The Triumph of Disaster in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
Triumph of Disaster in Death in Venice
As Death in Venice begins, Gustav von Aschenbach, the distinguished author of Munich, goes for a stroll on a May afternoon. While waiting for the train back home, he spots a man ahead of him, a man by whom he is intrigued. Defiantly, even fiercely, the angular face of the man returns Aschenbach’s gaze. Aschenbach quickly turns away from the stranger, who soon disappears. Whether it was the intriguing stranger or the warm temperature, he doesn’t know; nevertheless, Aschenbach is clutched by a burning desire to travel. A strict ascetic, Aschenbach never knew the sweet idleness that belonged to youth. In the novel, an observer compliments Aschenbach by saying, ” ‘You see, Aschenbach has always lived like this ‘–here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist– ‘never like this ‘–and he let his hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair.” This particular day, however, shuddering at the thought of laboring over his work for yet another summer, he obeys his primeval, exotic side, and resolves to take a brief vacation. He leaves for Treiste, but after a sojourn of only ten days, he concludes he dislikes the area and leaves for Venice on a small boat. On the boat, he notices a blatantly old man trying to recapture his youth, and is disgusted by the gigolo. Hailing a gondolier, Aschenbach makes his way to the beautiful city of Venice and promptly checks into a hotel.
Making himself comfortable in the drawing room, he takes time to examine his surroundings and the people with whom he shall be vacationing. The party at the table next to him, he notices, is of Polish descent, and his attention is quickly drawn by a youth, a strikingly handsome boy of fourteen. Pale and lon…
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…year) when Aschenbach’s story begins.
In Mann’s own life, the novel is greatly emblematic in that much of Aschenbach is autobiographical. Just like Aschenbach, Mann enjoyed status early in life; feeble health was a shared complication; and both exercised self-imposed order (Mann, too, conducted all his literary work during first light). The determination to sustain and survive existed in the spirit of both artists. Yet “Death in Venice” is by no certain means a narrowly autobiographical narrative. Nevertheless, much that is the artist Aschenbach is part of the artist Mann, and thus can be interpreted as a faint symbol of Mann. Perhaps Aschenbach is an extreme example of the imperfections Mann combated during his own lifetime; if this indeed is the case, then Aschenbach is not only a token of the frailty of Mann, but an emblem of the fallacies plaguing us all.