A review of The Real Tadzio: Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' and the Boy Who Inspired It by Gilbert Adair (London, 2001)
Who was really Mann's boy? ***
Until Thomas Mann's diaries were posthumously published, it was not well known that he was a pederast, a lover of adolescent boys, or that his most famous work, Death in Venice, was almost autobiographical; in his own words, "nothing was invented." So who was the boy "Tadzio" with whom he fell in love in Venice in the summer of 1911?
In 1964, an elderly Pole named Wladyslaw Moes came forward to the Polish translator of the novella and said "I am that boy!" So far as I can gather, no one ever sought to question this sensational revelation, though no one made much of it either until Gilbert Adair had the brilliant idea of writing this book.
Adair was a gifted writer; his book is witty and very readable, though regrettably peppered with unfair waspish comments, of which two will suffice as examples here. For noting that his sister used a massive amount of cyanide to kill herself, Mann is said to have shown " an unnerving absence of sibling warmth." How so? Luchino Visconti, the other giant in the story thanks to his famous film of the novella, is put down for his "evident, malicious pleasure in showing himself in the process of inspecting bevies of schoolboys" auditioning for Tadzio's part. I should think Visconti probably did feel pleasure, but it is not at all evident to me there was anything malicious about it. To remarks like this, I am tempted to reply with the royal motto "Honi soit qui mal y pense."
More seriously for a book that claims to be a real work of research, I suspect Adair rolled it off in a week or so. There is no bibliography or footnotes. No sources are referred to except Moes's daughter and his friend's son, and it appears that interviewing these two was the total sum of his research. Such information as they could give ninety years after the event and when the protagonists were all long dead falls largely under the euphemism of "family tradition." Anyone who has done serious genealogical research inspired by one can attest this is usually distorted and often no more than self-glorifying fantasy. Adair admits this, but it doesn't stop him reproducing an entirely gushing account of the noble Moes family, beginning with Wladyslaw's "extremely enlightened" grandfather and continuing through his "compassionately liberal" father to the man himself, "evidently capable of charming the birds off trees" (another "evidently" for which no evidence is presented).
My gravest criticism goes however to the heart of the book: I have serious doubts Moes was Tadzio at all. The nearest Adair gets to any criticism of Moes is in his daughter's description of his great vanity, presented as an endearing foible. I see no reason to doubt he visited Venice in childhood, very likely staying in the cosmopolitan Hotel des Bains. But if this happened when he was ten, as would have to be the case if he were Tadzio, what details would he remember in old age sufficient to identify himself as such? The month, for example? I doubt that very much, and since the Moes family were only allowed to retrieve one suitcase of personal possessions from communist confiscation, it would be astonishing if he had documents to support the claim. Surely it would not be hard for any vain and pampered Pole who remembered visiting Venice in roughly the same era to suspect and then convince himself he was the one soon after described in Visconti's advertising as "the most beautiful boy in the world."
Let us now turn to some of the known discrepancies, bearing in mind we are strictly limited here to such as chance to emerge from Adair's uncritical account. Given how serious these are, we may expect that far more would have emerged from a cross-examination in the '60s. Bear in mind also that we have the words of both Mann and his widow Katia that, having already decided to write a story about a great writer who succumbs to passion for a youngster and to base the writer physically on the recently deceased composer Mahler, the rest of the story fell into place in detail. There is therefore no reason to expect discrepancies at all, one reason why Adair's attempted explanations of them come across to me as special pleading.
The most serious discrepancy is that Tadzio was a youth of "about fourteen" in the novella, or "about thirteen" according to Katia, who was there, and later spoke frankly of her husband's pederasty, whereas Moes was a child of ten and six months (Adair first calls him "not quite eleven" and thereafter conveniently drops the "not quite"). The difference between ten and thirteen or fourteen is enormously important. Mann's diaries abound in evidence of his attraction to pubescent boys, but there is not a shred of evidence to link him to true paedophilia or attraction to pre-pubescent children. The older age is also that towards which pederasts have typically been attracted since antiquity and the novella is rich in Greek pederastic imagery; the whole canon of Greek literature and art contains not a single reference to erotic attraction to the truly pre-pubescent.
Secondly, Mann is at his most eloquent describing the perfect "godlike beauty" of Tadzio, also described by Katia as a "very charming, beautiful boy." As Adair admits, pudgy-faced Moes looked like a "lump." To explain this discrepancy, he points out our ideas of beauty are subject to fashion and suggests "that everyone appears to get sexier in proportion as we draw closer to our own era." It is a fascinating observation and undoubtedly true up to a point, but we are dealing here with extremes which well exceed that point. The numerous busts of the most celebrated loved boy in history, the Emperor Hadrian's deified Antinous, continue to seduce after nineteen centuries, as do the Davids of Michelangelo and Donatello after five.
These were not the only physical differences between the two boys. Tadzio had "twilit grey eyes" and "lovely hair that curled ... about his brows, above his ears, longer still in the neck"; Moes had water-blue eyes and his hair was straight above his brow, covered his ears with a hideous pronged fringe and was not longer in the neck.
Turning to the boys' respective families, Tadzio was the youngest of three children, Moes the fourth of six. Adair admits on photographic evidence that the actress who played Tadzio's mother in the film "bore no resemblance" to Moes's mother, "but was the very image of Mann's description of her fictional equivalent."
Moes recalled being stalked by an "old man", but Katia was emphatic later (but too late for Moes to correct his memories) that it wasn't true her 36-year-old husband followed him around the city: "He didn't pursue him through all of Venice -- that he didn't do". Isn't this then a typical example of the kind of false memory, created out of what its victim is expected to recollect, often ready to ensnare biographers.
Finally, there is the question of the boy's name, which Mann concluded after hearing called repeatedly was "Tadzio a shortened form of Thaddeus", but is convolutedly explained by Adair as a mishearing of Adzio, said to be short via Wladzio for Wladyslaw. It's possible, but I would opt first for the most simple solution, that Mann got it right.
If I had tried to find the real Tadzio, I would have looked for a Thaddeus who was a beautiful fourteen in 1911. It signifies little that such a claimant hasn't presented himself. Even if Mann's prognosis that "he is sickly, he will never live to grow up" had turned out to be pessimistic, when Armageddon erupted three summers later he would have been about seventeen and getting ready to join the carnage. As young officer material, the odds for his survival will sadly not have been high.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 31 July 2014.