By Thomas Manm

Translated from the German by Stanley Applebaum
New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995
pages 62

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2012

Gustav von Aschenbach is living alone in Munich in 1911. He is a well known somewhat elderly writer, home educated and solitary. While trying to work on his next piece, but gets this strange feeling that he must get away and travel.

He isn’t too sure where he wants to go and sets out for an island near Pola, Slovenia (today’s Pula), but it isn’t what he wants, so he decides to go to Venice, which he approaches from the sea. I especially loved his description of how to arrive in Venice

“. . . he reflected that to arrive by land, at the Venice railroad station, was like entering a palace through a back door, and that the only proper way to approach that most improbable of cities was that by which he had now come, by ship, across the open sea.”

Oh my, do I agree with him on that!

Lots is going on inside him; he isn’t too sure why he has left his home and work to follow this strange inner desire, but determined to follow his impulses. He trusts his intuitive insight into his needs.

Instead of living in Venice itself, he chooses a hotel at Lido, a fairly elegant place and settles into the hotel routine. Almost immediately he notices a Polish family and especially the young boy, Tadzio, who is with them. He is extremely beautiful and Gustav is strangely and puzzlingly (to himself) drawn to the young boy.

He begins to watch him often and is soon completely absorbed with the child. He observes him daily at play at the hotel, follows, discretely, the visits the family make to Venice itself, and becomes more and more enamored of the boy until finally, late in the story, and he is able to say to himself that he loves the boy.

Though he is totally fixated on Tadzio he never speaks to him or touches him, but they seem to exchange “significant” glances and stares. He even likes to write in his presence and as time goes on Gustav becomes so bold about his interest in and watching of Tadzio, that his guardians are very careful to watch that no contact takes place.

A significant complexity enters into the story when cholera strikes Venice, though the Venetians try to hide this fact and pretend that these are only “normal” ill winds that are causing the death and disease. Gustav is worried that the family may understand that this is a serious situation and leave. He himself comes to know this is INDEED cholera, but he simply cannot leave, he is completely smitten with Tadzio and even the threat of death does not drive him away.

Early on he says of heroes: They have

“. . . an intellectual and youthful masculinity that grits its teeth in proud modesty and stands by calmly while its body is pierced by swords and spears!”

Later in the story he cites words from Greek literature which describes the Greek god, Amor:

“Amor behaved like mathematicians, who show tangible images of ideal forms to children who are still incapable of abstract thinking. Similarly, in order to render intellectual concepts visible to us, the god was wont to employ the physical attractions of youthful human beings, adorning them with all the reflected glow of beauty to make them an implement for anamnesis; when we see them, we are smitten with pain and hope.”

Gustav seems deeply influenced by Greek literature, its view of ethics and world view and the seeming comfort with men / boy sexuality within ancient Greek culture. Interestingly, however, Gustav seems to want to hide that view from others:

“It is certainly a good thing that the world can see only finished works of art without knowing their origins, the conditions for their existence; for knowledge of the sources from which the artist derived his inspirations would often confuse and frighten away his public, thus vitiating the effects of his outstanding achievement.”

As his love for Tadzio drives him to greater and greater dangers of being exposed, and of acting on his love, he contracts the cholera which is sweeping and dies within a very short period.

The writing of the story is brilliant. There is an air of mystery, revulsion, yet sympathy for Gustav and fear of his being uncovered, perhaps, for me, even a greater fear that he would ACT on his impulses. I was gripped and involved, but an “outsider.” The concept of this love of the young boy is just so utterly foreign to me that I had to try all sorts of images for myself of OTHER sorts of love that might spark such a mind set, and then see how the translation to his situation would work. It wasn’t an easy task. Yet I was never wanting to judge him, particularly since he was able (until finally restrained by death) to keep from acting in a physical manner. However, WHY did he not overtly act? How much of it was the guardians, the other people, even the fear of Tadzio’s possible reaction? Was any of his restraint because he worried what that would do to or mean for Tadzio or himself? He seems not to have thought about those things.

It was sad to me that I was delighted when Gustav dies before he was driven to act. I didn’t understand him, but yet I liked him and was appreciative of Thomas Mann for creating this character that was such a challenge to me in every way.

Bob Corbett


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