On a summer afternoon in Venice, 1911, Thomas Mann was killing time on the beach at the Lido when he spied a Polish family that included a young blond boy in a sailor suit. Within a year, Mann, writing, in the words of British novelist Gilbert Adair, “as though taking dictation from God,” produced Death in Venice, the story of an aging writer, Aschenbach, and his enthrallment with a young boy on the beach, Tadzio, for whom he feels the “attachment that someone who produces beauty at the cost of intellectual self-sacrifice feels toward someone who naturally possesses beauty.”
Adair has given us something much more complex and intriguing than an account of the life of the boy who inspired one of the 20th century’s most famous short novels. Combining deft detective work with literary scholarship, he traces the life of Tadzio’s inspiration, Wladyslaw Moes, who, in a twist that would have drawn a chuckle from Nabokov, was nicknamed “Adzio.”
Born in 1900 to an upper-class family, Adzio was so beautiful a child as to attract the attention of yet another Nobel Prize winner, Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis, who bounced the little boy on his knee at a wedding (and quickly removed him when Adzio peed on him). Spared the mundane life of a paper manufacturer by a depression, two World Wars, and a prison camp, Moes lived a life of near impoverished gentility for more than seven decades, “A dandy to the end of his life, no mean achievement in Communist Poland.”
He apparently had not the slightest knowledge that his literary image had been studied by hundreds of thousands of college students until 1971, when he saw Luchino Visconti’s film version of Death in Venice and heard his family’s name pronounced by Dirk Bogarde (who played Aschenbach). A few years before his death, Adzio decided he would once again like to see Venice; at the last moment the trip was called off due to a rumor of an outbreak of cholera, the same disease that kills Aschenbach in Mann’s story.
“Lives twist and turn,” writes Adair, “they are full of narrative split ends, they double back on themselves . . . and they are honeycombed with coincidences so outrageous that all but the trashiest or most inept of novelists would reject them as unworthy of any serious, self-respecting work of fiction.” We should be thankful that real life, and some excellent nonfiction, are not so shameless.