Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice”

Quite by chance, I stumbled upon a paperback biography of Thomas Mann, on sale for $1. The biographer, Richard Winston, passed away at a tragically young age, before he could finish the biography (which ends with a chapter on the writing of Death In Venice.)

The amazing thing is that Thomas Mann actually went on a vacation to Venice with his family, and actually had many of the experiences which he later wove into the novella. Thomas Mann himself acknowledged this fact. And, ten years after Mann’s death, a translator interviewed the actual person whom Mann had seen as the “beautiful young boy.” Mann, and all the other tourists actually fled Venice because of an epidemic. The composer, Mahler, a friend of Mann, had just died, and Thomas Mann modeled the character, Gustave Aschenbach, after Mahler.

I forget whether it was in high school or college that I was required to read Death In Venice, but I remember being quite impressed with it. Little did I guess that so much of the story was real-life events which Mann simply re-arranged and embellished.

I in no way mean to denigrate or demean Thomas Mann’s artistic ability by stating the historical fact that Thomas Mann himself, in his memoirs, letters and conversations, asseverates that the material for Death in Venice was “handed to him on a platter”, as it were, and he merely had to re-arrange it. I simply state this as something of surprise, since all my life I had presumed that the entire story was the product of Mann’s imagination. I was even more surprised to learn that, 10 years after Mann’s death, an old man in Poland was discovered and interviewed and confirmed to be that beautiful young boy whom Mann used as a model for the story. That fellow even stated that, during their vacation, he remembered an man (Thomas Mann), staring at him from the porch of a bungalow each day.

Mann’s one biographer (cited above), quotes Mann at some length regarding the notion of a novelist “gathering material” from real life, as fodder for his fiction. Mann’s fictionalization of real people and events even becomes a sore-spot with some of his acquaintances.

I do not feel that totally fictionalized works demonstrate greater artistic ability than works which draw upon actual historical events.

I am reminded of one argument that Hemingway’s “Farewell To Arms”, is a re-write of his failed affair with a nurse. In real life, she dumped Hemingway. In the novel, Hemingway gets her pregnant and she dies professing her love for him.

I suppose what might be explored, is the controversy between the intentional action of the artist, in crafting symbolism, or innuendo, or psycho dynamics into the work, versus the action of the author’s subconscious, to color the narrative with something more profound, and all of that versus the notion that the reader’s subconscious projects something into the material.

Kyle replies:

This is very interesting because in the film by Visconti, much of Mahler’s music is used. Visconti’s film, death in Venice, is almost just as good as Mann’s story. yes, death in Venice, is a very strong story. very intense and is not surprising that Mann experienced much of the events. also think of how risky it would have been to write such a story in 1911. I did once read a small review of the book that was written in 1911 and of course it was scathing, mostly because of its views, not because of its literary merit. I can’t remember if I read it in German or not. Mann remains one of my favorite authors, and the magic mountain and doctor Faustus are some of the best books in the 20th century. also I highly recommend reading the Goethe chapter in Lotte in Weimar. Mann does a brilliant stream of conscious of Goethe’s mind for about 30 or 40 pages. it is probably better than the last chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses.


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