In search of the real Tadzio

In the summer of 1911 a brief encounter with a Polish family inspired Thomas Mann to write Death in Venice, in which an elderly writer becomes infatuated with a beautiful adolescent. The work was soon hailed as a classic of literature. But what happened to the boy?
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As Death in Venice came to be recognised as one of the undisputed classics of contemporary European literature, Thomas Mann was not averse to acknowledging a debt to the sublime happenstance which had laid out before him, in the correct order, a sequence of narrative units which could scarcely have failed, even in lesser hands than his, to engender a masterpiece. Even now, nearly a century after the event, it is not generally realised, save to specialists of Mann's work and life, that virtually everything experienced by Gustav von Aschenbach in the novella, short of his premature death on the beach, had first happened to the author. Yet Mann never sought to camouflage just how little of a novelist's imaginative gifts had gone into this particular tale. More than once he admitted to the world that there really had been an effeminate, posturing fop, a gruff gondolier, an aristocratic Polish family and, of course, a beautiful boy. As he himself wrote:

"Nothing is invented in Death in Venice. The 'pilgrim' at the North Cemetery, the dreary Pola boat, the grey-haired rake, the sinister gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the journey interrupted by a mistake about the luggage, the cholera, the upright clerk at the travel bureau, the rascally ballad singer, all that and anything else you like, they were all there. I had only to arrange them when they showed at once and in the oddest way their capacity as elements of composition."

Yet, surprisingly, in that self-same year of 1912, Mann was complaining of the novella's "errors and weaknesses" and describing it to his brother Heinrich as "full of half-baked ideas and falsehoods". Had he been afforded the opportunity of writing Death in Venice over again, Thomas insisted, he would have made it significantly less of a "mystification". And, indeed, as we have long known, the reality is that, notwithstanding his claims to the contrary – that the novella's narrative had simply and magically unfolded before his eyes and that all he had had to do was transcribe it from life, as though taking dictation from God – he had been as economical with the factual truth as the majority of his fellow-novelists.

Of some significance were the liberties which he allowed himself to take with the character of Tadzio. In the first place, the boy's name was not Tadzio at all – or Taddeus, for which "Tadzio" is the diminutive – but Wladyslaw. This, at least, was probably not a deliberate subterfuge on Mann's part. What Aschenbach hears on the Lido, when the other children start calling the Polish youth to play, is "something like Adgio – or, often still, Adjiu, with a long-drawn-out u at the end". And that is exactly what Mann himself would have heard, save that Adgio – or, correctly, Adzio – is, via "Wladzio", short for "Wladyslaw".

Even more significantly, Adzio was not a youth but a child. Wladyslaw Moes – the real boy's real name – was born in 1900, which means that, at the time of their encounter on the Lido, he whom Mann would complacently portray as "a longhaired boy of about 14" was not quite 11 years old, a significant difference where approaching or receding puberty is concerned. Furthermore, although his older beach companion "Jaschiu" (Mann's phonetic spelling of a diminutive form which should be written "Jasio") also existed, and was named Jan Fudakowski, he was in reality Adzio's junior by a few months and therefore neither the "sturdy lad with brilliantined black hair" of the novella nor, a fortiori, the muscular hunk, visibly in his late teens or even early 20s, of the film which Luchino Visconti adapted from it in 1971.

In fairness to Mann, it should be pointed out that, if he aged Tadzio by three years, then he took a far greater liberty with his own fictional surrogate. In 1911 Mann was 36 years old. As for the hero of Death in Venice, it is in the novella's second sentence that the reader learns that the once plain, von-less Gustav Aschenbach had officially earned the right to be addressed by the nobler moniker "Gustav von Aschenbach" only, as the text has it, "since his 50th birthday". Aschenbach is, then, older than 50. He may well be, in fact, approaching 60, and therefore by some 20 years Mann's senior.

How should we interpret the fact that Mann chose to alter the factual age, so to speak, of not one but both of these fictional characters? As part of a structural tactic whereby – it being absolutely crucial to the novella's meaning that Aschenbach be shown to be an artist at the very height of his literary renown – it became necessary, if the "miraculous" parallels with the real incident were to be upheld, to add a few extra years to Tadzio's own age? Or, less generously, as an attempt by Mann to underplay, even minimise, the not always latent eroticism of his story, in that the desire for a prepubescent boy on the part of a late-middle-aged man would stand a chance (back in 1911 if not necessarily today) of being regarded as less threateningly carnal than that of one in his 30s? Or simply as a rueful reflection of how old Mann actually felt when caught in the headlamps of the 11-year-old Wladyslaw Moes's limpid gaze? Whichever, it was almost certainly these age differences to which he was alluding when he spoke of wishing to demystify his work. Mann, of course, never did write Death in Venice over again. Nor, ever more Olympian and aloof, did he trouble to ascertain who precisely was the little Polish boy on the beach of the Lido or what might have become of him. I, on the other hand, did.

