Just how gay is "Death in Venice"?

Back in May I received a review copy of the Michael Henry Heim translation of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. After finishing the short work, I didn’t post a review (although I did post some quotes as I was reading) as I felt a bit out of my league and had trouble pulling my thoughts together. Plus the book wasn’t coming out for a month so I thought I would try and review it after its publication date. Well, as these things often do, time got away from me and I never did post a review.

Well, today (via The Rake) I stumbled onto a interesting discussion of the book over at Salon (you need to subscribe or watch an ad to read the whole thing). I think Andrew O’Hehir does a good job of trying to rescue the work from being seen as simply a “gay master text” without denying the homo-erotic aspect of the novel.

Here are a couple of graphs to wet your whistle:

Dare I even suggest that this fixation with the quasi-scandalous biographical incident behind “Death in Venice” — now the subject of doctoral dissertations and entries in “Fodor’s Italy” — is, to some significant extent, missing the point? It can be difficult to remember that we’re dealing with a work of fiction here, and an especially crafty and meticulous one at that. Like all of Mann’s other books, “Death in Venice” is a nest of interlocking keys and symbols in which scarcely a word is wasted, a careful balance of opposing polarities and apparent contradictions in which no final, definitive interpretation can defeat all others. This is a book about Italy written by a German, a book about homosexual love written by a married man who fathered six children, a book about a man who debases himself and embraces his own death written by a man who lived to age 80 as the very embodiment of bourgeois literary respectability.


At the risk of sounding like a middlebrow hetero liberal, let me insist that it would be unfortunate if future generations read “Death in Venice” as a “paradigmatic master-text of homosexual eroticism,” in the phrase of critic and novelist Gilbert Adair. It can no more be boiled down to such a formulation than “Heart of Darkness” can be described as being entirely about colonial Africa, or “The Old Man and the Sea” as about fishing.

I found the work fascinating and would recommend it to anyone interested in the tension between stability and passion, between the quest for normality and freedom, or someone who just enjoys florid prose about exotic places with multiple and complex psychological layers.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Mostly off-topic (sorry), but hopefully interesting. One of the weirdest (as in spooky) moments I’ve experienced was watching the movie “Baghdad Cafe” on cable one evening while I was reading “Death in Venice.” I look up at the screen and a character in the movie is reading… “Death in Venice.” Not only that, but the exact version of the book I had. (Of course, reading the book I understood why they chose to put that in there) To say it felt odd was an understatement.

  2. I have read and re-read “Death in Venice” consistently since I was an adolescent. In Chinese. For good reasons I have always been wary of this translation, and finally got around to reading Heim’s rendition in English today to do a check. Unbelievably, a Chinese translator in the 70’s in Taiwan apparently did a fine job, I concluded – and probably was streets ahead of his Western peers, who apparently were reticent on the sexual tensions within the story, since Heim’s has been billed as more frank than all the other ones. Your point is well taken that this is not all about being gay; but as a straight woman I would like to point out that we heterosexuals would have been clamoring for “Jane Eyre” to be seen as the Great Heterosexual Romance it is if our very existence is frowned upon.

    What I want to know is: Are the pearls of Tadzio’s mother “invaluable” or “worthless”? Heim says the latter; my Chinese guide says the former. Given the aristocratic trappings of the Polish family one would incline to think Heim is wrong. Quite important, really.

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