How did that happen ? In my attempt to catch up with all those things left undone during July peak season at work, I have discovered that I didn’t review quite a few books! This is my attempt to do justice to these books but in just a few highlights, before I leave with a lot of new books to read.
Mary MacCarthy’s Venice Observed didn’t send me over the moon, but it certainly was a worthwhile read. It’s a collection of essays that were first published in the New Yorker, or maybe The Atlantic Monthly. MacCarthy indeed knows Venice well, but she is more impressive when she talks about history or art. I didn’t quite like what she says of Venice people she met when she lived there. She talked about them as if they were characters of fiction, not real people. This is a problem that bugged me while we were there. The tourism is such a large industry in the city, that you end up thinking that every aspect of everyday life (buying vegetables from a boat rather than a market stand, collecting trash, washing clothes…) is only a show designed for tourists. The book struck me as an example of imperfect balance in a travel book. There are a lot of information and not enough of emotion, a lot of anecdote of the past, not enough of living scenes of the present. It is indeed full of personal impressions, but she prefers remaining in the dark and generalizing about them. It’s not as much Venice Observed than Venice’s Past Observed, but I must say I learnt a lot.
Except for these reservations, I like how she explains that everything has already been said and more about Venice. That you cannot go there and strike an intellectual pose as to say something wholly original. That people visiting Venice, may they be famous writers like Proust or James, or totally un-intellectual and mundane, observe and feel exactly the same emotions. That you have to surrender to the cliché, and learn the value of it (I don’t quote her, because I didn’t read the book in English). It’s a modern pose to systematically go against clichés, to show how stupid and untrue they are, to banish them from any writing. But sometimes it’s nice to have someone remind you that clichés contain some wisdom.