One of the most important figures of early 20th-century literature, Thomas Mann (1875-1955) is famous both for his fiction and for his critical essays. Mann was born in 1875 in Lubeck, Germany, to a distinguished merchant family that had a literary lineage, as well; Mann's older brother, Heinrich, also became a famous novelist and playwright. Mann took a keen interest in the German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, and their theories deeply influenced his writing.
Mann's fiction is characterized by subtle philosophical examination of the ideas and characters presented, undertaken in a detached, often ironic narrative voice; his stories often end tragically. The theme of the conflict between art and life appears throughout Mann's work, including his first major novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), and his short story Tonio Kröger (1903). Death in Venice (1912) is the culmination of Mann's work on this theme. His later works take on social, political, biblical, and even legendary themes, and they include The Magic Mountain (1924), The Early Sorrow (1925), Mario and the Magician (1930), a series of four novels entitled Joseph and His Brothers (1934-44), Doctor Faustus (1947), and The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954).
Death in Venice is not only representative of some of the issues treated in Mann's personal body of work; it also reflects many of the most vital ideas discussed in literature during the time of its composition. At the turn of the century, many European writers expressed a biting awareness of cultural and personal decadence, and social and moral decline was a central theme to such novels as Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest (1895), Joris Karl Huysmans's Against the Grain (1884), and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Literature of the era also focused to a large extent on issues of homoeroticism: like Death in Venice, Dorian Gray uses a fictional character to serve as a mask for its own homosexual author; Andre Gide's novel The Immoralist (1902) represents the extreme identity crisis experienced by many European homosexual artists of the time.
Apart from the larger themes at work in the novella, Death in Venice was largely inspired by actual events in the life of its author. Mann had been on an island near Venice in 1905 during a cholera outbreak, and he later traveled to the city in May 1911, because, like his character Gustav von Aschenbach, he was exhausted by a difficult stage in his writing and felt the need for escape. On May 18 of 1911, Mann read the obituary for composer Gustav Mahler, who had died at the age of fifty; Mann based Aschenbach's facial features on Mahler's. Like Aschenbach, Mann was also homosexual: Although he was married and had six children, his wife is reported to have said that she married simply to have a family, and the publication of Mann's diaries in recent years have illuminated his many homosexual relationships. Moreover, in 1965, it came to light that the story owed even more to fact than previously suspected: A Polish baron named Wladyslaw Moes identified himself as the boy whom Mann fictionalized as Tadzio. Upon reading the Polish translation of the book in 1923, Moes recognized himself in the portrayal of the boy: Moes' family had gone to Venice for the sake of his health, and he must have appeared quite sickly; like Tadzio, Moes had slept late and engaged in carefully monitored exercise; Moes' striped linen suit, red tie, and blue jacket with gold buttons are faithfully rendered in the novella; Moes had played with a rowdy boy nicknamed "Jasio," echoing Mann's Jashu. Moes even remembers seeing an older man staring at him raptly in the hotel elevator. Moes waited to publicize his story until after Mann's death.
In 1929 Mann won the Nobel Prize for literature, primarily on the basis of his novel Buddenbrooks. Soon after, however, in 1933, he fled the newly Nazi Germany for Switzerland. In 1938 he moved to the United States. In 1936 the German government revoked Mann's citizenship and denounced his political views and activism. Mann took U.S. citizenship in 1944, but, disturbed by McCarthyism and longing for European culture, he eventually moved back to Switzerland that same year. He died eleven years later.