It pulled me toward it and so I reached. I was at the public library doing my usual browsing. I never get over the fact that all these books are available, at no cost, any day of the week. And even when I’m charged a late fee it’s only a few quarters and damned if that’s not the easiest donation I’ll ever make for something so remarkable.
Anyway, yesterday the book that lured was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. It wasn’t the first time either. The first time I read it was in 1982. I was 23 years old and did that youth-privilege thing of taking off for Europe once school was out. I was on my own in St. Mark’s Square with a fist full of nuts for the pigeons and a tattered copy of Mann’s story. Death? What was death to me then? But the book had Venice in the title so I bought it in a used bookstore in London. Between watching clouds and pitching nuts I perused Mann’s words.
And suddenly there it was crammed on the shelf and so at 51 years old, with no plans to travel but recently hit hard by wanderlust, I checked the book out and toddled back home to cozy up with Aschenbach. I found that it’s a different story now.
Most books we read again are different stories when they’re read decades apart, with all that life stuff going on between reads, but Death in Venice was a more acute experience of this for me than many other books I’ve re-read after the passage of sizeable time. For one thing, Aschenback is a writer and so am I! (I wasn’t ‘a writer’ at 23.) Aschenbach is over fifty and so am I! Aschenbach is gay. And so am I! Aschenback hangs out in cemeteries…
The book opens with the writer putting down his pen and setting out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich and going for a long walk. Suddenly he reached the North Cemetery.
“Nothing stirred behind the hedge in the stonemason’s yard, where crosses, monuments, and commemorative tablets made a supernumerary and untenanted graveyard opposite the real one.”
While there he was struck with a desire to travel. “He felt the most surprising consciousness of a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes–a feeling so lively and so new, or at least so long ago outgrown and forgot, that he stood there rooted to the spot, his eyes on the ground and his hands clasped behind him, exploring these sentiments of his, his bearing and scope.”
He wasn’t sure where it came from but that night he returned home to study maps and railway guides. He had to flee if only to discover desire; he had to flee in order to learn how to live, how and why to create art. “For you know that we poets cannot walk the way of beauty without Eros as our companion and our guide.”
I know how the story ends.
I know what word in the book’s title draws me now.
But Thomas Mann and Gustave Aschenbach and Venice live on. My wanderlust persists and I’ll return to feed the pigeons.