In fact, bizarre as it may seem, little Adzio grew up in Poland as ignorant of, and indifferent to, the role which he had unwittingly played in Mann's masterpiece as, it appears, was the entire Moes family. The novella was almost immediately translated into most European languages, including Polish; yet it was not until 12 years later, in 1924, when Wladyslaw Moes was in his own early 20s, that one of his cousins finally read Death in Venice. Taken aback by the references to an aristocratic Polish family at the Hotel des Bains, to the amusingly vulgar musicians hired to entertain the resident clientele and the rumours of cholera which had started to circulate through the city, taken most aback by the premise of an elderly voyeur entranced on the beach of the Lido, by two extremely personable young boys at play, boys whose nicknames, moreover, were disturbingly reminiscent of Adzio and Jasio, she naturally showed the book to Adzio. He 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 was, rather, the release of Visconti's film version, 60 years later, that was for both Adzio and Jasio instrumental in rekindling their interest not only in each other but in their direct personal involvement in one of the greatest works by one of the 20th century's greatest writers. For Wladyslaw Moes's daughter, Maria Moes, now Tarchalski (who in 1971 had just arrived in Paris, in which city she has lived ever since), it was while watching Death in Venice alone in a minuscule Left Bank cinema that she was assailed by nostalgia for everything that she had had to leave behind her when she quit her homeland.

"I sat there and wept through it all, to the amazement of my neighbours, who found the film moving but not that moving." And, almost simultaneously, between the two by then septuagenarian catalysts of the story, who had both traversed that catalogue of convulsions that we call the 20th century history of Poland, it prompted a first exchange of letters in many decades.

These, genuine letters written by what it is impossible not to think of as fictional characters, were haunted by the memory of the summer of 1911. Jasio, who initiated the correspondence from London, where he had settled after the Second World War, had revisited the Venetian Lido two years before. Although he had found the island pretty unrecognisable, he did remark that "I could just about place the beach where we used to build our sandcastles", adding plaintively, with reference to a squabble between their literary counterparts watched by the stricken Aschenbach, "I swear to God I don't remember being as cruel to you as Mann describes in the book".

Adzio hastened to reassure his old friend. "My memory is very good," he wrote Jasio from Warsaw, "and I still clearly remember the athletic wrestling which you always won; but the title of winner could only be gained after one's opponent was forced down on his back. So no wonder I fought till I was flat out, which obviously struck Thomas Mann as cruelty on your part."

Jasio shepherded his family to see the film in London's West End. He could not quite make his mind up about Visconti's adaptation. "Undoubtedly the film is good, particularly when considered from the artistic point of view, although to my mind the plot is not very interesting and a bit difficult to follow." There is surely something rather surreal about an individual whom we cannot help thinking of as a character in a work of fiction commenting on what he himself regards as that work of fiction's obscurities and inadequacies.

Adzio, for his part, caught the film in Paris – quite alone, as, in Maria's words, "he would not have wanted to show his feelings about it, even to me". He had declined to take offence at Visconti's having neglected to pay him a visit during a talent-scouting tour of Poland in quest of his Tadzio. "It would," he had written to Jasio, "have been detrimental [for him] to have seen an old man with all the signs of ageing when his imagination was concentrated on recreating the character of a young boy in the style of Thomas Mann."

The rather delicate matter of his age apart, this "young boy in the style of Thomas Mann" was exactly the pretty, pampered darling described in the novella. Nor did the family portrayed by Mann, albeit sketchily, differ much, at least in the superficial terms allowed by a 70-page fiction, from that of Adzio's own.

The Moeses (that very un-Polish-sounding name is actually of Dutch origin) came from Westphalia, which had once been one of Prussia's most affluent provinces. Around the early 1830s Wladyslaw's great-grandfather, Ernest Moes, and his grandfather, Christian August, chose to resettle in Poland, where, together, they founded a prosperous paper firm in the eastern region of Bialystok. His particular region of Poland finding itself under Russian rule, it was by Czar Alexander II himself that a hereditary barony was eventually bestowed upon him. He died in 1872.

Wladyslaw, the Adzio of our tale, was born on November 17, 1900, at Wierbka. He was the family's fourth out of six, having one elder brother, Alexander, and four sisters, Alexandra, Maria-Anna, Jadwiga and Barbara. Adzio was in fact not just born in the Wierbka manor house but like his siblings educated there. Instead of a single tutor, the children were accorded several apiece. They had, in addition, as members of the upper crust – Adzio's future title would be "Baron Moes" (in Poland, as distinct from most other European countries, all male offspring, and not exclusively the eldest, inherit their father's title) – their own private French and German teachers.

