The story is full of signs and portents. On the boat to Venice the hero, von Aschenbach, meets a group of young men of whom one is elderly bewigged, dressed and cosmeticised to look young, the result being a travesty. This is what Aschenbach will become by the end of his homosexual paedophilic obsession. He is also rowed to his hotel by an unlicensed gondolier in a black coffin-like gondola; this boatman reminds us of Charon the ferryman of the Styx. There are also many references to classical myth:
- Helios the sun god (who is also Apollo)
- Narcissus the beautiful youth who fell in love with his reflection
- Hyacinth the beautiful boy-lover of Apollo who was killed by the west wind
- Ganymede, the beautiful boy who was carried by an eagle to Olympus and made to serve Zeus as cup-bearer
- Of course Apollo himself was a beautiful youth
Finally Mann plays with the concepts of Beauty as discussed between the old ugly Socrates and the beautiful youth Phaedrus in the Phaedrus by Plato. In this book Socrates contrasts 'being in your right mind' with the madness that comes with following an erotic desire for beauty. This is clearly the situation for Aschenbach. When a soul, says Socrates, looks upon a beautiful boy it experiences the utmost joy; when separated from the boy, it feels intense pain and longing. This is the allegory of the chariot; we are pulled by passionate horses, we need to rein them in.
When Aschenbach discovers that there is cholera in Venice he decides not to tell the boy's family in case they leave. This is clearly a moral lapse for which he will be punished. (It is also one of the few points at which the film differs from the novella.)
The boy Tadzio becomes aware of Aschenbach's obsessive interest and starts to play up to it, smiling at the old man and making eye contact. At the end of the book, after his family have decided to flee Venice, Tadzio walks into the sea and beckons to Aschenbach.
A wondrous story crammed with many, many layers of meaning in 71 short pages.
It was also a brilliant film starring Dirk Bogarde as the writer.
August 2010; 71 pages