Archive for January 12th, 2013

January 12, 2013

Deaths in Venice

It’s been six months, and so this is the penultimate “Paper Trails” column for the National Geographic Traveller (India). It was out in the December issue of the magazine. Short version: I am flippant about Thomas Mann.


The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, according to a number of unreliable sources, was given its name by the English Romantic poet Lord Byron on a visit to the city. The bridge leads to the New Prison, and though it is enclosed has windows so that convicts could take one last look (and presumably sigh) at the beauty of the city before being incarcerated. One legend associated with the bridge is that couples who sail under it together and kiss at sunset will be in love forever – this forms the plot of the 1979 Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane film, A Little Romance. If a bridge that carried convicts to jail seems a rather inappropriate venue for such activities, there’s probably something profound to be said about tragedy and love always going together.

That is certainly the case in Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered. Caudwell’s four comic crime novels (about a group of barristers who solve mysteries under the guidance of a pedantic Oxford scholar) are some of the funniest in existence and have nowhere near the following they deserve. In this, the first, Julia Larwood decides to go on an art tour of Venice that she cannot afford instead of staying home and paying her taxes. Immediately she meets and falls for a fellow tourist, an unimaginably beautiful young man named Ned. Her attempted seduction seems doomed to fail (not least because Ned is accompanied by his boyfriend) but he finally succumbs to her charms. Later that day he is found dead and it appears Julia is the only person who had the opportunity to kill him.

Beautiful young men might have cause to avoid Venice altogether. The German author Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice also features a protagonist, Aschenbach, who is besotted by a boy named Tadzio with a face like “the noblest moment of Greek sculpture”. As Venice is overtaken by an epidemic of cholera Aschenbach chooses to stay so that he can continue to gaze upon this perfect youth. For obvious reasons this is a terrible idea; it’s unclear if Tadzio succumbs to cholera, but Aschenbach himself dies at the end.

Death in Venice has been adapted into multiple films as well as an opera. For reasons that ought to be obvious adaptations of the book tend to make Tadzio a little older – in the original novella he’s only about fourteen. But the book is also so famous and so influential that later works set in Venice often seem to be paying tribute to Mann’s novella.

Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Ganymede” is an obvious tribute, in which an English academic becomes smitten with a Venetian waiter. Apparently du Maurier used “Venice” as a code word for her own attraction towards women. She wrote another story set in the same city; “Don’t Look Now” which was turned into a film in 1973. In this a couple mourning a recently-dead child comes into contact with a strange pair of sisters. It may not be as obviously related to Mann’s work as “Ganymede” is, but here again there is love twinned with tragedy and an uncomfortable sense that we’re on the verge of the supernatural.

Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers has this in common with both du Maurier and Mann. An English couple on holiday in Venice are trying to rekindle their relationship. Colin and Mary spend most of their days in a dreamlike haze, getting lost in the city’s confusing streets. Then they meet Robert, a Venetian, and his wife Caroline. Robert and Caroline show a disconcerting interest in the couple and in Colin’s beauty in particular. Predictably, things end badly.

A story with a comparatively happy ending is that of Alexander McCall Smith’s German philologist and academic, Moritz-Maria von Igenfeld in Portugese Irregular Verbs. On a visit to Venice to mend a broken heart von Igenfeld notices a family staying at the same hotel. He pays particular attention to the beautiful teenaged son, a boy named “Tadseuz”. He also notices the suspicious insistence of many Venetians, seemingly apropos of nothing, that there is nothing wrong with the city’s water supply. He investigates, and soon learns that some form of radioactivity has seeped into the canals. But von Igenfeld is no Aschenbach; he very sensibly scans all his food for radioactivity, warns Tadseuz’s mother that her son has become “un peu radio-actif” (I cannot vouch for von Igenfeld’s French but I laughed) and leaves the city.

McCall Smith spoils it all at the end by having von Igenfeld think of Thomas Mann and how similar the two stories are; it’s a terrible shame to ruin a clever joke with a crude explanation. Yet it’s true that all the stories I mention here are in a way paying tribute to Mann’s powerful work. Venice is often talked of by those who do not belong to it with a flood of clichés, as if all that the city had to offer were gondolas and cheesy romance. Mann gives us another literary tradition through which to see the city. It isn’t a particularly happy one, but it’s one in which love, beauty and grief are all intertwined