The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding

October 13, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 19 9 min read


Is it possible for an otherwise straight man to be struck by a bolt of gay lightning and next scene end up declaring his undying love to a beautiful young Adonis? It’s a question Thomas Mann addressed with searing insight and eloquence almost 100 years ago in his famous novella Death in Venice, and one that was more recently revived in novels by Michael Cunningham (By Nightfall) and Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding). All three works feature middle-aged men ensconced in intellectual careers who find themselves unexpectedly obsessed with much much-younger men — or in Death in Venice, a 14-year-old boy — of great or “classical” beauty in the ancient Greek tradition, which leads to crisis, self-evaluation, and — ultimately — destruction.

coverDeath in Venice is about a 50 year-old famous writer — Gustav von Aschenbach — who was once married (his wife died long ago) and is the father of a now-grown daughter. One day, after basically being cruised (Mann does not use the expression, of course) by another man on the train platform in Munich, Aschenbach makes the impulsive decision to travel to Venice, where he quickly finds himself in the grips of an obsession for a 14-year-old Polish boy of “godlike beauty” named Tadzio, who is staying at the same hotel. Mann’s character is what we would now probably call a “closet case,” someone who has long had homosexual feelings but possessed the “common sense” and “self-discipline” (Mann’s words) not to act on them. After Aschenbach sees Tadzio, he remembers “[f]eelings he had had long ago, early and precious dolors of the heart, which had died out in his life’s austere service and were now, so strangely transformed, returning to him.”

Before you get too creeped out by the pederastic nature of the attraction — which is not in any way to deny its creepiness — it’s worth noting that except for some returned glances of indeterminate meaning from Tadzio, who is not unaware of the older man staring at him and (eventually) following him around, the relationship remains through the end completely one-sided. Most of the action unfolds in Aschenbach’s mind where he wrestles with doubts, melancholy, and increasing helplessness as he watches a life and career built on intellectual order unravel in the face of Tadzio’s beauty.

In many respects — including the trip to Italy and the distant but intense infatuation with a Polish boy — Mann’s story was autobiographical; by his own admission and despite being married with six children, he fell in love with a number of men throughout his life, leaving behind only the question of whether any of these relationships were consummated. Not that it matters in light of Mann’s intention to create a character who — like so many people — has spent a lifetime plagued by unrequited or even unstated desire. For this reason (and because he does not in fact molest a 14-year-old), we end up understanding Aschenbach’s plight and pitying him, not hating him.


coverIn By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham creates a situation that at first glance feels similar to Mann’s, but becomes much different — and in some ways, more complicated — as the story unfolds. The man in question is a 43-year-old art dealer named Peter Harris. Over the course of a few days, Harris succumbs to an unexpected desire for his 20-something-year-old brother-in-law, Ethan (or Mizzy, short for “the Mistake”), who moves in with Harris and his wife in their Soho apartment while he (Mizzy) figures out his next step in life. Mizzy has had affairs with both men and women, although he expresses a desire to settle down with “a regular girlfriend.” Harris, in contrast to Mizzy and the ghost of Aschenbach, is pretty much 100 percent straight, as he acknowledges a few seconds after resisting the impulse to touch Mizzy’s sleeping face. “Whoa. What’s that about?” he asks before Cunningham tells us. “Okay, there’s gay DNA in the family, and he whacked off with his friend, Rick, throughout junior high, and sure, he can see the beauty of men, there’ve been moments (a teenage boy in a pool in South Beach, a young Italian waiter at Babbo), but nothing’s happened and he hasn’t, as far as he can tell, been suppressing it. Men are great (well, some of them), but they’re not sexy.”

Elsewhere, Cunningham describes Harris enjoying sex with his wife (including a cunnilingus scene that clearly is not something your average gay man ever wants to contemplate) and mulling over the affairs he could have had with various women he’s been attracted to over the years. More intriguingly, Harris is haunted by a teenage crush he had on the best (girl) friend of his older gay brother, who (the brother) died years earlier after contracting AIDS, and in particular by a memory of his brother and the girl standing in the water as he sat on the beach, an image that (except for the girl part) is lifted from the final scene in Death in Venice, where, as Aschenbach suffers a cholera-induced heart attack, he watches Tadzio wade into the ocean.

