Venetians may get drunk, but foreign visitors are supposed to be intoxicated only by the beauty of the water-city. Aschenbach does not see much of it. When he visits it from the Lido he is too busy following young Tadzio through the dark alleyways or listening to the man at Thomas Cook’s who tells him about the exotic provenance of the plague that is hitting Venice. To plop oneself down at the Lido is, in a sense, to reject Venice. The Lido is a boat ride away from San Marco, and it is all too much dry land. If you have a Tadzio as a son, it is best to keep him out of the lagoon for he will emerge from it encrusted with algae, which you have to remove with a scrubbing brush. There are no aristocratic Polish families there now, and no elegance.
The republic and the Doge are long gone, though the Doge’s palace remains, and the great wealth of a trading city has been reduced. But, there is none of the indolence that Mann wanted.
Up and down, over the bridges which span the Grand Canal, hurry working Venetians in suits and with briefcases. Murano produces glassware that is sold in Venetian shops; Burano makes decoy ducks for shooters. Venetian printing and leatherwork has replaced the heftier commerce of spice imports and the shipping of crusaders to the Holy Land. But the wide, deep Guidecca Canal still has great ships moving to and from Istanbul.
What most visitors cannot comprehend is the total absence of the automobile. The boats proceed with never a collision, swift to moor and unmoor, giving summer travelers a cool whiff of water. In the little squares, the cats lie and sun themselves, at peace with the pigeons, which leave a souvenir on your shirt.
Aschenbach on the Lido sees nothing of this, and you wonder why he had to go to Venice at all in order to feel the twinges of love and die.
Erica Young, who had been living on Guidecca in order to write her novel Serenissima, insisted that Venice is the only possible place for illicit love. Friends who live on the main Venetian island point to the multiple ways in and out at the back of houses, useful for slyly entering or swiftly escaping.
That Venice promotes sexuality seems to be true: It must have to do with the sense of weightlessness in the gondola that takes you to your fish dinner, Venus’s food.
Our hero, eats at the Hotel de Bains, where the cuisine is not Venetian. I, unlike him, have wandered from ristorante to trattoria, sampling gamberetti and civale, lumache and polipi and tartufi, datteri and cozze and cappelunghe as antipasti, moving to the main cource of calamaretti or seppioline or sogliolette or giant scampi or branzino or coda di rospo. Later comes the desire for a big hunk of meat, which means a fiorentine or T-bone steak, but that is served by foreign, or Tuscan, restaurants. If you want to eat Venice, you must swallow the Adriatic.
At my age, I can die anywhere, including Venice. But Venice promotes life and enhances it. It cannot depress, for it is a reminder of what humanity can do when it really tries. It is wrong to feel relief once we are safely on dry land again and will remain so. To think the whole world is dry, with occasional irrelevancies of water, is a fallacy. Venice trumpets the idea that man is a water creature and can build more beauty on that cold element than he ever can on land.
Re-reading Death in Venice in the city that inspired it, I saw how little is has to do with the whole bundle of islands dedicated to living. It is a study of the Germanic soul longing for the South but really scared of it, for it releases the demons of pleasure and self-abandonment.
Did Shakespeare ever see it?
His Venetian plays do not seem to be something he got solely out of books. Venice is above all a Shakespearian city-gorgeous, drunk, expansive, shimmering, with a sharp eye on the money. Aschenbach is not Shakespeare; nor, for that matter, is Thomas Mann.