Death in Venice
“Michael Henry Heim’s new translation of Death in Venice subtly but clearly extends and alters previous translations. What we have here is the same book, and a new book. Before I talk about the particulars of Heim’s translation, though, I should briefly mention something else I’ve learned by working with translators. Good translators (and here they differ from the writers of the original text) agonize over a fundamental question. To what extent should they render, to the best of their ability the words as written, and to what extent should they reinterpret them to suit the particulars of the language and culture into which they are being conveyed?”
Gustav Aschenbach or von Aschenbach, as he had officially been known since his fiftieth birthday, set out alone from his residence in Munich’s Prinzregentenstrasse on a spring afternoon in 19..—a year that for months had shown so ominous a countenance to our continent—with the intention of taking an extended walk. Overwrought from the difficult and dangerous labors of the late morning hours, labors demanding the utmost caution, prudence, tenacity and precision of will, the writer had even after the midday meal been unable to halt the momentum of the inner mechanism—the motus animi continuus in which, according to Cicero, eloquence resides—and find the refreshing sleep that the growing wear and tear upon his forces had made a daily necessity. And so, shortly after tea he had sought the outdoors in the hope that open air and exercise might revive him and help him to enjoy a fruitful evening.
It was early May, and after a few cold, wet weeks a mock summer had set in. The Englischer Garten, though as yet in tender bud, was as muggy as in August and full of vehicles and pedestrians on the city side. At Aumeister, to which he had been led by ever more solitary paths, Aschenbach briefly scanned the crowded and lively open-air restaurant and the cabs and carriages along its edge, then, the sun beginning to sink, headed home across the open fields beyond the park, but feeling tired and noticing a storm brewing over Föhring, he stopped at the Northern Cemetery to wait for the tram that would take him straight back to town.
As it happened, there was no one at the tram stop or thereabouts. Nor was any vehicle to be seen on the paved roadway of the Ungererstrasse—whose gleaming tracks stretched solitary in the direction of Schwabing—or on the road to Föhring. There was nothing stirring behind the stonemasons’ fences, where crosses, headstones, and monuments for sale formed a second, uninhabited graveyard, and the mortuary’s Byzantine structure opposite stood silent in the glow of the waning day. Its façade, decorated with Greek crosses and brightly hued hieratic patterns, also displayed a selection of symmetrically arranged gilt-lettered inscriptions concerning the afterlife, such as “They Enter into the Dwelling Place of the Lord” or “May the Light Everlasting Shine upon Them,” and reading the formulas, letting his mind’s eye lose itself in the mysticism emanating from them, served to distract the waiting man for several minutes until, resurfacing from his reveries, he noticed a figure in the portico above the two apocalyptic beasts guarding the staircase, and something slightly out of the ordinary in the figure’s appearance gave his thoughts an entirely new turn.
Whether the man had emerged from the chapel’s inner sanctum through the bronze gate or mounted the steps unobtrusively from outside was uncertain. Without giving the matter much thought, Aschenbach inclined towards the first hypothesis. The man—of medium height, thin, beardless, and strikingly snub-nosed—was the red-haired type and had its milky, freckled pigmentation. He was clearly not of Bavarian stock and, if nothing else, the broad, straight-brimmed bast hat covering his head lent him a distinctly foreign, exotic air. He did, however, have the customary knapsack strapped to his shoulders, wore a yellowish belted suit of what appeared to be loden, and carried a gray waterproof over his left forearm, which he pressed to his side, and an iron-tipped walking stick in his right hand, and having thrust the stick diagonally into the ground, he had crossed his feet and braced one hip on its crook. Holding his head high and thus exposing a strong bare Adam’s apple on the thin neck rising out of his loose, open shirt, he gazed alert into the distance with colorless, red-lashed eyes, the two pronounced vertical furrows between them oddly suited to the short, turned-up nose. Thus—and perhaps his elevated and elevating position contributed to the impression—there was something of the overseer, something lordly, bold, even wild in his demeanor, for be it that he was grimacing, blinded by the setting sun, or that he had a permanent facial deformity his lips seemed too short: they pulled all the way back, baring his long, white teeth to the gums.
Aschenbach’s half-distracted, half-inquisitive scrutiny of the stranger may have been lacking in discretion, for he suddenly perceived that the man was returning his stare and was indeed so belligerently, so directly, so blatantly determined to challenge him publicly and force him to withdraw it that Aschenbach, embarrassed, turned away and set off along the fence, vaguely resolved to take no further notice of him. A minute later he had forgotten the man. It may have been the stranger’s perambulatory appearance that acted upon his imagination or some other physical or psychological influence coming into play, but much to his surprise he grew aware of a strange expansion of his inner being, a kind of restive anxiety, a fervent youthful craving for faraway places, a feeling so vivid, so new or else so long outgrown and forgotten that he came to a standstill and—hands behind his back, eyes on the ground, rooted to the spot—examined the nature and purport of the feeling.
