Impossible Conception

T.J. Reed

  • Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher
    Columbia, 254 pp, £20.50, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 02 311626 1

The double centenary in 2012 of the publication of Kafka’s The Judgment and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was marked only, to my knowledge, by a single conference, in California. Yet these two stories represented crucial breakthroughs for writers who came to dominate the German literature of the age. Both experienced a creative liberation thanks to forces seemingly beyond the conscious efforts that were getting them nowhere – in old-fashioned terms, thanks to inspiration.

Where Kafka felt he had been splashing about in the shallows, he now felt, as he wrote through one night without a break, that he was being carried forward by a tide. The Judgment opened the way into a series of existential explorations like no others: The Trial, The Castle, In the Penal Colony and the rest. Mann, meanwhile, had spent years brooding over ambitious projects on which he couldn’t get started, when a chance encounter on holiday generated new emotions in him and he too, as he later wrote, felt himself being ‘serenely carried along in an absolute movement’. In Death in Venice he was able for the first time to reconcile the different layers of a story – the real and the symbolic, the psychological and the mythical – and so to enrich realism without abandoning it, a process which led on to the social and historical analysis to be found on a grand scale in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.

Mann’s 1912 novella was also to have a powerful influence on social perceptions of homosexuality. His arch-enemy Alfred Kerr was not far wrong with his sneer that Mann had ‘made pederasty palatable to the middle classes’. The novella’s effect was all the stronger for not being – Philip Kitcher misreads it – about ‘a closet homosexual’ who has ‘refused to acknowledge his sexual inclinations’. Unlike his fully self-aware creator, who, though never a practising homosexual (‘how can one sleep with men?’ he asked in a 1950 diary entry), was all his life an avid voyeur of young males, Aschenbach is initially taken by surprise as he slowly realises that it was having to leave Tadzio that had made his departure from Venice (since aborted) such a bitter prospect: ‘He looked into himself, his brows rose, an attentive smile of interested curiosity crossed his lips.’ As a younger man Aschenbach has been happily heterosexual: ‘Former feelings, early delicious entanglements of the heart which had died out in the strict discipline of his life and were now returning so strangely transformed – he recognised them with a confused, astonished smile.’ The orientation may change but the erotic emotion is a constant, which is why, in the Joseph and His Brothers books, Mann, like Proust, can produce persuasive narratives of heterosexual feeling.

One of the strengths of Death in Venice is the delicate pacing of Aschenbach’s gradual self-discovery, as he passes from admiration of Tadzio’s beauty, to fatherly interest, a declaration of love, obsessive pursuit and orgiastic dream to the infection with cholera and the half-conciliatory coda of his death on the beach. The moral development, however, is not strictly linear, and was plainly long unresolved in the writing process. When Mann called the story ‘an impossible conception’, he was surely trying to decide whether to put an affirmative or a negative slant on Aschenbach’s infatuation. The final outcome is readable both ways. There is enough outright condemnation of Aschenbach to satisfy a puritanical German public that had been scandalised by recent court cases and the fall of Oscar Wilde, and to keep Mann himself safe from suspicion. Homosexual critics have called Mann cowardly not to have shown Aschenbach in a more positive light. Seen in the context of the time, however, Mann had a lot to lose by obviously sympathising, let alone identifying with Aschenbach – a settled family life, an elevated place in Munich society. There is defiance all the same in the words that lead up to Aschenbach’s declaration, ‘I love you,’ words that are ‘the standing formula of yearning, – impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred still, no less venerable even here’. The master touch is the pivotal ‘and’, where one would have expected ‘but’, which serves to lend an equal weight to the two opposed views.

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