Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Movie: “Death in Venice” Book: "Exit Ghost"

Director: Lucino Visconti, 1971
Writer: Philip Roth, 2007
Visconti’s “Death in Venice” is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. The opening shots of a steamer approaching the city are memorable, as are the costumes and sets (the film is set in 1911). Beware, the pace is slow. There’s little dialogue. And Visconti has taken liberties with Thomas Mann’s novella. In Mann’s work, Gustave von Aschenbach is a famous writer, a widower. In the movie, Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) is a composer whose young daughter has died. Visconti introduces, via not entirely successful flashbacks, a friend of Aschenbach’s who debates him on points of artistry, life, love, passion, involvement. Aschenbach, modeled after Gustav Mahler (whose music is heard throughout the movie), has a breakdown and journeys alone to Venice to recuperate. There he comes under the spell of a wealthy 14-year-old Polish boy, Tadzio. Aschenbach never talks or touches Tadzio, who is more an ideal of perfect beauty. Venice is beset by plague yet Aschenbach chooses to stay. Death and decay hang over the movie (as it does the novella). It’s a haunting film.
I’m in the middle of “Exit Ghost,” Philip Roth’s latest (and perhaps last) book with Nathan Zuckerman, a character who closely resembles his creator. Set in 2004, Zuckerman is 71, incontinent and impotent due to prostate surgery. He has been living for years in the Berkshires, a move triggered by death threats he received while residing in Manhattan. He returns to the city in hope of a treatment to stem his incontinence. On a whim, he answers a classified ad in the New York Review of Books (which does have great classified ads). He meets a young couple. Frightened by 9/11, the wife wants to move to the country. They propose to swap their apartment for Zuckerman’s Massachusetts retreat. Zuckerman, once a womanizer, lusts after the wife, who is beautiful, smart and an aspiring writer. But he is impotent, and there is no hope. There are other things going on in Roth’s novel, yet what struck me was the similarity between Zuckerman and Aschenbach: both artists, both obsessed with that which they cannot possess. Like “Death in Venice,” death and decay play a part in “Exit Ghost.” Roth, a great writer in my opinion (and one who should have won the Nobel, with all due respect to Doris Lessing), is I’m sure an admirer of Mann. And I wonder if Mann’s masterpiece was on his mind as he wrote “Exit Ghost.”


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