Whether or not you believe in the psychology of Harris — and while reading, I had my doubts, which Cunningham anticipated and addressed — he’s not a typical, self-hating closet case in the modern sense of the term, which would be difficult to avoid if Cunningham were just rewriting Death in Venice 100 years later. You get the sense that Harris is trying to figure out in a serious way what’s happening to him, and to act accordingly. I also wondered if it might be possible for a teenage kid watching his older brother die of AIDS to completely sublimate his own homosexual feelings, to the point that they are a total shock to him when they surface 25 years later.

Whatever the answer, Cunningham uses of an array of striking symbols and imagery related to Harris’s understanding of beauty (he is an art dealer) and his memories of the past, which all work to transcend more obvious and — in today’s world — possibly banal questions related to his sexuality. If I ultimately didn’t empathize with Harris to the degree I did Aschenbach, I found him interesting and challenging on an intellectual level (if not exactly emotional, because I couldn’t quite imagine the same thing happening to me, or anyone I know).


coverIn The Art of Fielding, Guert Affenlight is the 60-year-old president of a fictional Wisconsin college who one day falls hard for a 20-year-old student/baseball player named Owen Dunne. Because Harbach explores many other forms of male or “homosocial” relationships in the book — friendship, mentoring, competition, enmity — to include a sexual affair between two men makes perfect schematic sense, and was a courageous decision if you consider the general reluctance of writers (and publishers) to tackle the subject.

Like Cunningham, Harbach draws on Death in Venice for inspiration, giving his lead character a similar name (Aschenbach/Affenlight) and making him an unmarried man of letters with an adult daughter whose biological mother died long before the start of the story. Also similar is the way both characters are effectively blinded or even awestruck by their feelings for the younger men in question. Upon meeting Owen, Affenlight is “steamrolled [by] a feeling…sweet and fortuitous,” which nicely echoes the florid language that Mann uses to such great effect in describing Aschenbach’s obsession.

As the stories continue, however, the two characters begin to diverge. Whereas Mann unveils many clues about Aschenbach’s homosexual past (in thought, if not action), Harbach — much like Cunningham — presents us with a man who has apparently never had homosexual feelings, and moreover has spent a lifetime making “brilliant” love to numerous Cambridge-educated women; but unlike Cunningham, Harbach doesn’t offer an alternate explanation (meaning something besides repressed homosexual desire) for his character’s sudden infatuation. The only real hint readers are given about Affenlight’s past is a dissertation he wrote about homoerotic elements in 19th-century letters, although his daughter clarifies that the paper is about male friendship, thus placing it more squarely in the homosocial category. Affenlight is in a striking and unusual position, but to simply repeat that he’s in love with Owen doesn’t get below the surface. His lack of articulation makes it hard not to feel a bit slighted by him; we want to know more about what’s really going on in his head. By alluding so heavily to Aschenbach/Death in Venice, Harbach seems to think he has given us enough to go on, except that as discussed above, Mann makes it clear that Aschenbach is dealing with long-repressed feelings, which is not the case with Affenlight.

Affenlight’s lack of insight is compounded by the way he (or Harbach) continually describes Owen in terms that seem at odds with physical attraction for another man, even if the attraction is unprecedented. When Owen sits in the dugout, for example, his contours are “slender-limbed, right knee flipped girlishly over left” and when after Owen’s jaw is shattered, he still looks “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful… possessed of an Asian delicacy.” When the relationship becomes sexual, Owen kisses Affenlight “on the tip of the penis in a womanly way.” After they go to a hotel to (vaguely) “make love,” Affenlight “lay on his side…[in a] a quintessentially feminine posture…[as] with his free hand he caressed Owen’s belly, which itself felt almost feminine, not muscled but soft…” (Emphasis mine throughout.)

Men who are having sex with other men (even for the first time) might wish they were thinking about a woman, or have a lot of associated torment and angst before and after the event, but that’s a different issue, and one from which Affenlight does not apparently suffer. While it’s possible that Harbach (like Mann and Cunningham) wants to allude to a more classical tradition in which the androgynous qualities of young men were extolled, there’s a big difference between framing beauty in gender-neutral terms, as Mann and Cunningham are both careful to do, and framing it in exclusively feminized terms. Owen is also a sexually experienced 20-year-old man, which though young by almost any reckoning is miles away from an adolescent boy of 14.