The Moes children were raised in accordance with the rigorously strict guidelines in force at the time, which meant that none of them was ever permitted to be what would be called a "spoilt child". Although (if their adult lives had unfolded without the unforeseen hitch of Communism) they would never have the need nor opportunity to exploit such domestic proficiencies. Adzio's sisters were taught, at a young age, cooking, sewing, ironing – all the classic "feminine" skills – while even he was expected as a teenager to accompany his father to work in order to learn how paper was manufactured.

From the very start of his life, Adzio was singled out for special treatment. Perhaps born a little too soon after his immediately elder sister – "My grandmother was still tired front the earlier birth," Maria suggested to me, "and my father was born tired" – he had a punctured lung and was in consequence a frail child. (The morbidly alert Aschenbach, noting that Tadzio's teeth are "imperfect, rather jagged and bluish, and without a healthy glaze", conjectures with a hint of gleeful ghoulishness that "he will most likely not live to grow old".) So he alone of the family was allowed to sleep himself out in the morning and breakfast when it pleased him. It was, in fact, on account of that hole in his lung, and the recommendation of a Viennese specialist whom his parents had consulted that what the boy needed most was sea breezes and the company of playmates his own age, that the Moeses elected to summer in Venice (a remarkably perverse choice given the city's unsanitary reputation).

Nor, it transpires, was Thomas Mann the first writer to fall victim to his prepubescent winsomeness. At the wedding of one of his aunts – for which, as a garçon d'honneur, he was turned out in lace of a fetchingly creamy blanc d'ivoire – the six-year-old Adzio caught the eye of Henryk Sienkiewicz, the once world-famous, now world-forgotten, Nobel Prize-winning author of the much-filmed pseudo-classical romance Quo Vadis? Leaving the church in his landau, the doting Sienkiewicz insisted that the infant come perch upon his knees, only hurriedly to offload him when he discovered that this Tiepolesque seraph had peed down the leg of his morning-suit.

Adzio was not at all unresponsive to the privileges of beauty and, from an early age, became accustomed to being a focus of attention. During the Venetian holiday, he would strike up an acquaintance with fruit and flower vendors and inveigle them into slipping him a peach, a plum or a cluster of ripe strawberries. If they refused (which, in any event, they seldom did), he would tease them with foot-stamping squeals of "Cattiva! Cattiva!" Unusually, the local fishermen were permitted by his family to take him out unchaperoned on their boats. And he himself would court, as though he regarded it as no more than his rightful homage, all the petting and fondling that he came in for.

He had discovered, for example, probably from his mother's precedent, the gratifying effect of delaying one's appearance in a public place; and he told Maria how eager he had been, one evening in the Hotel des Bains, to show off to the company a pair of shiny new shoes of which he was immoderately vain. He held back until the other guests had taken their seats. Then, with his clustering blond ringlets and water-blue eyes, he all but goose-stepped down the grand central staircase into the dining room (just like the very young Thomas Mann himself, as it happens, who would strut through the streets of his home town, Lubeck, hoping to be mistaken for the Kaiser), so intense was his resolve that no one would fail to remark on how splendidly he was shod. "Did everyone see me?" he excitedly questioned his nurse. "Was everyone watching?"

Someone certainly was. In his later years Adzio vividly recalled an "old man" (Mann, remember, was 36-year-old) staring at him wherever he went, hovering always just out of sight as the Moeses ambled through the city's fabled Piranesian labyrinth of tourist-worn streets and dark, sunless alleys and stairways and arches and columns and those archetypal Venetian squares.

He was, he recalled, at the receiving end of an especially intent gaze from his admirer when they had occasion to take the hotel lift together, an incident replicated to the last degree in both novella and film, the latter of which was widely, but perhaps unjustly, criticised for portraying a Tadzio too coquettishly self-conscious of Aschenbach's attentions. "It's just another gentleman who likes me," he would assure his nurse, and no one in those innocent, halcyon Edwardian days appears to have thought it worth advising him to steer altogether clear of "old men", particularly those still in their 30s.

Yet even if his mother would repeatedly tell him, "Yes, you're good-looking, but it isn't you who have made yourself so – so there's no reason for you to be so proud of it", Wladyslaw Moes remained something of a dandy to the end of his life, no mean achievement in Communist Poland. Maria (who rejects the word "dandy" for her father, preferring to qualify his unflamboyantly classical elegance with such adjectives as "immaculate" and "impeccable") remembers him paying her a visit in Paris in 1980. "He was then 80 years old and his life had not been an easy one. Because of inoperable cataracts, his eyesight had started to fail. But whenever we prepared to go out he would have to know that he looked just right and, as he was no longer able to check for himself, he would ask me if his shirt collar was clean and his tie straight. It was important for hint to have the 'look' he had always cultivated for himself."

This is an extract from The Real Tadzio by Gilbert Adair, published by the Short Book Company. Please call 01256 302 699 and quote GLR code 039 for a special price of £4.99, including p&p

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