Gustav von Aschenbach, searching for ‘a new type of hero’ with ‘an intellectual and virginal manliness’, journeys to ‘the incomparable, the fabulous, the like-nothing-else-in the world’ city of Venice, there to find a ‘half-grown lad, a masterpiece from nature’s own hand…a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky’. The hero of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, written in 1911, is a distinguished middle-aged German writer, the very model of respectability and achievement. Aschenbach is, however, self-oppressed, ‘too busy with tasks imposed upon him by his own ego and the European soul’. The sight of a southerly traveller in a cemetery gives him a ‘longing to travel’, an ‘impulse towards flight’. He decides on Venice, ostensibly to spend a quiet summer on the beach but, in fact, in an attempt to escape the regimen of his work—he admits ‘he got no joy of it’—and to break out of his self-imposed solitary existence: Aschenbach’s longing for companionship and sexual comfort is hardly apparent even to himself. Venice, with its rich history and mysterious charm and the expanse of the Lido beaches, beckons the staid German.
He travels by ship to Venice, then takes a gondola through the Grand Canal, past the fabulous piazza, the famous lion and the basilica of San Marco, and installs himself at the elegant Hôtel des Bains on the Lido. Among the guests, a cosmopolitan lot, are a wealthy Polish woman, her plain daughters and her beautiful son, Tadzio, whom Aschenbach spies on the beach soon after his arrival. He is instantly lovestruck; in Tadzio, ‘he told himself that what he saw was beauty’s very essence’. Aschenbach both lusts after him and worships him from afar, not daring to thrust himself upon the blond ephebe. He follows Tadzio, moons over him in the hotel restaurant, tries to concoct reasons to speak to him or his mother, but he remains paralysed by his obsession. So distraught is Aschenbach that he tries to leave Venice, but uses the excuse of misdirected luggage to return, secretly admitting that he is prolonging his stay in order to be near Tadzio. Still he is unable to act on his feelings, despite regular proximity to Tadzio