Archive for March 10th, 2011

Life is Cheap

This is a very short story, more of an anecdote, which I wrote back in 2005. The events took place in 1997.


Life is Cheap


“Life is cheap over there, son.”

It was my father who spoke, on the eve of his departure for Sarajevo. He had been drinking scotch and was pacing up and down his bedroom, throwing things into a suitcase.

“I’m a bit nervous this time. It’s a long time since I’ve been to a place like this. When I went to Beirut and Afghanistan, I couldn’t wait to get in.”

He stood still and shook his head.

“Mate, there’s people over there who’ll rub you out for nothing.”

His nerves were palpable, but then my father had always been overrun with excess energy. How often had my mother told him to stop tapping his knees up and down under the table?

“You’ve been to worse places,” I offered. “You’ll be alright.”

“Yeah, your dad’s an old pro. I know how to look after myself.”

He took a shirt off the hanger and lay it flat on the bed.

“But you know, mate. In some places, there’s nothing you can do. Life is cheap.”

He was on his way to spend a month in the former Yugoslavia to conduct research for a novel he was writing on a fictional war criminal. I too felt nervous because I knew him well enough to know that he would try to get himself into every dodgy situation available in order to get closer to the real story, wherever it happened to lie.

It was, therefore, with not inconsiderable relief that my mother, brother and I greeted his safe return to Sydney. I was living in Glebe at the time and met my father for dinner at our favourite Thai restaurant in Surry Hills, two nights after his return.

He told me of the frustrations he had encountered in trying to get into Serbia, a move eventually blocked by impenetrable bureaucracy. He told me of being flown from one place to the next by the Luftwaffe, of riding on tractors with peasants and of the heavy, rich, Balkan cuisine he had consumed with such guilty passion, washed down with harsh grappa.

“It’s corrupt as buggery,” he said. “The black market is vast and you can get pretty well anything – guns, grenades, drugs – whatever you want.”

“Didn’t some guy try to sell you a tank once in Beirut?”

“Yeah, an old T-34.”

“Any tanks for sale?”

“No, mate,” he laughed. “But everyone kept telling me to change my deutschmark on the black market, so I did, and fuck me, I got burned.”

“How did that happen?”

“It was in Sarajevo – just a kid on the street, in one of the main squares. This kid must have used the most incredible sleight of hand, because I had my eyes on him like a hawk.”

He took a gulp of his wine, the held his hand in my face.

“He held up a roll, like this, right in front of my face, and counted off the notes before my eyes. I saw every note, mate, and they were all good. Somehow, by some miracle of magician’s dexterity, when I handed him the hundred marks and he handed the roll over, he managed to substitute it for a different roll.”

“What was in it?”

“There was one good note on the top, and the rest was paper.”

“What a pisser.”

“By the time I found out, the kid was long gone. I can’t tell you how angry I was. The little rat, I thought – nobody double crosses Phil Cornford. I went straight back to my hotel room and got a good heavy, woolen sock. Then I walked back to the square, and on the way I got half a brick and put it in the sock. I was determined to break both of his fucking legs if I found him again.”

“Bullshit.” I said, though it was as much a question as an expression of disbelief.

“No mate, I was livid. It didn’t matter that it was only a hundred marks – it was the principle. I hung around that square all afternoon, and I went back again the next day to try to find him. I swear to god I was determined to break both his legs if I found him.”

“But you didn’t find him.”

“No, I didn’t. And then I calmed down a bit and I had to leave Sarajevo. I was amazed at myself, and I still don’t know why it made me so angry. It might have been the tension I felt the whole time I was there. I guess I felt scared – maybe I’m getting less reckless as I get older, I value my life more and I don’t want to die. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have even noticed if I was afraid.”

The words ‘less reckless’ hung across the table, and I wondered whether he’d noticed the contradiction.

“Mate,” he said, “there’s blokes over there who’ll do you over for nothing.”

Yeah, I thought, picturing him hanging around in the middle of Sarajevo with half a brick in a sock, waiting to break some kid’s legs. Life sure is cheap over there.

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This is an essay written for my Masters in Creative Writing, c. 2005. It is not particularly well researched, but seems relevant and eloquent enough to warrant posting.

Death in Venice

Death in Venice is a brief, yet complex novel which ought really to be called a novella.[1] Within its eighty-odd pages, Thomas Mann combines psychology, myth and eroticism with questions of the nature and role of the artist and the value of art. It is a metaphorical and allegorical novel which deals with themes common to German Romanticism, namely the proximity of love and death. That all this takes place within the context of a simple and linear story about an ageing writer’s homoerotic obsession with a fourteen year-old Polish boy in Venice makes it all the more remarkable.