It was wanderlust, pure and simple, yet it had come upon him like a seizure and grown into a passion—no, more, an hallucination. His desire sprouted eyes, his imagination, as yet unstilled from its morning labors, conjured forth the earth’s manifold wonders and horrors in his attempt to visualize them: he saw. He saw a landscape, a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky—sultry, luxuriant, and monstrous—a kind of primordial wilderness of islands, marshes, and alluvial channels; saw hairy palm shafts thrusting upward, near and far, from rank clusters of bracken, from beds of thick, swollen, and bizarrely burgeoning flora; saw fantastically malformed trees plunge their roots through the air into the soil, into stagnant, shadow-green, looking-glass waters, where, amidst milk-white flowers bobbing like bowls, outlandish stoop-shouldered birds with misshapen beaks stood stock-still in the shallows, peering off to one side; saw the eyes of a crouching tiger gleam out of the knotty canes of a bamboo thicket—and felt his heart pound with terror and an enigmatic craving. Then the vision faded, and with a shake of the head Aschenbach resumed his promenade along the gravestone cutters’ fences.
He had—at least since he could afford the advantages of traveling the world at will—regarded tourism as nothing but a hygienic precaution to be taken willy-nilly from time to time. Preoccupied with the tasks imposed upon him by his ego and the European psyche, overburdened by the obligation to produce, averse to diversion, and no lover of the external world and its variety, he was quite content with the view of the earth’s surface that anyone can gain without stirring far from home, and never so much as tempted to venture beyond Europe. Especially now that his life was on the decline and his fear of failing to achieve his artistic goals—the concern that his time might run out before he had accomplished what he needed to accomplish and given fully of himself—could no longer be dismissed as a caprice, he had confined his external existence almost exclusively to the beautiful city that had become his home and the rustic cottage he had built for himself in the mountains and where he spent the rainy summers.
Thus it was that the sudden and belated impulse which had come over him was soon restrained and redressed by reason and the self-discipline he had practiced from an early age. He had intended to reach a certain point in his work, which was his life, before moving to the country and the thought of leaving his desk for months to go gallivanting around the world seemed too frivolous and disruptive to be taken seriously. Yet he knew only too well the source of the sudden temptation. It was an urge to flee—he fully admitted it, this yearning for freedom, release, oblivion—an urge to flee his work, the humdrum routine of a rigid, cold, passionate duty. Granted, he loved that duty and even almost loved the enervating daily struggle between his proud, tenacious, much-tested will and the growing fatigue, which no one must suspect or the finished product betray by the slightest sign of foundering or neglect. But it made sense not to go too far in the other direction, not to be so obstinate as to curb a need erupting with such virulence. He thought of his work, of the point at which, yesterday and again today, he had had to abandon it since it had refused to yield to either patient attention or a swift bit of legerdemain. He had examined the passage anew, trying to shatter or diffuse his block, only to renounce the effort with a shudder of revulsion. There was no unwonted difficulty involved; no, he was paralyzed by the scruples arising from his distaste for the project, which made themselves felt in demands impossible to satisfy. Impossible demands had of course impressed the young man as the very essence and innermost nature of talent, and it was for them that he had bridled and cooled his feelings, knowing they are prone to make do with blithe approximations and half-perfections. Could it be that his indentured sensibility was now taking its revenge, abandoning him and refusing henceforth to bear his art on its wings, depriving him of all pleasure, all delight in form and expression? Not that he produced poor work: such at least was the advantage of his years that he felt serenely confident of his mastery. Yet, much as the nation might honor it, it gave him no pleasure: he felt it lacked those flights of fiery, playful fancy, the product of joy, which more than any intrinsic content—great merit that it might have—delight the discriminating public. He dreaded the summer in the country, all alone in the cottage with the maid who cooked his meals and the man who served them; he dreaded the sight of the familiar mountain peaks and slopes that would once more encompass his torpid discontent. He needed a change of scene, a bit of spontaneity, an idle existence, a foreign atmosphere, and an influx of new blood to make the summer bearable and productive. He would travel, then; good, he was satisfied. Not too far, not all the way to the tigers. A night in a sleeping car and a siesta of three or four weeks at one of the internationally recognized holiday resorts in the friendly south . . .
Such were his reflections as the clang of the electric tram reached him along the Ungererstrasse, and mounting the platform he decided to spend the evening studying maps and timetables. He thought of looking back to find the man in the bast hat, his companion during what had turned into a fateful wait, but he was unable to determine the man’s whereabouts: he was neither at his previous location nor at the next stop nor in the tram.