For those legions of readers who consider Thomas Mann's DEATH IN VENICE one of the pinnacles of 20th Century literature, welcome to the feast! Michael Henry Heim has restudied and again translated this brief but poignant novella with an English version more in tune with Mann's novella and certainly, finally free from all the societal homophobic restrictions that have shrouded previous translations. This is the tale of a writer - Gustav von Aschenbach - in his fifties who feels the need for exotic travels to break his writer's block, and after many aborted attempts to find the right place, comes to Venice and not only falls under its spell but also finds his sublimated desires for pure beauty as focused on young men awakened in his encounter with the young Polish boy Tadzio. This story has been translated into other languages, transformed into film by Luchino Visconti and made into the last opera of Sir Benjamin Britten. But though the simple story has captivated our minds for many years, it has never been presented in so eloquent a fashion as in this Heim translation. To wit: "On a personal level, too, art is life intensified: it delights more deeply, consumes more rapidly; it engraves the traces of imaginary and intellectual adventure on the countenance of its servant and in the long run, for all the monastic calm of his external existence, leads to self-indulgence, over refinement, lethargy, and a restless curiosity that a lifetime of wild passions and pleasures could scarcely engender." When he first encounters Tadzio "...he was infused with a paternal affection, the attraction that one who begets beauty by means of self-sacrifice [a writer] feels for one who is inherently beautiful." And "Was it not common knowledge that the sun diverts our attention from the intellectual to the sensual? It benumbs and bewitches both reason and memory such that the soul in its elation quite forgets its true nature and clings with rapt delight to the fairest of sun-drenched objects, nay, only with the aid of the corporeal can it ascend to more lofty considerations."
Once von Aschenbach accepts the fact that he is in love with the idea of Tadzio he sets about to quash rumors of the threat that cholera is invading Venice to keep his Polish lad from leaving the city (and von Aschenbach) with his family. "Thus the addled traveler could no longer think or care about anything but pursuing unrelentingly the object that had so inflamed him, dreaming of him in his absence, and, as is the lover's wont, speaking tender words to his mere shadow. Loneliness, the foreign environment, and the joy of a belated and profound exhilaration prompted him, persuaded him to indulge without shame or remorse in the most distasteful behavior, as when returning from Venice [to the Lido] late one evening he had paused at the beautiful boy's door on the second floor of the hotel and pressed his forehead against the hinge in drunken rapture, unable to tear himself away even at the risk of being discovered and caught."
Has Heim 'changed' Mann's story in to a more titillating one? No, indeed not! But he has rescued it from the mere Apollonian/Dionysian rhetoric with which other translations have cloaked the sensual aspects of the story. Here von Aschenbach becomes a fully three-dimensional character, one whose life up to the entry into Venice is understood and appreciated as a writer of brilliance, and one whose epiphany of the Eros submerged in this intellectual psyche blossoms in the most credible, tender way that far from being transformed into a 'pedophile', he is instead in that wondrous plane where awakened emotions of love and longing dwell.
Michael Cunningham has written a beautiful introduction to this new translation and, as we have come to expect from this contemporary gifted man of letters, his words are warm and befitting his admiration for this work by Thomas Mann. This is a book to be read and read again, and should you have other versions of DEATH IN VENICE in your library, that is all the more reason to pleasure your mind with the genius of this translation. Highly recommended!