Thomas Mann's novella "Death in Venice" written in 1911 has proven to be one of the more enduring, widely read stories in all of 20th Century literature. Originally published by Mann in a selection of short stories, the tale is one of the clash of the Apollonian and Dionysian conflict in the guise of one Gustav von Aschenbach, dropping his wholly cerebral life, to fall in love with a young Polish lad (Tadzio, who represents earthly Dionysian beauty at the stage of puberty) in Venice, Italy when the threat of cholera threatened the life of the city. The story has captured the imagination of philosophers, readers, historians, thinkers concerned with gender studies - and musicians and filmmakers!
The story has been published in many languages, served as the subject for Luchino Visconti's hauntingly beautiful film (1971) by the same name, and resulted in Benjamin Britten's last opera (1973) also with the name "Death in Venice" in tact. Gender studies writers claim this novella to be one of the most successful stories of same sex love, and other famous writers took the lead from Mann in putting into novel form the 'unspeakable subject'. Gilbert Adair, a successful British writer ("Love and Death on Long Island" is a stunning book and was made into a fine film with the brilliant portrayal by John Hurt of the Thomas Mann-inspired character) has treated us with a significant bit of investigation and shows in well written prose and illustrated by many photographs that the story of "Death in Venice" is actually Mann's reporting on an incident that really did happen: Mann was in Venice in 1911, encountered a rich young Polish boy (one Wladyslaw Moes) while staying on the Lido, met all the same characters he later depicted, escaped the cholera epidemic that threatened Venice, felt the desire for the beautiful lad, but in Mann's case he did not die on the beach watching his desired young dream lad wandering away into the sea waves.
Adair then follows the life of the real 'Tadzio' through his wealthy years in Poland, his trials during the time between WWI and WWII, his loss of all of his wealth in the post war period including his incarceration in a POW camp, his marriage and subsequent loss of his son, his response to seeing himself depicted in Visconti's movie version of Mann's novella, and his subsequent death in 1986. This is a fine bit of history, well presented with accompanying photographs of "Tadzio", his friends, his family, and his disappearance into obscurity while his impetus for Thomas Mann's novella lives on. Adair also examines the Visconti film and the Britten opera and manages to tie a century's worth of information into a short, eminently readable book. This is a must read for everyone who has fallen in love with this famous story.