If there is one question guaranteed to make writers roll their eyes to the ceiling with irritation, it is when someone asks them exactly whom they modelled their characters upon. The kindlier souls will point out slowly, as for children, that fiction is generally fictitious, and that neither the novel’s characters or its background is usually ever anything more than an amalgamation of varied shards of reality, all brought to life only in the writer’s imagination.
But if anybody had asked Thomas Mann about the origins of his novella Death in Venice, his answer would have been quite different. For although it is one of the last century’s great works of fiction - "the paradigmic master-text of homosexual eroticism", according to writer and critic Gilbert Adair - almost everything in it was also a matter of fact.
In May 1911, Mann, along with his wife and brother, went on holiday to Venice. Dining in the Hotel des Bains, they noticed an apparently aristocratic Polish family, and in particular their sailor-suited son, a young boy of almost preternatural beauty. The Manns only stayed for a week: a cholera scare made them cut short their stay.
And that’s it. But that’s all that Mann’s novella - and Visconti’s sumptuous 1971 film based on it - needed. Apart from the fact that Mann was 40 years younger than his protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach and (rather more obviously) that he didn’t actually die in 1911 while watching the beautiful Polish boy play on the beach at the Lido, everything he saw in that one week became the book. As Mann himself later wrote: "Nothing is invented in Death in Venice."
In the book, the boy is called Tadzio. As von Aschenbach watches him playing on the beach with another boy, he realises that the emotional numbness he had felt descending on him has lifted. But by bringing him back to emotional life, the infatuation that compels him to linger by the Lido in a time of cholera also brings about his death.
As the dying von Aschenbach (a writer in the book, a composer in the film), Dirk Bogarde gave the performance of his life. With the soaring strings of Mahler’s Fifth in the background, the make-up he had worn to make himself more attractive to Tadzio streaming down his face, he dies watching the young boy playing on the sands - a death that is both quiet, unobserved by the rest of the Lido’s guests, and hauntingly operatic.
The intensity of von Aschenbach’s longing is so pure, and so restrained by the conventions of the time, that you forget its paedophilic nature: the real Tadzio, after all, was but 11 years old in 1911. The success of Visconti’s film depended almost entirely on finding a boy to play Tadzio whose beauty would make Mann’s passion understandable. After trawling the schools of Poland, the director picked 15-year-old Swedish schoolboy Bjorn Andresen. For all his godlike good looks, Andresen never did anything remotely comparable to his debut film and has faded into obscurity.
The real Tadzio’s story is much more interesting. Wladyslaw Moes, the boy Mann saw at the Hotel des Bains and whose beauty haunted him for the rest of his life, didn’t realise that he had a starring role in great European literature until 1923, when one of his cousins read Mann’s novella and noted all the similarities, not least Tadzio’s friendship with another Polish boy, Jaschiu (of whom more later).
As Adair points out in his excellent The Real Tadzio, Moes and Jaschiu (whose real name was Jan Fudakowski) only resumed the friendship they had enjoyed as children in Venice in 1911 some 60 years later, after seeing Visconti’s film.
By that stage, both the Poles were pensioners in their seventies. To find out what happened to the real Tadzio we should first go back to his pre-First World War childhood.
Moes’s boyish beauty is in no doubt. Ninety years on, it doesn’t look as obvious, but our whole notion of the aesthetics of human beauty have altered hugely. Certainly as a six-year-old, he made a favourable impression on another Nobel Prize-winning writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz (forgotten today but once world-famous for writing Quo Vadis?) and in his Venetian holiday in 1911 he would effortlessly charm the fruit and flower vendors into giving him their wares. In later years he would remember an "old man" staring at him wherever he went in Venice. Thomas Mann was only 36 at the time: but was it him?
For now, let us leave 1911 behind, and that moment when a great writer saw two boys playing on a beach in Venice and turned it into a classic story of an old, dying man’s longing for youth and life.
After 1911, the boy who inadvertently inspired Mann’s book, Visconti’s film (and, come to that, Benjamin Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice) moves back into the terrible heart of the 20th century. As one of two sons of a Polish aristocrat, he had grown up in a life of privilege. In 1914, war shattered the idyll. The family paper mills were destroyed by the Tsarist Russians. To the north, the Fudakowskis’ huge estate was also razed.
