Death in Venice in Literature and Film: Six 20th-Century Versions

Article excerpt

Thomas Mann's Death in Venice serves as a 20th-century archetype of a tale of Venice as labyrinth fatal to the northern visitor. This essay discusses Mann's novella in relation to Daphne du Maurier's "Don't Look Now" and Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, as well as the three films which they inspired.

In the Western literary tradition there is an archetypal tale of leaving the pedestrian security of one's northern home for the powerful seduction and attendant danger which await in regions far to the south. In this tale there is a particular destination fixed at a unique coordinate - geographical, historical, and cultural - which represents for the occidental stranger a confluence of all that is perceived as southern and eastern. This magnetic nexus is Venice, the attractions of which Tony Tanner has described in his delineation of the rich tradition of works born of the northern/western artist's experience of the place:

For Melville, it was a triumph of the art of Pan, which proved to have a Basilisk glance; for Byron, the greenest island of his imagination turned into a sea-Sodom; for Ruskin it was the Hesperid Aegle with a Medusa face; for James, it was brilliantly Veronesean but also darkly venereal; for Hofmannsthal it offered ecstasy and effected dissolution; for Proust, the promise of all but unbearable beauty turned into vacancy; for Pound, it always retained some miraculous beauty, but, somehow, at some time, fraud and corruption had entered the city; for Rilke, it was voluptuous but weary, radiant and fatal.... (366)

More generally, Millicent Bell has observed the way that "Venice-Venus, born of the sea" constitutes "the mythic representation of all desire," and how to the Western imagination it has become "a trope for all romantic expectation as well as for the melancholy of fulfillment, of postcoital languor, of the premonition of death" (145).

In the 20th century, of course, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912) is one of the crown-jewels of this tradition, as evidenced not only by its canonical status but also by its inspiration of two later British works of fiction: Daphne du Maurier's story "Don't Look Now" (1971) and Ian McEwan's novella The Comfort of Strangers (1981). The fascination with Venice, moreover, as well this tradition's extension across the arts, can in turn be seen in the way that each of these three literary works has provided the basis for a major motion picture: Luchino Visconti's 1971 adaptation of Mann's Death in Venice; Nicholas Roeg's 1973 adaptation of du Maurier's "Don't Look Now"; and Paul Schrader's 1991 adaptation of McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers. As I see it, central to the continuing fascination with Venice and the dominant metaphor in this archetypal tale is the "labyrinth," the paradoxical nature of which has been succinctly described by Penelope Reed Doob in her discussion of the Cretan origins and subsequent developments of the Daedalus myth:

First, the labyrinth is a miraculous work of art, a masterpiece of master architects....Second, the very intricacy that makes the maze an architectural wonder as an artifact renders it almost incomprehensible as a process experienced by the disoriented wanderer....This characteristic ambiguity and convertibility of the maze, perceived as an inextricable prison one moment and as great art the next, is often encountered in later labyrinthine art and metaphor. In short, the maze is an embodiment of contraries - art and chaos, comprehensible artifact and inescapable experience, pleasure and terror....Darkness and noise, concomitants of chaos, recur in later labyrinths. So too with some of the maze's functions: as tomb (later associations will be with death or with hell)...as a place of worship or judgement...as a place requiring a guide...as a fitting habitat for monsters...as an image of deceptiveness.... (24-25)

My purpose in the following essay, therefore, is to explore how the various 20th-century tellings and retellings of the tale immortalized by Mann constitute ways of both further constructuring and penetrating the maze, beginning with a consideration of how this tale of the stranger hopelessly imprisoned in the Venetian labyrinth owes its genesis to a combination of Mann's personal experience and the legacy of a variety of earlier writers, musicians, and artists. …