Two of the major themes I wish to touch on in this discussion are those of Mann’s understanding of and concern with the role of the artist, and the manner in which he has made use of personal experience in his work. I will also examine the way in which this novella developed from its initial conception as a rather different story altogether.

Thomas Mann’s early work focused almost entirely on the problem of art and the role of the artist. Mann was conflicted between immense distrust of art as a “decadent evasion” and the elevation of art as “a source and medium of the interpretative critique of life.”[2] His thinking was to a great degree informed by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, yet he was certainly not as strictly Nietzschean as many of his contemporaries. In his 1903 work, Tonio Kröger, Mann explored the impact of a devotion to art and a bohemian lifestyle on the ability to live a normal life and retain a normal range of emotions. The character of Tonio Kröger “suffers from the curse of being the ‘Literat’, the writer who stands fastidiously apart from experience precisely because he has seen through it all. His critical, knowing, sceptical stance conflicts with his craving for ordinary, unproblematic living.”[3]

In a sense Mann established a sort of artistic manifesto through the character of Tonio who concludes that his art must be “an art in which formal control does not become bloodless schematism, but is, rather, able to achieve a lyrical – almost ballad-like – intensity and simplicity; an art which combines a precise sense of mood, of place with passages of reflection and discursive discussion; an art which is both affectionate yet critical, both immediate yet detached, sustained by a creative eros that has the capacity for formal control, for argument in and through the aesthetic structure.”[4]

Though Tonio Kröger predates Death in Venice by almost ten years, many of the conclusions reached in its composition inform the structure and purpose of his later work.

In Death in Venice, Mann once again displays his focus on questions about the nature of the artist and his art. After introducing his character of Gustave von Aschenbach and providing the inspiration behind his trip to Venice, Mann seems impatient to unload as much character detail as possible. He outlines Aschenbach’s career as a writer with both overt and covert cynicism which pinpoints the ironies inherent in his gradual transition from energetic bohemian to clockwork establishment figure. This dense and often turgid biography acts as a sort of premise to a novella that in many ways constitutes a narrative critique of art and artists and the nature of beauty, to name two of its principal themes.

Thomas Mann makes this plain early on in the following passage:

The new type of hero favoured by Aschenbach, and recurring many times in his works, had early been analysed by a shrewd critic: ‘The conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side.’ That was beautiful, it was spirituel, it was exact, despite the suggestion of too great passivity it held. Forbearance in the face of fate, beauty constant under torture, are not merely passive. They are a positive achievement, an explicit triumph; and the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here. Within that world of Aschenbach’s creation were exhibited many phases of this theme: there was the aristocratic self-command that is eaten out within and for as long as it conceals its biologic decline from the eyes of the world… [5]

It is no accident that the first theme here mentioned should conform so closely to the tale that is to follow. Mann had long been intrigued by the concept of an older man who has given himself single-mindedly to high achievements, only to be seized, late in life, by love of an inappropriate object who will prove his downfall.”[6]

Thomas Mann had never shied away from using his characters and the situations into which he placed them as a forum for self-analysis. As far as he was concerned, “the personal was given its highest value when converted to literature.”[7] This was made nowhere more plain than in his brother, Heinrich’s, play about their sister, Carla’s suicide. Thomas Mann championed the play and ensured it got produced and he and his brother caused a scandal when they stood up and applauded vigorously on the opening night.

Mann was later to write:

“The personal element is all. Raw material is only the personal.”[8]

One of the most interesting aspects of Death in Venice is the degree to which it is based on real events. Within the context of this class, we have already to some degree addressed the question of how much of ourselves we might incorporate into our works; what elements of our personal experience might we deploy within the context of a piece of writing and how might we disguise or manipulate these. Death in Venice is an example both of great skill and great good fortune for almost the entire story derives from real events which are described in minute detail with a desire to be faithful to recollection.

In his memoir entitled, Sketch of my Life, Mann wrote that:

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. Perhaps it has to do with this: that as I worked on the story – as always it was a long-drawn-out job – I had at moments the clearest feelings of transcendence, a sovereign sense of being borne up such as I had never before experienced.[9]

Mann had indeed travelled with his wife and brother to an Adriatic resort, only to find it dull and oppressive, and had then made the decision to move on to Venice. He bought a ticket as described, saw the old fop on the boat as they were setting out and, upon arrival in Venice, he and his family were then transported to the Lido by an unlicensed Gondolier who dropped them off and fled without paying after unloading their luggage.

