John Berendt, The City of Falling Angels (2005)

On a personal note: I’ve been shamefully neglecting this blog, but not on purpose indeed. Anyway, I guess starting a new job AND preparing for the baby’s arrival AND reading books AND keeping regular blog posts may be an over-ambitious project… Luckily, thanks to living in France and enjoying outrageous health benefits, I will soon stop working, which should give me some breathing space. Enough said. Lets get back to literature, before you’ll get bored.

 

It’s a commonplace that everything has already been told about Venice, that nothing fresh can be told anymore. It doesn’t stop people from trying anyway. It’s one of the few cities in the world where everyone who sets a foot in the place feels compelled to tell stories about one’s experience. I went there last year in spring and it was truly wonderful (I won’t tell you more, lest you’ll tell me someone more intelligent and qualified has already said something better). I can’t wait to go back there one day with Baby Smithereens in tow (when he’ll manage the steps on his own, mind you). I’ve gleaned here and there Venice impressions by Henry James (the Aspern papers), Marcel Proust (excerpts from Albertine Disparue /The Fugitive), John Ruskin (The stones of Venice), Mary McCarthy (Venice Observed)… and now John Berendt, the latest addition to this collection.

 

I can’t say that this book measures up to the others I’ve listed, but it was fun, if not really deep. What people say about Venice will eventually tell you more about who they are than about Venice itself, I guess. What Berendt saw in Venice is not history and architecture but actually a bunch of eccentric people who still live in town (the population dwindles as crowds of tourists make the place more expensive and less comfortable to live in), and among them a fair share of socialites and expats. I don’t blame him and it was actually fun to be told about upper-class Venice party gossips among countesses and marchionesses, political scandals on the fire that destroyed the Fenice opera, possibly involving Mafia, and intrigues among wealthy American donators who vie for the highest positions in art foundations. When you visit the place, you just don’t meet with those people and you often wonder what happens behind the chipped walls with romantic sculptures and decadent waterways. The most interesting and moving part was the story of Ezra Pound’s legacy, or how Pound’s mistress Olga got cleverly dispossessed of all his papers by a scheming couple of Americans – in a kind of real-life Aspern Papers plot (which, I discovered upon reading Berendt, was actually a story inspired by Byron’s lover in Florence).

 

Overall, it was more pleasant as a reminder and a complement to my own experience there than as a true compelling narrative. I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who hasn’t been in Venice before, because it’s too disjointed and shallow and you don’t get to see the city itself. It’s not worthless though, but it leaves you wondering how much is true and learnt firsthand by the author, how much is pure speculation. Like many Italian stories, you’ll probably never know the truth of the matter, but who really cares?

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