Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice & Other Stories

Death In VeniceOf the many prohibitions handed down to writers like commandments from an invisible god, one of the silliest and longest-abiding urges aspiring authors not to write about writing or cast a writer as protagonist. It is a silly interdiction, both because it is only natural that writers – solitary by nature, uncertain of themselves and their work – should write about their craft, and because it is as frequently broken as the laws against drug use and underage drinking. Thomas Mann has little regard for these conventions; his short works, collected in this edition under the artificial title Death In Venice And Seven Other Stories, examine the curious nature of the artist, that solitary creature who craves the world’s approval even as he renounces it, in whom the extremes of self-consciousness and ambition mingle uncomfortably.

We begin by encountering Gustave Aschenbach, the elderly protagonist of the novella “Death in Venice” and an accomplished writer who has, in service of his art, “bridled and tempered his sensibilities, knowing full well that feeling is prone to be content with easy gains and blithe half-perfection.” He does not feel himself to be a born artist, but one summoned to the craft, and to his credit it is a summons he answers with the full devotion of his life:

Gustave Aschenbach was the poet-spokesman of all those who labour at the edge of exhaustion; of the overburdened, of those who are already worn out but still hold themselves upright; of all our modern moralizers of accomplishment, with stunted growth and scanty resources, who yet contrive by skilful husbanding and prodigious spasms of will to produce, at least for a while, the effect of greatness.

And so in old age, with an honoured career behind him, Aschenbach leaves his home in Munich to once again take in Venice and find some kind of rest from his labours. Our aged protagonist has not yet arrived at his hotel when Mann, through Aschenbach’s eyes, gives us this portentous description of Venice’s signature mode of transport:

Is there anyone but must repress a secret thrill, on arriving in Venice for the first time – or returning thither after a long absence – and stepping into a Venetian gondola? That singular conveyance, come down unchanged from ballad times, black as nothing else on earth except a coffin – what pictures it calls up of lawless, silent adventures in the plashing night; or even more, what visions of death itself, the bier and solemn rites and last soundless voyage!

Dwell, for a moment, on the beauty of the prose, marking time as an artist might (not a specific date or a monarch’s reign, but “ballad times”) — and that onomatopoeic “plashing.” (These, incidentally, are the luxuries afforded by an artist-protagonist: Aschenbach may well make these observations, but would a businessman, a child, a pauper or a priest?) Mann later offers us another description of the artist as someone who dwells in solitude, and this, too, comes with a heavy price: “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”

Aschenbach will descend into the perverse, the illicit and the absurd when he encounters, in his beachside hotel, a beautiful young boy named Tadzio, who provokes in him latent passions, long suppressed by the rigours of his craft. Here, for example, is Aschenbach’s reaction to a glimpse he catches of the boy on the beach:

The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky, outrunning the element – it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods.

Long before he speaks of conjured mythologies and primeval legends, the prose has clued us in to Aschenbach’s state of mind: Tadzio does not merely leave the water; he emerges “from the depths of sea and sky,” appearing to master the elements. Moreover, this passage communicates by what it does not say. We readers know that there is something scandalous – indeed, something “illicit” and “perverse” – in an old man leering at a young boy on a beach, or secretly following him through the streets of Venice, as he will later do, but none of this is registered at the level of language; we are made entirely to sympathize with Aschenbach’s passion. Simultaneous to this burgeoning passion, a fever menacing all of Venice gradually takes hold of Aschenbach, though we learn this only belatedly. Is it the fever or his passion for the young boy that stirs in him new creative powers, that gives us, for example, this prose passage of consummate beauty:

Now daily the naked god with cheeks aflame drive his four fire-breathing steeds through heaven’s spaces; and with him streamed the strong east wind that fluttered his yellow locks. A sheen, like white satin, lay over all the idly rolling sea’s expanse. The sand was burning hot. Awnings of rust-coloured canvas were spanned before the bathing-huts, under the ether’s quivering silver-blue; one spent the morning hours within the small, sharp square of shadow they purveyed. But evening too was rarely lovely: balsamic with the breath of flowers and shrubs from the near-by park, while overhead the constellations circled in their spheres, and the murmuring of the night-girted sea swelled softly up and whispered to the soul. Such nights as these contained the joyful promise of a sunlit morrow, brim-full of sweetly ordered idleness, studded thick with countless precious possibilities.

These lyrical flourishes, whatever their exact provenance, give expression to the frenzied passion taking hold in Aschenbach, overruling his once-regimented life, and Mann delights in invoking some of philosophy’s most notable dialectics between reason and passion – Plato’s Phaedrus, Nietzsche’s Birth Of Tragedy and Use And Abuse Of History, among others – to lend some allusive force to what is a specific claim about art and artists, namely that there is an inherent contradiction between life and art, that service to the one requires neglect of the other.

In “Tonio Kröger,” a kind of miniature Portrait Of The Artist, Mann presents us with the life of a young boy destined for a life of art, which is, in truth, a life of solitude, and gives us perhaps his most naked exposition on what it is to live the artist’s life:

He worked, not like a man who works that he may live; but as one who is bent on doing nothing but work; having no regard for himself as a human being but only as a creator; moving about grey and unobtrusive among his fellows like an actor without his make-up, who counts for nothing as soon as he stops representing something else. He worked withdrawn out of sight and sound of the small fry, for whom he felt nothing but contempt, because to them a talent was a social asset like another; who, whether they were poor or not, went about ostentatiously shabby or else flaunted startling cravats, all the time taking jolly good care to amuse themselves, to be artistic and charming without the smallest notion of the fact that good work only comes under pressure of a bad life; that he who lives does not work; that one must die to life in order to be utterly a creator.

I leave you with this comparison from Philip Roth’s most recent interview with the New York Times:

Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.

Does having no compassion for yourself and caring nothing for happiness not amount to having no regard for yourself as a human being? Roth and Tonio sound strikingly similar because both men, real and fictive, have made the same sacrifices on behalf of their craft. Mann’s stories do more – much more – than what I have consigned myself to talking about here, but if they did only this it would be enough.