William Faulkner, on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1949, proposed that “the human heart in conflict with itself… alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Death in Venice is a superlative (superlative!) example of the “heart in conflict with itself” but it’s also a meditation on the artist’s life – the mental and physical toll of literary production. Gustav von Aschenbach is a world-famous author. He lives in Munich, waking early every day, to his “cold, inflexible, passionate” writerly duty. He has, for the sake of “perfectionism”, ‘curbed and cooled his feelings.” We meet him in May – “a premature high summer” – as he wanders back from the Englischer Garten to Munich’s North Cemetery. There he notices a man – bold, wild, and, so Aschenbach assumes, from “distant parts.” The stranger leaves the cemetery but something in Aschenbach has changed, an “extraordinary expansion of his inner self.” He imagines a place – a tropical swampland: rank, fecund and riotous – with hallucinatory vividness. He understands this vision (Mann’s ironic treatment of Aschenbach’s psychological blindness is foundational to the story’s sinewy architecture) as “a simple desire to travel”. The writer journeys to Venice. He first notices Tadzio, a beautiful Polish adolescent, in the foyer of the hotel. And so begins the emotionalising of his life – the battle (although only fully acknowledged late on) between discipline and duty and sensuous, voluptuous desire.
First published in German by S. Fischer Verlag, 1912; first published in English translation, by Kenneth Burke, in The Dial, March-May 1924. Widely republished, including in Death and Venice & Other Stories, Vintage, 1998