In the war against the Soviet Union that started in 1919, the two boyhood friends found themselves fighting in the same cavalry regiment against the Communists. As a boy Moes had looked so frail that Mann had speculated that he "would most likely not live to grow old".
The war proved him wrong: fighting in sub-zero conditions, Moes acquired an ox-like constitution that was never to fail him. He also acquired - as did his friend Jan - a Military Cross, given for valour under fire.
The 1920s were kind to him. After the war ended with Poland’s victory in 1921, Moes returned to Warsaw not just as a good-looking aristocrat but a war hero. A socialite who prided himself on his skills as a dancer, he was not so much of a playboy to fritter away his fortune; instead he helped the rebuilt family paper mills to prosper even during the depression at the end of the decade.
In the 1930s that charmed life continued. His marriage in 1935 was one of the weddings of the season; his new bride owned yet more lands and estates; their parties were legendary.
It all ended in 1939. Baron Moes was an officer in the Polish army that crumbled before the Nazis within a month. For five years he was a prisoner of war, enduring barely imaginable hardships. And when peace came, all it brought were the Communists. There was no chance of recovering any of the estates, no matter how benignly they had been run. All he could bring from his turreted mansion was what could be packed into a single suitcase. His wife’s estates were lost too, and both of them were obvious pariahs in the new regime, but unable to flee for fear of retribution to their wider family.
So instead of managing the paper mills, Moes was now reduced to earning an unskilled labourer’s wages. Offered the chance to join the Communist Party, he contemptuously rejected it even though it would have offered him the chance of a better life.
By the 1950s the former Baron Moes was living in a small rented flat in Warsaw and working in a variety of poorly paid jobs. But even though there was little money in the house, he never skimped on food and wine, always insisting on a bottle of decent Chablis at the table. Other old habits died hard too: for all his relative poverty he dressed as well as he possibly could until his death in 1986.
And the other boy whom Mann had seen playing with Tadzio on the beach in that one week in 1911? Jan Fudakowski too was captured in 1939 and interned in Lithuania. Escaping from his camp and crossing into Sweden, he made his way to France, where he joined the Polish free forces. On the fall of France, he joined the 10th Polish Mounted Rifles - now a tank regiment rather than a cavalry one - in Scotland.
After the war, he settled in England, where one of his jobs was to look after a large house which had been turned into a Jesuit college in Grantham. The house was almost next door to the grocer’s shop in which Mrs Thatcher grew up. As Adair points out: "From Death in Venice to ‘Life in Downing Street’ is one of those cultural shortcuts, or short-circuits which only history, not fiction, is willing to effect."
The two Poles met up one last time - and it wasn’t in Warsaw or Venice, but a large house near Wimbledon Common. It was 1973, and the first time they had seen each other since before the Second World War. They were nearly twice as old as Thomas Mann had been when he saw them playing together in Venice.
What those two men talked of in that Wimbledon house we will never know. But it was two years after Visconti’s film had triumphed at Cannes, and in the very year Britten’s opera Death in Venice was staged at Aldeburgh. Inevitably, one feels, the two Poles must have looked back and wondered about that heavily moustached German who was watching them, who had imagined himself being ferried by a surly gondolier, like Charon across the Styx, to meet his death in Venice.
And across the years from Mann’s own death in 1955, those two Poles lived lives that couldn’t help but be overshadowed by his art. In a way they were part of it, but only briefly: for the rest of their story they joined the millions violently tossed around by the 20th century’s epic sweep.
You wonder whether the story of their lives would have told us more things than Mann’s version, which pinions them to the page and confines them to that one week in 1911 forever. You wonder where the art is that could tell the rest of their story, or whether art ever can.
You wonder whether Baron Moes ever wanted to go back to Venice, and you find out that he did. It was just a couple of years before he died. He’d made the plans, but he had to cancel the trip.
In Venice, there was a cholera scare again.
The Real Tadzio by Gilbert Adair is published by Short Books, 4.99