There’s an undercurrent of cognitive dissonance in the many scenes in which Affenlight appears; it’s difficult to like him, which does not seem to be Harbach’s intent. Though it’s true that Affenlight at times comes off as unevolved (Affen = “monkeys” in German) and immature — he has never had a long-term romantic relationship, for example, and he still lives in campus housing — the other characters in the book without exception go out of their way to praise and to honor him. Even Owen is very forgiving of the older man when he seems to least deserve it, such as when he tells Affenlight (who is nauseated after giving his first blow job) that he was “wonderful” while also offering that “if you’re straight, you’re straight…C’est la vie.” Affenlight’s daughter confronts him after she discovers his affair with Owen, but she’s more concerned with protecting her father’s reputation — and hers — than seriously questioning him or his professions of love for a man younger than her.

Owen, in contrast to Affenlight, is very articulate and open about his feelings. He’s a self-professed “gay mulatto” who as a freshman (most of the book unfolds two years later, during his junior year) has a college-age boyfriend. While it’s certainly conceivable that a 20-year-old would have sex with (and deeper feelings for) a 60-year-old, Harbach gives us no particular reason to understand why Owen is interested in Affenlight. On a physical level, Owen seems to go for more typical fare, such as the hairless, muscled 20-something stroking a ginormous cock we see on his computer. On an intellectual level, Owen admires Affenlight’s research, but that doesn’t really make a compelling case for a sustained relationship, particularly one so far outside the bounds of convention (even gay convention). Harbach hints at the possibility that Owen may be using Affenlight to promote the agenda of a student environmental group, but this theory doesn’t really square with the high regard Owen seems to have for Affenlight at the end of the book.

Harbach also adorns Owen with an array of pointless clichés that long ago felt more tired than funny in television sit-coms. When we meet Owen, he’s busy scrubbing the grout in his bathroom (wearing the long, yellow rubber gloves) as he listens to techno music. His dorm room is decorated with fine art and expensive rugs, he keeps guest towels, he is disturbed by the mere sight of a canister of protein powder that his roommate Henry brings into the room because it clashes with his aesthetic sensibilities. In the Queer Eye tradition he mandates that Henry join him on a shopping trip to buy some skinny jeans. He speaks with a “melted-butterscotch” or “sonorous butterscotch” voice, and uses world-weary expressions like “verily” and “kindly desist,” which though no doubt intended to read as witty or self-consciously ironic does not excuse his overall two-dimensionality, particularly when viewed in the context of the other serious athletes (and well-rounded characters) who are his teammates.

That Owen is a varsity baseball player could in theory cut against the stereotype he presents, until we learn that he spends the fall and winter of his first year rehearsing and acting in a play, not to mention his habit of reading literature in the dugout. Meanwhile, Henry and the other guys on the team are training hard; they run stairs and lift weights until they puke. The team captain, Mike Schwartz, is a blue-collar, Jewish bear (but straight) who plays in great pain, expects 1,000 percent at all times from the rest of the team, delivers rousing pre-game talks, throws guys up against the lockers when they mouth off, and is generally a hard-ass, albeit one with a good heart. Harbach, in other words, does not assemble a comedic team of misfits, outcasts, and nose-pickers along the lines of the Bad News Bears, but a team of competitive baseball players and one Lamar Latrell (the “limp-wristed” javelin champion from Revenge of the Nerds).

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy reading The Art of Fielding; there are many places where Harbach offers earnest descriptions of situations we can all relate to, such as the way Henry — the prodigiously talented shortstop — begins to lose his cool under pressure, or the awkwardness he feels entering a social milieu so different than what he has been exposed to before college. But Harbach’s success in these other parts of the book is exactly why the relationship between Affenlight and Owen feels so ungrounded and disconnected from the way people (and especially gay people) arrive at and understand our sexuality. Love can strike anyone at any time, Harbach seems to believe, which though possibly interesting or even commendable in the abstract, is a sensitive and possibly perilous idea to play around with when you get down to the details, particularly in a culture where the issue is still politically and socially loaded, where presidential candidates can still maintain their legitimacy while arguing that homosexuality is a choice and that it’s dangerous for men to shower together in the army, or where only one professional baseball player in the history of the league has come out. Harbach could have easily deconstructed or at least analyzed such misguided attitudes, not for the sake of political activism or correctness, but to make the gay relationship at the heart of his story as compelling as the baseball games in which Henry heartbreakingly commits one error after the next; in short, to give readers the chance to feel the same empathy for his gay characters as we do for his straight ones.

