whenever he asks a Venetian, he is told that the medicine is a mere precaution against the sickness that can be brought by the sirocco, and that there is nothing to fear. The newspapers say nothing to the contrary. When Aschenbach asks at the Consulate, however, he discovers the truth: there is a horrible cholera epidemic ravaging the Venetian population. Aschenbach decides to stay, though, unable to separate himself from his new raison d'ĂȘtre. Not feeling well, he has the local barber doll him up, dying his hair, powdering his face, adding waxy rouge to his lips; he has unwittingly become like that sorry septuagenarian he so loathed.

The morning that the Polish family has packed their things to leave, Aschenbach is feeling even less well. Nevertheless, he takes his usual seat on the beach, and watches the attractive boy playing in the waves for the last time: moments later, he passes out completely. He has died.

I haven't much to say about this. Certainly I've seen nymphetors (they are more numerous, I think, than nymphets), and I have been chastised by my company for looking (I recall a beach in Seattle, where three slender, suntanned boys, probably brothers, ran in the sand with a red wagon, while I stared, fascinated, from my picnic lunch). The kind of obsessive affection, however, displayed by Aschenbach only demonstrates that to live decorously is to, necessarily, oppress oneself, and that to oppress oneself results in the wayward manifestation of passion. This is not new news, nor does Mann handle it with a poignancy to render it beautiful. Perhaps I am too harsh a critic, but I hope that when I do get my hands on Magic Mountain, it's better.

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