Thomas Mann's novella about an older man obsessed by a young teenage boy's beauty first appeared as Der Tod in Venedig in 1912 and in English as Death in Venice in 1924. For millions of people, however, the story is more familiar in Luchino Visconti's 1971 film starring Dirk Bogarde. Tadzio Speaks . . . is primarily based on the novella (Aschenbach is a writer, not a musician; Tadzio is the youngest child in the family, not the oldest), but some of the
imagery in the play was suggested by the film.
When Gustav von Aschenbach, a widowed, successful author in his early fifties finds himself suffering from writer's block, he leaves his home city of Munich for the Mediterranean coast. While at the Hotel Des Bains on the Venice Lido, he finds his attention drawn by Tadzio, the handsome fourteen-year-old son of a Polish family also staying at the hotel. At first the writer's spirits are lifted by this vision of beauty, but as time passes and he becomes increasingly obsessed, his health begins to fail. In the end, he dies of the cholera that has quietly infiltrated the city.
The two principal characters never speak to each other, their communication limited to glances in the hotel, on the beach or in the narrow streets of Venice. The story, told exclusively from Aschenbach's perspective, reveals much of the older man's personality - an aesthete, driven by the intellect, in many ways repressed in thought and action. Of Tadzio's interior life we know nothing; we see only what Aschenbach sees - a youth surrounded by family and friends, with the energy and enthusiasms of his age.
Die Neue Rundschau* (1912) in which Tod in Venedig first appeared
Mann's prose is dense, emphasising description rather than action. Much of the story is concerned with aspects of Aschenbach's life that bear no relation to Tadzio but delineate the writer's past - delicate health, precocious talent, his place in the literary canon. Nevertheless, it is Tadzio and the inchoate emotions that his beauty evokes, which remain in the mind long after the story comes to an end.
Death in Venice was based on real events - while staying at the Hotel Des Bains in 1911 with his wife and brother, Mann was struck by the beauty of Władysław Moes, a Polish boy at the hotel with his family. Several incidents that turn up in the novella - such as the old, effeminate man on the Venice ferry
and the gondolier that Mann hired who had no licence, the Manns fleeing the city at the news of cholera - were also based on reality. At 36, however, Mann was much younger than Aschenbach and he was not alone.
Moes was eleven years old, not fourteen, while his close friend Jan ("Jaschiu") was younger than him, rather than older as portrayed in the story. For more information on Moes, see
* There is disagreement whether Der Tod in Venedig was first published in a private edition of 100 copies or in the October and November 1912 editions of the monthly magazine
Die Neue Rundschau. Its first appearance as a stand-alone novella for the general public was in 1913. It first appeared in English
in three editions of the New Jersey magazine The Dial in 1924. It was reportedly then published in book form in 1925. Currently the earliest editions
available are 1928, Martin Secker, London.
For many people - perhaps more than have read the novella - it is Luchino Visconti's 1971 film, starring Dirk Bogarde and Björn Andrésen, with the soundtrack from Gustav Mahler's Third and Fifth Symphonies, which epitomises Death in Venice. The film remains true to the principal elements of the novella - Aschenbach's growing obsession with Tadzio and his eventual death - and includes many incidents, such as the errant gondolier and the way in which officials deny the presence of cholera in Venice, described by Mann, but some aspects diverge from the original story. In the film, Aschenbach is a musician whose work is not always appreciated; a friend of the composer's is seen in flashback, with whom Aschenbach energetically discusses theories of beauty; Tadzio is the oldest, rather than the youngest child in his family.
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