Image: Wikipedia

is the author of The Metropolis Case (Crown, 2011).


  1. Until this review I was very interested in reading the book. Now, I’m not so sure. Guess I’ll wait until I can get a used copy cheap. There are, unfortunately, too many overhyped novels these days. I am very wary of falling for them, as they usually disappoint.

  2. I found the old man-young man relationship in “The Art of Fielding” distracting and unappealing–and it takes up an inordinately large portion of the book. It seems as if the author is trying to portray a taboo relationship, and it becomes a kind of voyeuristic attempt to shock the reader that fails in tone and context. The “Death in Venice” parallel needed more nuance; ultimately it is uninteresting as a story line, and so elevated to importance that we lose track of the main story (about Henry, the shortstop, who gets lost for about a third of the narrative).

  3. I was surprised that no reviews at the time of By Nightfall’s release mentioned that Cunningham wrote an introduction to Michael Henry Heim’s 2004 translation of Death in Venice.

    Reading that intro again, I felt like I had a better idea of what Cunningham was trying to achieve with By Nightfall, which he began writing around 2007. It didn’t quite come off, though – By Nightfall has a lot of problems, including some basic editing flubs.

    I did enjoy all the classic lit references in By Nightfall even if they didn’t strictly make narrative sense. Crime and Punishment is in there, Ulysses for sure, Mizzy reads (or doesn’t) The Magic Mountain, and By Nightfall itself strikes me as an “Author of the Quixote” kind of effort.

  4. “Harbach’s success in these other parts of the book is exactly why the relationship between Affenlight and Owen feels so ungrounded and disconnected from the way people (and especially gay people) arrive at and understand our sexuality.”

    I think the disconnect of Affenlight’s relationship with Owen is the entire point. Remember that this occurs not in the gentrified parts of Manhattan, in which Affenlight wishes to settle with Owen, or San Francisco, or Cambridge, where Affenlight read for his doctorate, but in the rural Midwest. Conservative and regressive at its more public figures may seem, it’s actually a pretty good example of a Foucault’s heterotopia, in which it’s rather easy to unshackle oneself from the heavy chains of culture.

    So what I think you mean by “the way people arrive at and understand [their] sexuality” is something like identity-formation. That’s a very useful idea, and because it serves so well the goals of gay liberation I’m personally in favor of it. But I think Harbach recognizes that this notion, that sexuality imparts a fixed identity (that sexuality is itself fixed), though “possibly interesting or even commendable in the abstract” is nevertheless a fiction, and remains so even if you believe it.

  5. I really enjoyed The Art of Fielding, but what bothered me the most about it was that Owen wasn’t given a point of view (despite supposedly being one of the five main characters). We never get inside his head, we never get a real sense of how he feels as a gay man or as an African American man or, more accurately, as both, and how the two intersect and complicate his life. In fact, I found it bizarre that he never seems to face any struggles at all with regards to his sexuality (or race, but obviously in the novel, his sexuality was more in the forefront). On the jacket copy, we’re told he enters into a dangerous relationship but it didn’t really seem all that dangerous for him because of the way Harbach portrayed it (except emotionally perhaps but since we’re never inside his head, even that is undercut) though it is obviously dangerous for Affenlight. Furthermore, I simply couldn’t believe that none of his teammates would give him a hard time about his sexuality, especially when, as you aptly point out, only one Major League ballplayer has ever come out. The fact that he’s black and this is never addressed either just compounds the problem. There seemed to be a great opportunity to take Owen’s character and really do something more with it and his storyline but for whatever reason, Harbach didn’t. It was frustrating to read a character who would be marginalized in real life actually get marginalized in an otherwise excellent story.

  6. “I couldn’t quite imagine the same thing happening to me, or anyone I know.”

