Decomposed Faces

Some years have passed since Marcel first saw Charlus in Balbec, a man with the vigour to walk cross-country for days at a time. He now spots Charlus near Balbec, where he is trying to seduce the handsome young Charlie Morel, and notes the actions of time on his face.

In Paris, where I encountered him only at evening receptions, immobile, strapped up in dress-clothes, maintained in a vertical posture by his proud erectness, his eagerness to be admired, his conversational verve, I had not realised how much he had aged. Now, in a light traveling suit which made him appear stouter, as he waddled along with his swaying paunch and almost symbolic behind, the cruel light of day decomposed, into paint on his lips, into face-powder fixed by cold cream on the tip of his nose, into mascara on his dyed moustache whose ebony hue contrasted with his grizzled hair, everything that in artificial light would have seemed the healthy complexion of a man who was still young. (IV,351)

 Meanwhile, in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach is touching himself up at the barbershop.

Like any other lover, he desired to please; suffered agonies at the thought of failure, and brightened his dress with smart ties and handkerchiefs and other youthful touches. He added jewellery and perfumes and spent hours each day over his toilette, appearing at dinner elaborately arrayed and tensely excited. The presence of the youthful beauty that had bewitched him filled him with disgust of his own aging body; the sight of his own sharp features and grey hair plunged him in hopeless mortification; he made desperate efforts to recover the appearance and freshness of his youth and began paying frequent visits to the hotel barber….He watched it in the mirror and saw his eyebrows grow more even and arching, the eyes gain in size and brilliance, by dint of a little application below the lids. A delicate carmine glowed on his cheeks where the skin had been so brown and leathery. The dry, anemic lips grew full, they turned the colour of ripe strawberries, the line around eyes and mouth were treated with a facial cream and gave place to youthful bloom. It was a young man who looked back at him from the glass–Aschenbach’s heart leaped at the sight. (Death in Venice, trans. Lowe-Porter)


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