The Polish family were also present and are rendered as faithfully as possible. The accuracy of Mann’s descriptions were later attested in anecdotes and photographs provided by Count Wladyslaw Moes, upon whom Tadzio was based and who was tracked down by Mann’s daughter, Erica, in the 1960s. He also acknowledged that the tussle on the beach between Tadzio and Jaschiu had taken place in precisely the way described and even claimed to have been aware of a mysterious man who watched him continually during his stay.[10]

Not only did Mann base the context and characters upon what he witnessed and encountered, but the character of Aschenbach was a combination of himself and Gustave Mahler, who was a close personal friend of Mann and who was, at the time of Mann’s holiday in Venice, on his death-bed. During his stay in Venice, Mann read regular newspaper reports concerning Mahler’s declining health and this seems to have inspired him to borrow Mahler’s age and appearance for the character of Aschenbach.[11]

On the other hand, Aschenbach’s habits and profession are of an accurate autobiographical nature; his three hours of writing every morning, his midday nap, his tea-time and afternoon walks which are taken precisely where Mann took his, his devoting his evenings to writing letters, and his special interest in prepubescent boys.[12]

While very little of the context and events of the story might be invented, it certainly did not present itself to Mann as a whole already plotted. The prevailing themes of art and beauty in Death in Venice were originally earmarked for a different sort of story altogether.

What I originally wanted to deal with was not anything homoerotic at all. It was the story – seen grotesquely – of the aged Goethe and that little girl in Marienbad whom he was absolutely determined to marry, with the acquiescence of her social-climbing mother and despite the outraged horror of his own family, with the girl not wanting it at all – this story with its terribly comic, shameful, awesomely ridiculous situations, the embarrassing, touching, and grandiose story is one which I may someday write after all. What was added to the amalgam at the time was a personal, lyrical travel experience that determined me to carry things to an extreme by introducing the motif of “forbidden” love.[13]

Mann’s great achievement with Death in Venice was to find such strong, if simple, narrative strain within an otherwise non-narrative sequence of events from the basis of a desire to examine a theme.

One of the paradoxes of Mann’s style in Death in Venice lies in the fact that despite its thorough realism, which derives to a very great degree from his detailed description of personal experiences, the story allows myth and legend to have a very palpable existence. In every regard, Death in Venice is a “highly stylised composition characterised by a tense equilibrium of realism and idealisation.”[14] Rich in metaphor, myth and psychology; its very title is unequivocal in establishing the teleological nature of the story.

Nowhere is the palpability of mythical elements more strongly realised than in the figure of the stranger, through whose various manifestations Aschenbach is guided inexorably to his fate. The stranger takes the form of the traveller at the cemetery, the goatee’d captain of the ship from Pola, the Gondolier and finally the musician, all of whom share devilish qualities in their appearance or assume a devilish quality through their actions and context.[15]

The stranger at the cemetery first appears “standing in the portico, above the two apocalyptic beasts.”[16] The ship’s captain makes the simple act of purchasing a ticket take on the trappings of a magic show through his flourishes.

He made some scrawls on the paper, strewed bluish sand on it out of a box, thereafter letting the sand run off into an earthen vessel, folded the paper with bony yellow fingers, and wrote on the outside… … His copious gestures and empty phrases gave the odd impression that he feared the traveller might alter his mind.[17]

The process becomes more akin to the signing of a devil’s contract and once again, Aschenbach is being drawn towards his fate. When the Gondolier rows him across to the Lido, it is as though he is being taken across the Styx by Charon in a coffin. Finally he encounters the musician who reeks of death and who further acts to ensure that Aschenbach is not inclined to leave Venice by maintaining the deception regarding the outbreak of cholera.[18]

Metaphor and suggestion are continually present. The graveyard at the very beginning has a chapel in the Byzantine style – uncommon and therefore distinct in Bavaria – and surely acting as a metaphor for Venice, with its Byzantine cathedral in San Marco, thus creating another link between Venice and death.[19]

Aschenbach’s initial vision of faraway places, a vision of a “tropical marshland beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous rank – a kind of primeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses and alluvial channels,” describes both the point of origin of the Cholera, and the unpleasant aspect which Venice assumes.[20] Indeed the cholera is merely the embodiment of a metaphysical process taking place within Aschenbach.

Nothing is coincidental about the writing in this work, just as the chair in the gondola is “coffin black,” just as the foppish man with the dyed moustache and goatee, with the wig and rouge heralds the fate awaiting Aschenbach.

