The novel Death in Venice was written in German by Thomas Mann, and was first published in 1912 as Der Tod in Venedig. It is often said to be Mann's most important short narration.
A film version directed by Luchino Visconti was made in 1971, with Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach and Bjorn Andresen as Tadzio. Benjamin Britten wrote an operatic version of the story on a libretto by Myfanwy Piper (premiered 1973).
Summary of the plot
Gustav von Aschenbach, knowing he has only a short time to live, travels to Venice, where he becomes obsessed with the androgynous beauty of the adolescent boy Tadzio. An epidemic of Asiatic cholera has just broken out and von Aschenbach plans to leave but changes his mind because of Tadzio, even though he never even has the opportunity to talk to the boy. Eventually Gustav dies on the Lido beach. In the film, von Aschenbach is a composer; in the original book, he is a writer.
The character of Aschenbach has been said to be based in part on the composer Gustav Mahler (the film soundtrack makes use of Mahler's compositions). Thomas Mann's wife Katia recalls that the idea for the story came from the events of an actual holiday in Venice, which she took in the spring of 1911 with Thomas and their son Heinrich:
"All the details of the story, beginning with the man at the cemetery, are taken from actual experience ... In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband's attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn't pursue him through all of Venice - that he didn't do - but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often ... I still remember that my uncle, Privy Counsellor Friedberg, a famous professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged: 'What a story! And a married man with a family!'"
(Katia Mann, Unwritten Memories)