    This is the source of the bafflement that runs throughout this intensely frustrating article. But in fact it’s not true–anyone with a functioning imagination can easily imagine such a thing happening: You are a middle-age man who has only ever been attracted to women; one day you meet a beautiful young man, and you’re astonished to find yourself desiring him. There: imagined!

    It may be that you don’t want to imagine the same thing happening to you, or anyone you know. It may be that you want to rule out even the possibility that it could ever happen to you. That’s fine, but it’s not Cunningham or Harbach’s job to talk you around that, or justify their premises through psychology or psychoanalysis. This is exactly the double-standard that surrounds love stories between men–the idea that they have to be explained, accounted for through neuroses or trauma or repressed homoerotic urges or science. (The other double-standard in gay love stories is that the lovers must become outcast or beaten to death by homophobes.)

    And it’s simply not true that Harbach doesn’t explain Owen’s attraction to Affenlight. Affenlight is one of his heroes, the author of one of his favorite books, and the main reason he attended Westish. Plus, he’s good-looking and the president of the school. Who wouldn’t find that appealing? Moreover, Owen’s relative indifference to training for baseball has nothing at all to do with him being gay, and everything to do with him being a nerd. He reads Darwin and Kierkegaard during the games–those aren’t “gay” characteristics. How much clearer is Harbach supposed to make it?

    I’m all for close criticism, and all three of these books merit it, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the inability to “relate” to these plots and characters originates more from the reviewer’s unwillingness than anything in (or not in) the books themselves.

  7. Sam, isn’t the author of this article merely questioning consistancy of character? Usually someone who indentifies exclusively as gay or straight would not switch preferences at such a late age as the character in the novel. I think it’s just a believeability issue here.

  8. Bravo, Sam. I could not have said it better.

    @Jack M: it can and does happen. It would make everyone more comfortable if human relations could be easy to explain, but they are not.

  9. “It can and does happen.” Well, yes but one can say that about- anything. But it doesn’t happen often. At all. So, if you have a situation in a novel that is not at all common, it’s going to be hard to pull off. And the idea that Jack M is “uncomfortable” confuses me. I’m not at all uncomfortable with complex sexual identities, but that doesn’t mean every book about them handles it in a believable way. And regarding Sam’s idea about some double standard about gay love stories, I’m even more confused. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong books but I find the depiction of homosexual relationships in literature diverse, rich and inspiring. Most recently, I interviewed Jen Michalski about her excellent novella May/December over at Rain Taxi. I find the cliche that life is stranger than fiction very true, and so to make something work in a novel is its own thing. I haven’t read any of these books except for Death in Venice, which I read in Venice, visiting the Lido and the hotel where the novella takes place. It’s a brilliant book and the fact that the other books mentioned are inspired in part by it makes me curious to read them. So thanks, Matthew Gallaway.

  10. I never said I was uncomfortable about anything, Paula. Please don’t read things in to what I have written.

  11. Sam, I completely agree with you that this was an intensely frustrating article. The reason I read and write is in order to fully inhabit other points of views (even, by the way, a pedophile). I found this article strangely lacking in empathetic imagination, especially for the Millions.

  12. Jack M- my comment about what one finds comfortable or not was in reaction to elle. She used that word. It was in defense of your comment.

  13. Side notes: I always thought “Death in Venice” was a roman à clef about Gustav Mahler and that at the time of publication caused quite a scandal. Aschenbach’s first name is also Gustav, for example, and Mann knew Mahler. Another common interpretation of the novel’s dynamic is the symbolic: the artist’s relation to unattainable Beauty [Aschenbach is a famous writer].

  14. Another beautifully rendered novel about a surprising, same-sex love (though
    not May/December) is Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman.

  15. The unimaginative response of both reviewer and many responders took me by surprise. Sexuality is a very fluid thing, even for the impossibly old – 60! my god, why isn’t he in a home? And just as a majority of gay Americans seem transfixed by the pneumatic ideal of the thoroughly heteronormative homosexual male male – muscular, masculine, perma-tanned and drama-free – there also exists the occasional guy who finds men with ‘feminine’ traits appealing. That this comes as something of a shock to the reviewer and his readers suggests an unbecoming rigidity of perspective – not what’s hoped for in either camp, although a little camp might enliven both.

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