In Death in Venice Mann uses contrast and counterpoint, combining modernity & myth, realism and fantasy to make an otherwise minimalist and linear plot so engaging.[21]

Metaphorically the story is that of the “tragedy of the creative artist whose destiny is to be betrayed by the values he has worshipped, to be summoned and destroyed by the vengeful deities of Eros, Dionysis and Death.” At a realistic level it is more a sombre parable about the physical and moral degradation of an ageing artist who relaxes his discipline.[22]

Death in Venice also functions as a series of philosophical reflections on the nature of beauty. The descriptions of Tadzio are variations on a sort of formulaic theme – that of him being representative of beauty’s very essence. At first Aschenbach’s obsession is portrayed as a realistic, psychological infatuation just as his fantasies are initially sublimated and artistic; likening Tadzio to works of art. As his fantasies become gradually more erotic, however, the language becomes increasingly baroque and mythological. As Aschenbach’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate in his infatuated pursuit, culminating in his cosmetic attempt to look younger, so the language of his infatuation becomes more fantastical and ludicrous. By the end of the story the language has become as decadent and unrestrained as Aschenbach’s behaviour.[23]

It is made clear at the start that Aschenbach is a writer whose style shows “an almost exaggerated sense of beauty, a lofty purity, symmetry and simplicity” and whose work shows a “stamp of the classical.” Apart from allowing Mann more easily to locate the discussion of beauty and art within the context of Platonic philosophy, it has been argued that through allusions to antiquity and its different moral standards, he was attempting to soften the blow of the prevailing theme of homosexuality.[24]

Tadzio, is initially like one of the many youths for whom the Olympian gods “conceived a fondness” being likened to Ganymede, Hyacinthus, and eventually Eros and Hermes. He is paradoxically the inspiration and challenge to the artist’s creative urge and its nemesis. He combines both Apollonian and Dionysian qualities, an inspiration to work and a lure to dissipation, stupor and the final disintegration of the body and mind.[25] In a work that closely explores the spirit and mentality of the artist, Tadzio embodies everything that threatens to undermine discipline and the sacrifices that are required to produce great work.

With the exception of its rather ponderous beginning, Death in Venice is a masterful combination of fantasy and realism within a novella that at times reads like an essay or philosophical tract. It is a very deliberate work by a writer who felt that art ought to have a purpose even if it was to undermine itself by debunking myths about its necessity and usefulness.

What makes Death in Venice so remarkable is that even with all of this contrivance and artifice, it moves forward with such a meticulously sustained level of psychological realism that its mythical and metaphorical trappings seem rather ideally coincidental more so than they do artificially contrived. Mann achieves this through intensive detail derived from recent and fresh personal experiences and through exploration of the extremities of his own psychological predilections. Keeping the degree of autobiographical material in mind, it is tempting to conclude that Mann has achieved a daring and self-effacing exploration of his innermost feelings within the context of a speculative projection of one of his possible futures. On the other hand it could equally be said that Mann merely used elements of himself to give more truth to a scathing caricature of the German literary establishment. Either way, Death in Venice is an imaginative and intense piece of writing which raises important questions about the nature of beauty and the nature of the artist, and whilst it provides no clear answers, it offers very telling insights.


Mann, Thomas, Der Tod in Wenedig, 1912; trans, H. T. Lowe-Porter, Death in Venice, Penguin, 1928.

_____, Pariser Rechenschaft¸Berlin, 1926.

_____, A Sketch of my Life, New York, 1960.

Feuerlicht, Ignace, Thomas Mann, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1968.

Hollingdale,R. J. Thomas Mann; a Critical Study, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1971.

Swales, Martin, Thomas Mann: a Study, Heinemann, London, 1980.

Von Gronicka, André, “Myth plus Psychology: a Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Henry Hatfield, ed. Thomas Mann: a Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1964, pp. 46-61.

Winston, Richard, Thomas Mann. The Making of an Artist 1875-1911, Constable, London, 1982.

[1] Thomas Mann, Der Tod in Wenedig, 1912. I have used the 1928 translation of H. T. Lowe-Porter, reprinted in Death in Venice, Penguin, 1955.

[2] Martin Swales, Thomas Mann: a Study, Heinemann, London, 1980, p. 29.

[3] Swales, Thomas Mann, pp. 29-33.

[4] Swales, Thomas Mann, p. 33.

[5] Mann, Death in Venice, pp. 11-12.

[6] Richard Winston, Thomas Mann. The Making of an Artist 1875-1911, Constable, London, p. 269.

[7] Winston, Thomas Mann, p. 276

[8] Mann, Pariser Rechenschaft¸Berlin, 1926, p. 119; André Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology: a Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Henry Hatfield, ed. Thomas Mann: a Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1964, pp. 46-61; p. 49.

[9] Thomas Mann, Sketch of my Life, New York, 1960.

[10] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 267-70.

[11] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 267-8.

[12] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 268-9.

[13] Mann, Sketch of my Life; Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 269-70.

[14] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 50-3.

[15] Swales, Thomas Mann, pp. 38-39.

[16] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 4.

[17] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 17.

[18] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 53-5; Ignace Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1968, pp. 121-4.

[19] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 4.

[20] Mann, Death in Venice, pp. 5-6.

[21] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” p. 51.

[22] Swales, Thomas Mann, p. 41.

[23] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 51-3.

[24] Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann, pp. 118-24.

[25] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” p. 55.

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