Mann, Diaghilev, Mahler, Powell, Visconti, Russell

Serge Diaghilev and Thomas Mann never met, it seems. Yet the life of one and the imagination of the other overlapped to an obviously extraordinary degree. Coincidence is our term for concurrence that is not consciously willed and that we cannot explain in any definitive sense. However, if we retreat from the restrictive world of linear causality and think in terms of context and confluence rather than cause, then it is undeniable that there were many influences – to begin with, those of Venice and Wagner – at work on the imagination of Mann and Diaghilev, two giants of twentieth-century aesthetic sense, influences that led one to create a certain fiction and the other actually to live strikingly near that fiction.
Moreover, one must ask whether Mann’s story was any less real than Diaghilev’s life. Heinrich Mann, in review of his brother’s novella, saw that the central issue of Death in Venice was “Which came first, reality or poetry?” In his “Life Sketch” of 1930, Thomas Mann spoke of the “innate symbolism and honesty of composition” of Death in Venice, a story that, he asserted, was “taken simply from reality.” Nothing was invented, he claimed, none of the settings, none of the characters, none of the events. Tadzio, it has since been established, was in fact a certain Wladyslaw Moes, a young Polish boy on holiday in Venice. Jaschiu was one Janek Fudakowski. Aschenbach bore a distinct resemblance to Gustav Mahler, who died in 1911. Thomas Mann, whose art as a whole is striking in its fusion of autobiographical and imaginative experience, called his novella “a crystallization.”

Rites of Spring: the Great War and the birth of the Modern Age – Modris Eksteins