It’s remarkable for any author to so successfully map out that always-elusive intersection of great art and the very creepy love of an old man for a young boy. That Thomas Mann accomplished this feat way back in 1912 with Death in Venice, that he required a mere 79 pages to do it, and that he managed to wrap the whole thing up with the gorgeous image of said young boy on a beach, peering back toward the shore, toward said old man, who is reclining on his chair, who is slowly dying, who is floating “into a richly promising immensity”—well, it helped win him the Nobel Prize for starters.

Now Gilbert Adair is here to tell us that, to boot, the story’s all true, except for the dying part, of course.

In The Real Tadzio, an erudite, compact and witty performance of cultural and literary criticism, Adair reminds us of Mann’s much-overlooked confession: “Nothing is invented in Death in Venice.” Thus armed, Adair goes after one Wladylsaw Moes—although not quite in the same way that Mann did—uncovering the story of how this privileged Polish boy, known to family and friends as Adzio, became, without realizing it, a character in an international best-seller. In fact, it wasn’t until 1924 that a relative of his put two and two together.

“Taken aback by the story’s references to an aristocratic Polish family staying at the Hotel des Bains, to the amusingly vulgar musicians who had been hired to entertain the resident clientele and the insidious rumors of cholera which had started to circulate through the city, taken most aback by the narrative premise of an elderly voyeur entranced by the spectacle, on the beach of the Lido, of two extremely personable young boys at play, boys whose nicknames, moreover, Tadzio and Jaschiu, were disturbingly reminiscent of Adzio and Jas, she naturally showed the book to her nephew. Adzio was amused, perhaps flattered, but, for the moment, a handsome young man leading an easy, affluent life, he was not terribly interested. In any case, he never chose to identify himself to Thomas Mann.”

It goes without saying that were such a scene repeated in the present day, Adzio would immediately identify himself to a lawyer, if not to level charges of stalking, then to grab some easy money and TV time. Surely, Dateline NBC would have a Friday night available. One can only imagine Stone Phillips telling us all about a “dirty old Mann and the boy who never knew he was loved … until now.”

In that respect, when Adair declines to label his essay a biography, instead viewing it “as an extended, belated specimen of the biography’s less garrulous cousin, the obituary,” he’s right. It’s an obituary for a man whose 1986 death went unacknowledged in English-language newspapers, despite the fact that readers had known him intimately for most of a century. But it’s also, without trying to be, an obituary of an era thankfully innocent of, among many other things, the extreme narcissism of “reality” programming.

From Adair we learn that Adzio’s life, despite its semi-luxurious, bourgeoisie beginnings, hardly went untouched by the horrors of the 20th century: He spent most of World War II in a German prisoner-of-war camp; he spent much of the post-war kicked to the margins of newly communist Poland, fighting to keep himself and his family alive and safe. Throughout it all, however, he remained something of the dandy Mann so admired, capable, says Adair, of charming the birds off trees: “capable, indeed, of charming the very trees themselves.”

Truth be told, the real Tadzio is interesting only circumstantially; and The Real Tadzio works best when exploring those circumstances. For instance, apart from the fact that Mann fibbed when he said “nothing is invented,” what does it mean that Adzio was actually several years younger than Tadzio (11 compared with 14)? And that Mann was in his early 30s when he first lusted after the boy, compared with his fictional counterpart, who was pushing 60? Adair sees all sorts of possibilities, although his suggestion of what might be thought of as “threateningly carnal” in 1911 as opposed to today is regrettably clipped.

The author is understandably thrilled by the image of Adzio and Jas, reconnected in the 1970s through letters, discussing a film version of Death in Venice: “There is surely something surreal about an individual whom we cannot help thinking of as a character in a celebrated work of fiction commenting on what he himself regards as that work of fiction’s obscurities and inadequacies.”

Without a doubt it’s surreal. But it may have been far more so in the 1970s than it is today. Adair takes for granted that even if we never knew Adzio, we all are well enough acquainted with Tadzio, “who was destined to become one of the most vivid and powerful cultural icons of the twentieth century (and beyond), almost as easily identifiable to those who have never read Death in Venice as to those who have.” An arguable statement at best. That Adair has written a novel of his own based onDeath in Venice, and that his novel, too, was made into a movie—this time starring Jason Priestley—is not enough for mainstream cred these days, let alone iconic status. Do Americans even know who Jason Priestley is anymore?

And how Mann’s star has fallen in 30 years! Though the author self-consciously fashioned himself the next Goethe, one contemporary German critic suggests, representatively, that the “only provocative aspect of Thomas Mann’s fictions today is their former success.”

If he recognizes it at all, Adair never bothers to wonder about this lamentable state of affairs, asking instead how it is that Death in Venice has become “the pinnacle of gay literature, of what might whimsically be defined as ‘homotextuality.’” It’s an interesting enough question too briefly explored, and what it has to do with our Adzio is never made clear.

By the end, perhaps we don’t care about that so much as we wished that Adair had challenged himself to explore the subject beyond its easy magazine hook.

The Real Tadzio by Gilbert Adair (Carroll & Graf, 105 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, 2004