I began reading en route from Florence, in the train.
He saw it once more, that landing-place that takes the breath away, that amazing group of incredible structures the Republic set up to meet the awe-struck eye of the approaching seafarer: the airy splendour of the palace and Bridge of Sighs, the columns of lion and saint on the shore, the glory of the projecting flank of the fairy temple, the vista of the gateway and clock. Looking, he thought that to come to Venice by the station is like entering a palace by the back door. No one should approach, save by the high seas as he was doing now, this most improbable of cities.I immediately regretted our approach. Although by our original plan we were to fly to Venice, and travel from the airport to the city by boat, we had been forced to revise several arrangements. Here we were on the railroad tracks stretching out from the mainland onto the sea with no inkling of what we were approaching — a train station like any other, the back door.
It would be days later that I fully understood, when we returned over water from neighbouring islands. Fairy-tale splendour, unreal city.
But at last we would leave with dignity and pride, not slinking through the servants' entrance.
Then I read about the gondolas.
Is there anyone but must repress a secret thrill, on arriving in Venice for the first time — or returning thither after long absence — and stepping into a Venetian gondola? That singular conveyance, come down unchanged from ballad times, black as nothing else on earth except a coffin-what pictures it calls up of lawless, silent adventures in the plashing night; or even more, what visions of death itself, the bier and solemn rites and last soundless voyage! And has anyone remarked that the seat in such a bark, the arm-chair lacquered in coffin-black and dully black-upholstered, is the softest, most luxurious, most relaxing seat in the world?I was amused by Mann's description, but then shocked to discover its accuracy. They are blacker than black. Mann spoiled it for me. Why would I climb into that foreboding conveyance, glide to my afterlife? It took me some days to come to my senses: hundreds of people travel by gondola daily, my stepping into a gondola would not herald my death. Yes, it is the softest, most luxurious, most relaxing seat in the world. Maybe this is my afterlife.
Leaning back among soft, black cushions he swayed gently in the wake of the other black-snouted bark, to which the strength of his passion chained him. Sometimes it passed from his view, and then he was assailed by an anguish of unrest. But his guide appeared to have long practice in affairs like these; always, by dint of short cuts or deft maneuvers, he contrived to overtake the coveted sight. The air was heavy and foul, the sun burnt down through a slate-coloured haze. Water slapped gurgling against wood and stone. The gondolier's cry, half warning, half salute, was answered with singular accord from far within the silence of the labyrinth. They passed little gardens, high up the crumbling wall, hung with clustering white and purple flowers that sent down an odour of almonds. Moorish lattices showed shadowy in the gloom. The marble steps of a church descended into the canal, and on them a beggar squatted, displaying his misery to view, showing the whites of his eyes, holding out his hat for alms. Farther on a dealer in antiquities cringed before his lair, inviting the passer-by to enter and be duped. Yes, this was Venice, this the fair frailty that fawned and that betrayed, half fairy-tale, half snare; the city in whose stagnating air the art of painting once put forth so lusty a growth, and where musicians were moved to accords so weirdly lulling and lascivious.
The gondolas have names. Some of them are engraved on a silver plaque affixed at the front: Cristina, Laura, Elena. Antonio's boat is called Pruna, after his mother.
Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.Today the gondoliers all steer while texting.
Passion paralyses good taste and makes its victim accept with rapture what a man in his senses would either laugh at or turn from with disgust.Venice is absurd in its luxury, it drips with overindulgence, the lushness of its interiors, the richness of its food, the mystery of its labyrinths, the magic of its squares.
Death in Venice I knew by reputation to be a tragic love story of sorts. I was prepared for this, the perverse ramblings of an ailing old man. He obsesses over youth and beauty. I sat on Lido beach and watched, as Mann did, young bodies. I was prepared for despair.
I had expected something nostalgic and mournful. What I found was something altogether sinister. Not only is a plague of lusts, desires, and disappointments visited upon the central character, a literal plague descends upon Venice, not for the first time. A conspiracy of silence supports the bubble of the Venetian fairy tale. I regret that we were not present for the festa del redentore, which celebrates the end of the plague of 1576; perhaps the plague has not really ended.
Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice in 1911. In 1954 he published The Black Swan, which I read last winter, which revisits many of the same themes, but this time from a female perspective. I'm astounded by Mann's ability to convey human experience in all its complexity, its joy and shame.
The contrast between youth and age is aligned with that of passion and knowledge. The passion of youth, the wisdom of age. With age, one should know better. The heart and the head. Forget the head.
Knowledge is all-knowing, understanding, forgiving; it takes up no position, sets no store by form. It has compassion with the abyss — it is the abyss. So we reject it, firmly, and henceforward our concern shall be with beauty only. And by beauty we mean simplicity, largeness, and renewed severity of discipline; we mean a return to detachment and to form.Today marks the 60th anniversary of Thomas Mann's death, not in Venice.