James Fenton wrestles with the problems of Death in Venice

James Fenton wrestles with the problems of Death in Venice

Clearly we are all having a problem with Death in Venice. Writing in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, Ian Bostridge (who plays the lead role in English National Opera's staging of Benjamin Britten's opera) asserted that "neither [Thomas Mann's] book nor the opera is about a paedophile". Erica Jeal, reviewing the production this week, told us that Deborah Warner, the director, "knows this is not an opera about sexuality". Yet Anthony Holden, in the Observer, suffered "uneasy feelings of voyeurism" and found that Britten's opera, at least as Bostridge put it over, "smacks uneasily, indeed creepily, of an apologia for paedophilia".

The problem is not confined to critics and performers. Writing in the ENO programme, the German expert Richard Stokes, noting Mann's frequent references to Greek authors, tells us that the nature of the passion depicted in the story "is, of course, an aged homosexual's infatuation with a beautiful youth". But Holden in the Observer indignantly refers to Gustav von Aschenbach as heterosexual. And he is right that the famous writer in Mann's story has been happily, if briefly, married. His wife has died, leaving him with a daughter who has herself now married. Consequently he takes his holiday in Venice alone.

Nothing that Mann says about Aschenbach would lead us to suspect that he has any "previous", as far as men or boys are concerned, unless it is this one sentence: "Feelings he had had long ago, early and precious dolours of the heart, which had died out in his life's austere service and were now, so strangely transformed, returning to him - he recognised them with a confused and astonished smile." But if these feelings are "strangely transformed", then we can hardly be certain that they were homosexual.

Nothing to do with Death in Venice is entirely simple. I spent some time the other evening trying to work out why Aschenbach refers to Tadzio, the 14-year-old boy with whom he falls in love, as "Phaeax" when he is late down to breakfast at the hotel. Then I realised I was being misled by Helen Lowe-Porter's translation. "Phaeax" (which is indeed a name in Greek) should be "Phaeacian". The boy is conceived as a pleasure-lover, who likes staying in bed, as (Mann thought) the Phaeacians did in the Odyssey, which he goes on to quote (and which Lowe-Porter leaves in German, not realising the source of the line).

So we should all throw away our old translations and rely instead on David Luke's 1990 version. Excepting that, if we want to know how Britten understood Mann's story, we have to look at Lowe-Porter, which is the version he relied on. Either way, it is possible to see that what happens to Aschenbach - his infatuation with a beautiful child, leading to his humiliation and death - happens because he is an artist, not because he is a homosexual (he isn't, or wasn't at the outset). This fatal passion is something that can afflict any artistic spirit.

The artist is devoted to the pursuit of beauty. And here is what Britten read in Lowe-Porter: "For in almost every artist nature is inborn a wanton and treacherous proneness to side with the beauty that breaks hearts, to single our aristocratic pretensions and pay them homage." And here is the same passage as rendered by Luke: "Inborn in almost every artistic nature is a luxuriant, tell-tale bias in favour of the injustice that creates beauty, a tendency to sympathise with aristocratic preference and pay it homage."

Worrying, isn't it? A "beauty that breaks hearts" turns out to be, in Luke, "an injustice that creates beauty". Either way, however, the artist is seen as siding with beauty in a way that, elsewhere, is definitely seen as immoral. The Greek gods come into this (Greek thought is behind all this) because they are seen as grabbing young beauty whenever it moves them. Zeus grabs Ganymede (among the cases Mann alludes to in the story), while the goddess Eos (Dawn), the "ravisher of youth", grabs Cleitus and Cephalus and Orion. In this respect, the gods are like Oberon and Titania arguing over the Indian child in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Mann knew exactly what he was talking about - the dirty secret in the artist's soul, in despite of which great art is created: "it is despite grief and anguish, despite poverty, loneliness, bodily weakness, vice and passion and a thousand inhibitions, that they have come into being at all." Aschenbach comes to feel sympathy with the cholera outbreak, "an obscure sense of satisfaction at what was going on in the dirty alleyways of Venice, cloaked in official secrecy - this guilty secret of the city which merged with his own innermost secret and which it was also so much in his interests to protect."

Britten, who had great taste in literature, had a perverse taste in librettists: he liked them bad, but amenable. That's what he got in Myfanwy Piper, and he pays the price for it as usual. Between the two of them, they cooked up a drama in which the lover is a singer but the illicit loved one is a dancer, and therefore on some kind of different plane of reality. In Mann's story, Tadzio is flesh and blood and truly there, and becomes aware of the obsession he has aroused, and is interested in it, and encourages it, and protects it with secrecy. He is, after all, on the brink of adolescence.

The situation is very dangerous indeed, and utterly humiliating for Aschenbach as he realises that the adults are becoming aware of him as, precisely, a paedophile (although Mann doesn't use that word): "Although his pride writhed in torments it had never known under the appalling insult that this implied, he could not in conscience deny its justice." In Mann, when we come to a Dionysiac dream, it is orgiastic and obscene. In Britten-Piper it is a ridiculous, cerebral dialogue. (Dionysus: "Do not turn away from life!" Apollo: "No! Abjure the knowledge that forgives.") It is meaningless and prim. It drains away the danger.

And it was written 60 years after Mann's original story.


James Fenton

The GuardianTramp

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