Arts: In Search of the Real Tadzio ; in the Summer of 1911 a Brief Encounter with a Polish Family Inspired Thomas Mann to Write Death in Venice, in Which an Elderly Writer Becomes Infatuated with a Beautiful Adolescent. the Work Was Soon Hailed as a Classic of Literature - and Later of Film. but, Asks Gilbert Adair, What Happened to the Boy?

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As Death in Venice came to be recognised as one of the undisputed classics of contemporary European literature, Thomas Mann was not averse to acknowledging a debt to the sublime happenstance which had laid out before him, in the correct order, a sequence of narrative units which could scarcely have failed, even in lesser hands than his, to engender a masterpiece. Even now, nearly a century after the event, it is not generally realised, save to specialists of Mann's work and life, that virtually everything experienced by Gustav von Aschenbach in the novella, short of his premature death on the beach, had first happened to the author. Yet Mann never sought to camouflage just how little of a novelist's imaginative gifts had gone into this particular tale. More than once he admitted to the world that there really had been an effeminate, posturing fop, a gruff gondolier, an aristocratic Polish family and, of course, a beautiful boy. As he himself wrote:

"Nothing is invented in Death in Venice. The `pilgrim' at the North Cemetery, the dreary Pola boat, the grey-haired rake, the sinister gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the journey interrupted by a mistake about the luggage, the cholera, the upright clerk at the travel bureau, the rascally ballad singer, all that and anything else you like, they were all there. I had only to arrange them when they showed at once and in the oddest way their capacity as elements of composition."

Yet, surprisingly, in that self-same year of 1912, Mann was complaining of the novella's "errors and weaknesses" and describing it to his brother Heinrich as "full of half-baked ideas and falsehoods". Had he been afforded the opportunity of writing Death in Venice over again, Thomas insisted, he would have made it significantly less of a "mystification". And, indeed, as we have long known, the reality is that, notwithstanding his claims to the contrary - that the novella's narrative had simply and magically unfolded before his eyes and that all he had had to do was transcribe it from life, as though taking dictation from God - he had been as economical with the factual truth as the majority of his fellow-novelists.

Of some significance were the liberties which he allowed himself to take with the character of Tadzio. In the first place, the boy's name was not Tadzio at all - or Taddeus, for which "Tadzio" is the diminutive - but Wladyslaw. This, at least, was probably not a deliberate subterfuge on Mann's part. What Aschenbach hears on the Lido, when the other children start calling the Polish youth to play, is "something like Adgio - or, often still, Adjiu, with a long- drawn-out u at the end". And that is exactly what Mann himself would have heard, save that Adgio - or, correctly, Adzio - is, via "Wladzio", short for "Wladyslaw".

Even more significantly, Adzio was not a youth but a child. Wladyslaw Moes - the real boy's real name - was born in 1900, which means that, at the time of their encounter on the Lido, he whom Mann would complacently portray as "a longhaired boy of about 14" was not quite 11 years old, a significant difference where approaching or receding puberty is concerned. Furthermore, although his older beach companion "Jaschiu" (Mann's phonetic spelling of a diminutive form which should be written "Jasio") also existed, and was named Jan Fudakowski, he was in reality Adzio's junior by a few months and therefore neither the "sturdy lad with brilliantined black hair" of the novella nor, a fortiori, the muscular hunk, visibly in his late teens or even early 20s, of the film which Luchino Visconti adapted from it in 1971.

In fairness to Mann, it should be pointed out that, if he aged Tadzio by three years, then he took a far greater liberty with his own fictional surrogate. In 1911 Mann was 36 years old. As for the hero of Death in Venice, it is in the novella's second sentence that the reader learns that the once plain, von-less Gustav Aschenbach had officially earned the right to be addressed by the nobler moniker "Gustav von Aschenbach" only, as the text has it, "since his 50th birthday". …